Theme: "The glory of God is man fully alive." Saint IrenaeusInsights:
"Shall We Dance" is more than a cute comedy about ballroom dancing. There is "something" in the film that touches the human heart in a powerful way. People see it numerous times, and some start to take dance lessons in hopes of finding that special something. So, what is it that makes this movie so alluring?
The Dance is Life
The first thing one must understand is that the dance in "Shall We Dance is used here as a metaphor for life. Therefore, the story is really about one man's journey from being "dead" to becoming fully alive. The opening scenes are meant to place John Clark in the context of his deadness; unfulfilling job (writing wills), boring commute, disconnected family, and passionless bedroom. He is a man who has lost heart and all desire. This is evidenced by Beverly's birthday gift to him. She can find nothing John wants, so she buys him a bathrobe.
The invitation to "the dance" always comes through beauty. Paulina in the window is more than an alluring woman; she represents beauty. She is like the woman and the ball gown in the dry cleaning store of her childhood; the beauty that introduced her to the dance. She is also like John Clark in his tuxedo riding the escalator at the end of the film; the beauty who invites Beverly into the dance.
It would be so easy to make the mistake and see the beauty as the object of desire rather than the dance itself. John almost makes this mistake with Paulina. The turning point of the film comes after Paulina tells him that it is not about her, it is about the dance. In the very next scene, he finds himself in a dance club watching the dancers. Suddenly, the light goes on, and when the question comes to him, "Do you want to dance?", his answer is a resounding, "Yes!".
John returns to the Dance Studio a different person. No longer is he just leaning to dance; now, he is learning to live. The new life bubbling up inside transforms him and affects everyone in Miss Mitizi's. The practice dance with Paulina is so powerful because it is the culmination of his coming to life. The picture of him here is the total opposite of everything he was in the beginning. The bored, tired, unfulfilled, disconnected, passionless person is gone. "Be this alive!" Paulina says, "Be this alive!", and he is!
A Glory Unveiled
The film's opening scenes place John among the masses: people teeming out of office building, riding the "L" train returning home each night. There is nothing attractive about him, nothing desirable, nothing which sets him apart, nothing that speaks of life. He is one of the millions who seem lost in the cosmos.
The concluding scenes are quite different. They speak not only of transformation, but also of glory. When John dances in the competition, he is on the stage created for him. He dances a dance with steps that are all his, and the beauty is breathtaking. So powerful is the moment when his unique glory is unveiled that even Beverly is awed. John's daughter captures it best when she says, "Dad is awesome!".
Stories about transformation are always popular and powerful because they touch the deepest desire within the human heart - the desire to come fully alive. Everyone can identify with the John Clark at the beginning of the film. Everyone wants to identify with the John Clark at the end. The nerve this movie touches is how many even realize that there is a question to be answered, "Do you want to dance?".
1. For a great comparison, read the story of the Healing at Bethesda in John 5:1-17.
2. For further discussion, the following books are recommended:
The Sacred Romance by Bent Curtis and John Eldredge
The Journey of Desire by John Eldredge
Waking the Dead by John Eldredge
3. For the best description of "The Dance" read Perelandra by C. S. Lewis.