Daring to Pasodoble: Unpacking Australian Multiculturalism in Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom (1992) tells the story of Scott Hastings, a skilled, young, Australian ballroom dancer who yearns to dance his own, original steps. A contestant in the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix dance competition, Scott faces pressure from his mother and his dancing coach to dance only within the approved regulations, as his talent gives him a strong chance at winning as long as does so. After preliminaries go awry due to Scott’s creative improvisation, his partner, Liz, leaves him for another dancer. Scott’s mother, Shirley, and his coach, Les, team up to try and find a replacement, but Scott is uninterested in another partner who is too afraid to do something different on the floor. Shirley, from the beginning of the movie, is portrayed as a shrill stage mom, one who is projecting her own dreams of winning the Grand Prix (which she herself never succeeded in doing) onto her son.

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In a “mockumentary” style direct address to the camera, Shirley Hastings says, “Scott won most of the trophies in the room. You see, that’s the tragedy- my son was a champion.”

Enter Fran, a ballroom beginner at Les’ dance studio, who admires Scott for his bravery and creativity in making up his own moves. Fran is overlooked by Scott’s mom not only because is she a clumsy novice, but because of her appearance, which includes poofy hair, bad skin, and glasses. Fran propositions Scott and tells him that she is willing to dance his own steps with him. Reluctant at first, Scott agrees, and the two begin secret rehearsals, planning to debut as partners at the Grand Pacific Grand Prix.

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Beyond Fran’s appearance and ability (both seem to improve dramatically as she spends more time with Scott), Fran is othered by the other characters for heritage. Fran (short for Francisca) and her family (comprised of her father, Rico, and her grandmother, Ya Ya) are Spanish-Australian immigrants. In his essay “Head On: Multicultural Representations of Australian Identity in 1990s National Cinema,” scholar James Bennett examines the film’s use of multiculturalism in the section titled “Strictly Ballroom: Representing the Other as ‘Us.” Bennett examines how Luhrmann’s portrays multiculturalism, and how the white Anglo-Australian characters interact with those of Spanish descent. Despite the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix being centered on Latin Dance, the white dancers seem to reject Fran as a symbol of difference, someone who will “corrupt” Scott with unregulated steps.

The multicultural contrast between the native white Australians and the Spanish immigrants is at its most visible in the scenes at Fran’s home. For starters, where Fran and her family lives in a much different area than where Scott is from. Bennett writes, “These [Spanish] characters are depicted as occupying a diegetic space that is separated from the film’s main(stream) world: a space only reachable by passing down a back alley, blocked off from the street by rubbish bins and bottles” (68). Rico owns a milk-bar in an area that could be compared to what is commonly referred to as a “ghetto” in North American urban communities, or “el barrio” in Latin American communities. Luhrmann’s choice serves to highlight the separation between the two worlds; while Scott comes from a world of dance studios and sequins, Fran comes from makeshift dance floors and modesty.

However, these two worlds collide in the scene where Scott follows Fran home and Rico sees them, accusing of them of having a relationship. The two assure him that it is “strictly ballroom” (a quasi-lie), and Rico tells them to prove it. Scott leads Fran into a regulation rendition of the “pasodoble,” a Latin dance with origins in Spain. Rico, Ya Ya, and their neighborhood friends erupt into laughter. “Pasodoble?!” Rico remarks, scoffing. “Pasodoble.” He then shows Scott what he means, launching into an authentic performance of the dance with Ya Ya as his partner.

Scott, angry at first for being laughed at, is immediately enchanted by the “real” pasodoble. He is told by Yaya not to feel the rhythm in his feet but rather in his heart, “implicitly something that comes naturally to Rico through his Spanish roots.” After she shows him this technique, Scott makes a successful attempt at the dance, indicating his connection to the Spanish culture. Bennett writes, “Scott then dances with Rico, now resplendent in toreador jacket, at last ‘truly’ learning how to dance and beginning to mix his newly learnt steps with his own ‘flashier’ steps” (69). Here, Scott’s world of flashiness and sequins merges with Rico’s passionate pasodoble.

Scott’s pasodoble prompts a great response from Fran’s family, and they immediately accept him into their culture as he has accepted theirs by dancing their steps. Scott asks Rico to teach him more, where Rico tells him that the pasodoble is based on Spanish bullfighting, the man representing the matador and the woman the bull in need of being tamed. Scott and Fran spend time training with Rico, crafting a “crowd-pleasing,” authentically Spanish dance routine for the Grand Prix.

This performance almost does not come to fruition, as Shirley and Les continually intervene, under the coercion of friend and federation president Barry Fife. Under the guise of having Scott’s best interest at heart, Fife has been rigging the competition so that he doesn’t win regardless of what steps he dances, as he strives to protect “the future of dance sport.” His influence over Shirley and her response to his manipulation of her emotions manifests itself in lashing out at the “other,” both Scott’s steps and the partner who enables him to do so, Fran. At one point in the story, Shirley and Barry “attempt to oppress the cross-ethnic partnership by forcing Scott to dance with Tina Sparkle” at the State Championships (68). Tina Sparkle is another white Australian girl who dances federation steps, to which Fife describes her as a “good example.” Bennett describes Fife as the personification of “white hegemony,” as it is revealed later that he has filled Shirley and Les’ heads with supremacist rhetoric.

After physically separating Scott and Fran from each other at States, Shirley, Liz, other dancers corner Fran. Bennett writes, “Fran is surrounded by Anglo-Celtic Australian women who force her into a chair and tower over her, informing her that she’s a ‘beginner,’ ‘really clumsy,’ and suggesting it would be ‘best for everyone if she just went home.'” The way the white women speak to Fran is as if she is an unwelcome immigrant, an “alien” of sorts, as their xenophobia is especially visible in the last statement. He goes on to add, “The camera angles here establish a position of the dominant that Fran cannot hope to occupy, and she tearfully accepts her participation would ‘ruin Scott’s chances,’ her position as an outsider liable to infect Scott” (68). They are worried that she will take Scott away from them (both through the dancing and in romance), and in efforts to stop her, they literally talk down to her.

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Despite all obstacles, Fran and Scott dance their rendition of the pasodoble, prompting retaliation from Fife.

Doug, Scott’s father, reveals Fife’s lies and that he understands his son’s creative desires, as he too had wanted to dance his own steps when competing as a young adult. In the end, Shirley, Les, Liz, and several others help to stop Fife from interrupting Fran and Scott’s dance, and the film closes on everyone dancing their own steps on the dancefloor, Fran and Scott in the middle, sharing a kiss.

Bennett asserts that Luhrmann’s inclusion of multiculturalism in Strictly Ballroom favors the white native Australian perspective. His essay reads, “Although the film does not present an entirely exclusionary process of narrative development, Scott remains the central focus; it is his decision to dance with (and in the style of) the Other that remains important” (69). In response to this claim, I would say that while it is Scott’s decision, Fran, Rico, and Ya Ya are the only characters in the film who outright encourage Scott’s creativity and passion for dance, and are generally portrayed as strong, definitive decision-makers in the wake of Scott’s reluctance and his own family’s susceptibility to manipulation.

Stereotypes, such as where Fran lives, aside, Luhrmann portrays Fran, Rico, and Ya Ya as strong people- Fran demands that Scott give her a chance even though she is a beginner, going as far to call him a coward, and Rico and Ya Ya shamelessly display pride for their culture and teach Scott, a dancer since birth, things about dance he’s never known. I think that Scott’s exposure to multiculturalism is the whole reason he is able to accomplish his overall goal: to dance his own steps at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix, and that without these characters, he would have been pressured into remaining stagnant and stifling his true self.

Works Cited

Bennett, James. “Head On: Multicultural Representations of Australian Identity in 1990s National Cinema.” Studies in Australasian Cinema 1.1. (2007): 66-71. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.

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