20 years later, Center Stage remains an iconic dance film

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It’s past 10 p.m., my husband and I are driving around in the car, enjoying the night and singing songs on the radio. A new song is playing, and I recognize it immediately from the first few notes, humming softly to the soft, rocking voice of Mandy Moore. We smile at each other as the song begins fervently, singing the lyrics to Moore’s I Wanna Be With You, a tune that takes me back to the early 2000s, and a time when Center Stage dancing preoccupied me.

I have always been fascinated by dancing, watching in wonder and awe as the dancers move their bodies in a gravity-defying manner, so graceful yet powerful, all at the same time. The thing about dancing is that you have to start early if you want to go far, whether it’s professionally or for school. As I was rehearsing a dance sequence for Drama Club, I was categorically told that I didn’t have what it takes to be rhythmically challenged. My feet and body weren’t meant for the stage, which left me with dance movies to live by proxy.

Center Stage is truly the epitome of a dance movie (not the sequels, these just aren’t quite as good). The plot, the acting, all of this is secondary. Dancing comes first, which was made clear by director Nicholas Hytner, and he was glad his counterparts agreed, otherwise he might not have made the movie. Hytner is ennobled by the way, so this only increases the severity of Center Stage. All of the main characters are professional ballet dancers, and even Zoe Saldana, who has the most acting experience, has ballet background under her belt.

This is unusual for the cinematic space, which requires the narrative to come first. As you can guess, Center Stage didn’t go over well with critics, who accused it of rote storytelling and characterization. I am not going to dispute these claims, as there are very soapy aspects to Center Stage. Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull) gets involved with resident bad boy Cooper Nielson (Ethan Stiefel), only to realize that she was nothing more than an affair with him. Meanwhile, we have Charlie (Sascha Radetsky) supporting and loving her from the start. It’s the classic trope of a girl who falls in love with the sexy villain, only to be heartbroken and throw herself into the arms of the devoted nice boy.

What elevates the central stage are the fantastic meta-dance performances at the end. Jody, along with Cooper and Charlie, reconstructs her story for us on stage, a story that is to some extent Cooper’s as well. It traces the beginning of their alliance with Cooper, who melts with his motorbike, with The Way You Make Me Feel by Michael Jackson, the music they dance to, deviating from the usual classical sounds that we expect from ballet. This is the case for all the music used in the final dance performance.

We have Jackson’s song, If I Was The One by Ruff Endz, before ending with Canned Heat by Jamiroquai. Cooper, who choreographs the dances, wanted to offer a ballet piece that would be for the people. While Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet are brilliant building blocks of ballet, ballet is still very true to its traditions. This reinvention of what ballet could be like has a lot of emotional resonance, and it really feels like you’re watching poetry on stage.

Jody spends the entire movie being told she’s not good enough; she is not turned enough, her feet are not good enough, her body is not ideal for ballet. She is told to her face that maybe she should stop dancing because she wasn’t good enough for a dance company. Jody begins to believe and internalize these words, her previous confidence waning – what’s the point in loving dancing if you’re not good enough to do it for the rest of your life? So, as she struts towards Canned Heat at the end, symbolically dressed in a red outfit and red tips, we see her passion reaffirm and fully blossom. She sees her value and understands that while she might not be a perfect dancer, that’s not really the point of dancing.

Consistently in the film, the characters are told to remember what is holding them back in this dance space. When Eva (Saldana) finds herself in trouble, her teacher tells her to remember that love for dancing is what justifies everything, Jody is comforted by Charlie after being rejected by Cooper, and he tells her to express everything what she feels through the dance.

Charlie himself communicates his feelings for Jody through dancing, and although the end of the performance had Jody choosing herself and her love for dancing above all else, we end the film knowing that Jody and Charlie would continue to have something together. What unites all of these characters is their passion for dancing, but sometimes you get too caught up in thinking about your imperfections, or are afraid that you want something so bad that you fail in the end. This is very true for any passion in life. We are too rooted in our worries and our external ambitions to forget why we started in the first place.

What the film does not give enough credit is its painting of the body struggling with young women, which is tenfold in the ballet world. Jody is told she doesn’t have the right body, Emily (Victoria Born) is downright asked to leave because she’s too tall, one of the star dancers Maureen (Susan May Pratt) finds herself struggling with bulimia and a waning interest in dancing. Maureen might have her feet, but she doesn’t and decides to walk away, much to her mother’s horror.

Behind every child who dances into dance hides a parent’s failed ambition to succeed in the dance world. Maureen’s mother wasn’t good enough at dancing, so she placed all her hopes in Maureen, turning her into a mere vessel instead of seeing her as an individual. Maureen has no idea who she is outside of dancing, and it’s her relationship with Jim (Eion Bailey) that helps her see that she deserves to do something she loves.

If the film places the characters in stereotypical boxes – Jody as a naive ingenuous, Eva as a rebel – there is also something unmistakably authentic in the world. We see the dancers smoking a lot (which is done to help keep their bodies in shape), there is a whole sequence of them kicking pointy shoes, cutting them off, pouring water on them, all in the aim to break them. The camera often lingers on these dancers’ feet, bleeding blisters and all, showing us the ugly side of the dream. On stage they are transcendent, but off stage they have to deal with the fear of injuries, competition and raging insecurities.

Center Stage doesn’t glorify dance, it shows you the hard work involved, and hits you with the hard dose of reality – all the hard work you put in may be worth nothing. Still, should you let that stop you?

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