Teaching and Holding Back: Strictly Ballroom (1992, dir. Baz Luhrmann)

Strictly Ballroom is Luhrmann’s directorial debut, a romantic comedy about Scott, an impatient and talented competitive ballroom dancer who gains an unlikely partner in awkward amateur Fran mere weeks before the Big Competition he’s been working towards (and groomed for) his entire life.  The story is well-trod territory: part underdog sports story, part Pygmalion, with some rage against the machine thrown in for good measure, but the film charms with its energy, sweetness, and colorful mise en scene.  Plus I’m a sucker for films that are ensconced in insular subcultures, making characters’ goals simultaneously low stakes and very, very high stakes.  I didn’t watch this movie with the intent of writing about it, but you find fat characters in the darndest places.

I would describe three of the characters in the movie as fat: Les, Barry, and Ya Ya (Fran’s grandmother).  Their fatness isn’t explicitly part of how any of them are characterized; the movie doesn’t draw attention to the size of their bodies, nor are they coded as markedly different from the thinner characters.  All three characters are of the previous generation, those who have raised the protagonists.  Their influence is that of authority, albeit in different ways.

Barry, as the president of the ballroom association and competition judge, is the most direct authority figure.  He has the power to designate who the champion is, and his rulings influence “the future of dancesport” itself.  He also cleverly manipulates the politics of the Australian competitive ballroom world.  Strictly Ballroom values veracity in artistic expression, and as self-styled puppet master of a world of sequined costumes and heavy eyeshadow, Barry is the master of the artificial.  He’s even shown to be wearing a wig, the perfect accessory for a blustering, red-faced judge who is wrapped up in the antiquated status quo and his own self-importance.

Les, although still a member of the ballroom old guard, is more balanced than Barry.  A self-described “experienced professional,” he is Scott’s teacher who encourages him to win by sticking to traditional ballroom dance moves and finding an acceptable partner for him to compete with.  While still a part of the world of ballroom artifice, he ultimately prioritizes the integrity of the competition over Barry’s machinations.

At the other end of the spectrum from Barry, we have Ya Ya, Fran’s grandmother, who embodies the veracity of dance.  She dresses plainly with no makeup or hair styling, and imparts the two central pieces of wisdom Strictly Ballroom has to offer, teaching Fran that “a life lived in fear is a life half lived” and teaching Scott that the rhythm is in his heart.  (Seriously, Scott, you’ve been dancing since you were 6 and you’ve never had a mentor or a book or another movie about a dancer teach you that?  At least it gave Ya Ya an excuse to touch his chest.)  Her approach to dance is more soulful than that of Barry or Les, but she’s also reinforcing norms. She teaches the paso doble that has the veracity of tradition behind it, a dance that is more “real” than Scott’s ballroom version.  She, along with Fran and Rico, rein in Scott’s headstrong individualism, helping him learn humility and cooperation as he corrals his flamboyantly athletic style into one (admittedly sweet) slide onto the dancefloor during the film’s climax.

So we have three fat characters who represent the authority of age and the different forms that can take.  However, their positions as elders makes their fat somewhat more acceptable, and none of them are remarkable outliers in terms of size (Barry would probably be described as “paunchy”).  If anything, the actors chosen to embody these characters are stout as part of showing their age, and perhaps as a visual counterbalance to thinner partners who represent the same point of view (Les and Shirley; Ya Ya and Rico; Barry and his blonde co-judge consort) and in contrast to the slim, young protagonists who receive their teachings.

In fact, there are plenty of movies that feature older people whose bodies are “stout” or “matronly” or “paunchy”; I’m sure that if I were to write about every one I saw, this blog would be full of those reviews, and likely say very similar things.  Barry, Les, and Ya Ya are all elders, keepers of tradition. Their fatness is somewhat incidental, something that we recognize as a common marker of age and being past one’s prime.  These three want to see the prime of their own youth repeated by their progeny and their slimmer, more relevant bodies, despite the different ways they have of achieving their goals.

II.

It took me until the day after viewing to think about the fat characters in Strictly Ballroom, because the first representation of fatness that caught my eye was a bit player.  At the beginning of the movie, Fran is at the peak of her ugly duckingness (ducklingitude?).  Not only is she insecure and unpolished (the standard trifecta of no makeup, frizzy hair, and glasses),  she is a “beginner” dancer: not only beneath the serious attentions of Scott, Les, and Shirley, but– as she repeats a few times at the beginning of the film– without a partner.

This isn’t technically true, however:  while Fran is awkwardly by herself for a few numbers during the opening scene at the dance studio, she is paired with another woman, specifically the only fat student there.  In the third act, Scott is spurred into reconciling and reuniting with Fran in part by the pity-inducing sight of her dancing at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix in the beginner’s category, with the same fat partner.  Fran is marginalized and diminished by the characters in power and the hierarchy of merit that they uphold, those who don’t recognize her as an able or appropriate dance partner for Scott.  She is placed in categories in the dance world that are wrong for her given her place in the narrative: she is  the beginner’s dance category, despite having authentic knowledge of dance that she is able to share with Scott, and she is made to dance the man’s role, despite fulfilling a very classically feminine role in a romantic story.

Strictly Ballroom: Fran and the Fat Dancer at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix

Her fat partner is a physical manifestation of this humiliation and ostracization.  Even after her skin clears up and her frizzy hair turns into curls, even after her need for eyeglasses has faded into memory, the painful relapse into being a nobody beginner is the presence of the fat dancer.  The fat dancer is a non-person, not even considered a partner by the person she’s dancing with.  She is a competent dancer (at least, to my untrained eye), but because of her body size (as in the dance studio, she is the only fat person on the Pan Pacific dance floor), she is even less a part of the world of acceptability than Fran.  Her presence is unwelcome, presenting a pathetic and humorous contrast to dreamy Scott.  The fat dancer accessorizes and amplifies Fran’s humiliation.  As we see here and in other movies– Justin Long’s cheerleader tryout scene in Dodgeball: a True Underdog Story springs to mind– slender characters are vulnerable to mocking and humiliation just through pairing with a fat person for an activity.  Straight-sized readers: consider this your warning.

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