One of my favorite things about the 2004 movie Shall We Dance, a remake of the Japanese film of the same name from 1996, is how it plays with our ingrained assumptions about what the movie will be about. A sad man in a middling marriage gazes upon a younger woman every day from his train, no doubt projecting all sorts of things on her, desiring from afar. He probably wants to cheat on his wife with her, right? Hollywood has told that story a million times over. But that’s the beauty of Shall We Dance: It’s not about that at all.
It’s about a man who falls in love with dance. It’s about finding happiness in unexpected places. It’s about confronting insecurity head-on. Shall We Dance is a funny and often surprising movie. It has a stupendous cast, anchored by Richard Gere but bolstered by Jennifer Lopez, Susan Sarandon, Lisa Ann Walter, Stanley Tucci, Anita Gillette, Bobby Cannavale, Omar Miller, Richard Jenkins, and Nick Cannon. And while it might, at its surface, be a story about Gere’s John Clark, all of their characters get their own stories, too.
While I could probably write a dissertation on Shall We Dance, I did not come here to write a review of a movie that came out no less than 14 years ago. Nor did I come here to defend my unabashed love for it. Nay, I came here on this day in the year of 20gayteen to talk about one of the single greatest scenes in cinematic history, a scene that had changed my life, I once declared on Twitter. That was not hyperbole for the sake of a tweet. This less-than-a-minute clip of Shall We Dance touched me in a way that I’ll never forget.
When John and his dance partner Bobbie (Walter) can’t get their shit together while dancing the rumba, Paulina (Lopez) cuts in and delivers the following monologue:
“The rumba is the vertical expression of a horizontal wish. You have to hold her, like the skin on her thigh is your reason for living. Let her go, like your heart’s being ripped from your chest. Throw her back, like you’re going to have your way with her right here on the dance floor. And then finish, like she’s ruined you for life.”
As she strings together this unbelievably sexy combination of words, Jennifer Lopez clutches Lisa Ann Walter (who also, it should be noted, plays the queer icon Chessy in The Parent Trap) in a way that’s so intense, so passionate that I remember it sending a jolt through my body when I first saw it.
I watched Shall We Dance shortly after it came out for pretty much just one reason: J.Lo was in it. As much as I hate to admit it, I guess that connects me in a way to the film’s protagonist, initially drawn into Miss Mitzi’s dance studio because of her. I didn’t expect to encounter a great film. And I definitely didn’t expect to encounter a scene, brief as it may be, of two women dancing the rumba.
I was 12 or 13 and most definitely thought I was heterosexual. Later in the movie, Paulina shares the story of when she first realized she was meant to be a dancer. She saw a beautiful woman dancing the waltz competitively, and at one point mid-dance, she winked at young Paulina. “And I felt like she was trying to tell me something,” Paulina explains. Well, I certainly felt, for a fleeting moment, like this movie was trying to tell me something, too.
I call them gay foreshocks. For those not up on their seismological vocabulary, foreshocks are the mini seismic events that occur just before an earthquake. Gay foreshocks are the little tingly hints along the way before I finally realized I was gay and my whole world was rocked, the spidey sense trying so hard to tell me something that I couldn’t quite make sense of yet. Sometimes it was the universe speaking to me through pop culture. Sometimes it was my own actions and feelings trying to tell me something more about myself. For a whole bunch of reasons, they were easy to ignore for a long time.
Anyway, this scene in Shall We Dance (2004) was one big ol’ gay foreshock. Seeing Jennifer Lopez turn into a femme domme on the dance floor with absolutely zero warning in the middle of a goofy movie about a dude learning to dance? Yeah, I felt the ground move.
And it wasn’t just because of my lifelong obsession with Jennifer Lopez. At this point in my life, I had a complicated relationship with ballroom dancing, which probably isn’t something a lot of sixth graders say. You see, around the same time that Shall We Dance came out, my mother enrolled me in cotillion classes. Once a month, my two best friends and I would go to a ballroom downtown, where we joined over 100 other middle schoolers and learned 1. How to dance 2. How to be polite 3. How to be heterosexual.
That last one wasn’t exactly a stated purpose of cotillion, but it certainly was a tacit lesson. The beginning of every cotillion class was always the same: Girls lined up on one side of the ballroom, boys on the other. As music played, we moved forward one-by-one, pairing off with our first partner of the evening in a dramatic promenade of heteronormativity that was deemed the “grand march.”
Then, we learned how to tango, foxtrot, waltz, etc. And I loved it! Sort of! I always liked to dance, but I liked that there was structure to ballroom dancing, that there were rules in a way. But the one rule I secretly, silently questioned was the one reinforced by the grand march. In short, I didn’t like dancing with boys.
My best friends and I would linger near the end of the line before the grand march. Because more middle school girls tended to sign up than middle school boys, the cotillion powers that be hired high school boys who had been through the program to make up for the disparity. So we went to the end of the line because my friends wanted to dance with older boys. I joined them to make them think that’s what I wanted, too, all the while hoping that we’d run out of boys altogether, that I could maybe dance with one of my friends or another girl.
So it wasn’t just the look on J.Lo’s face in that scene in Shall We Dance that shook me to my core. It was the image of seeing two women so tightly entwined in a ballroom dance setting that burrowed itself into my subconscious and signaled something deep within me that I wasn’t quite ready to feel. It would take a lot more gay foreshocks for me to get there, but I count every single miniscule one of those moments in my past as meaningful. Eventually, they worked together to help me figure out what I really want.