2 Stars – Entertaining
How one responds to the emptiness of the soul varies according to the solutions available. If all we are offered to counteract boredom and despair is an illicit love affair, then some choose to sacrifice their marriage and family on that altar. And if all we are offered is a dance studio with its unique collection of humanity, then this new community of dancers and the goal of learning to dance is what we use to fill the void. If we are not aware of the spiritual solutions to our pain available in a community of faith, then we will try almost anything to deal with the emptiness of our soul to find a momentary reprieve. This is the implied lesson in Peter Chelsum’s version of “Shall We Dance.”
A tired plot with predictable outcomes, Chelsum’s story is nevertheless an entertaining journey into the desires of people to find something meaningful in life. The two seekers are Mr. John Clark (Richard Gere) and Paulina (Jennifer Lopez). As an estate lawyer, Clark lives his life of “quiet desperation” helping persons write their wills. His experience has taught him that the list of items left to heirs is void of meaning or real value. People must make more out of their lives, but his marriage, two children, large house and successful career are not enough for him.
Riding the L-train home each night, he passes a dance studio in which Paulina is a teacher. Paulina is a beautiful dancer who had aspired to be a world champion, but had lost both the competition and her partner/husband of four years only a few months earlier. Empty, depressed, having lived for dancing and now having lost her desire to dance, Paulina stares out the studio window to a city full of people for whom she has no feelings.
Their mutual emptiness pulls them together when Clark gets off the train one night and enrolls in the beginning ballroom dance class. His journey then joins hers as they seek to restore their lost passion for life through dance.
The longing of the heart for significance is not something we can ignore. Whether we try to find it in a career in law, having a family, or becoming an international dance champion, we soon discover that we are created for something far greater. Pascal called this longing the “God-shaped vacuum” within the heart of every person and he said that until we fill that place with God who it was created to hold, we will not fulfill our longing.
When Clark’s wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon) becomes suspicious of his late hours each week when Clark claims to be at work, she hires a detective who helps her discover the truth. Discovering he is ”only taking dancing lessons,” creates the moment for them to face their emptiness and try to find meaning once more in each other. But the truth is that they are both created for a love that transcends this world and provides them with purpose and meaning.
Beverly expresses this to the private investigator when she dismisses him from the case and explains that she wants to protect her husband’s privacy. Explaining that she is committed to him in marriage in order to be a witness of his life, she recognizes that such witness requires her to be there for him in both the fullness and the emptiness of life. It is the recognition that they are both on a journey to a spiritual place that was missing from the solutions they considered.
- Why do you think that when Mr. Clark got off the train the first time, his emptiness was met by Paulina’s? How often do you think affairs begin by mutual emptiness more so than mutual longing?
- The nature of dance is to free a person to express their innermost feelings. Do you think Clark’s heart was opened by his dancing? Was Paulina’s?
- The prejudice expressed in our culture that only gay men like to dance was reinforced by the film when Chic (Bobby Cannavale) denied being gay throughout the whole film and then was shown dancing at a gay club at the end. Do you believe this is true? Is it respectful to men and to persons who are gay? Why or why not?
- The statement by Beverly that marriage is not about passion but about being a witness to another person’s life, giving them significance by being noticed, is an intriguing explanation for why people get married. Do you agree with her? Why or why not?