John Clark is a middle-aged lawyer who seems to have all the good things in life—a solid career, a quality family, a nice house in the suburbs—but he’s lacking joy. Glumly riding the "L" home each night from his downtown Chicago office, he passes by Miss Mitzi’s dance studio and becomes increasingly intrigued by a beautiful young woman gazing pensively out the window. Finally, he surprises himself by getting off the train and signing up for ballroom dance lessons with Paulina, hoping to get to know her better.
Soon Paulina isn't the only reason John shows up for class each Wednesday night. It turns out that he really loves to dance. Embarrassed that he's finding such happiness in doing something without his wife (Beverly), he decides not to tell her about it. So when their 14-year-old daughter comments about how much happier Dad seems lately, a seed of suspicion is planted in her heart. It's watered by the perfume-scented shirts he discards after practice sessions.
Although John’s original intention when he signs up for dance lessons is to make a move on Paulina, they’re both spared the fallout of an affair, first by Paulina’s icy rebuff of his (rather timid) advances, and then by his own realization that true joy and fulfillment can be found in more healthy ways. Namely, dancing, making new friends and reigniting his relationship with Beverly. And because John and Paulina avoid the temptation of taking a private—sensual—dance lesson into sexual territory, he gives himself and his wife the emotional room needed to glue themselves back together again after being separated by jobs, kids and life for so long.
Beverly affirms her marriage by refusing to take on the retaliatory role of the spurned wife, rejecting the flirtations of a private investigator she hires to spy on John. She tells the man that marriage is a thing of superlative value in a world where it's easy to get lost in the crowd. She elaborates by stating that in a marriage, two people pledge to care about everything in each other's life, and remain a witness to it. She ultimately expresses remorse for doubting her husband and for hiring the investigator in the first place.
Miss Mitzi also puts a positive spin on marriage when she tells John about the importance of finding the perfect (dance) partner. “I used to have a perfect partner ... for 15 years,” she reflects. “He was my husband for 14 years. I'm lucky I even had it once.” (I'll comment further on how this film positively handles love and marriage in the "Conclusion.")
The Clarks joke about “Satan worshipping” going on at their daughter’s pajama party.
There are no sex scenes. There are, however, quite a few double entendres, innuendoes and references to sex. Bobbie, a brassy, busty, blond dancer, is fond of telling men to “stop looking at my a--.” It's hard for them to comply, though, since she spends so much time shaking it seductively.
Numerous scenes feature sensual ballroom dances. A male student professes that he’s taking lessons because "everyone knows" that good dancers are great in bed. Paulina explains the rumba as a “vertical expression of a horizontal wish,” advising the guys to treat their partners "like you’re gonna have your way with her right here on the dance floor.” (She proceeds to demonstrate the kind of longing and desire she's looking for with Bobbie.)
Male dancers both dish out and bear the brunt of gay-themed jokes. Words such as "twinkle-toes" and "tropics" are bandied about within that context. One of John's fellow students is seen dancing with another man at a gay bar.
Instructors’ dance attire is usually modest, but that modesty is lost when women take to the dance floor at bars and during competitions. Beverly wears a low-scooped dress to meet the investigator at a bar. Several of Paulina’s dresses leave little to the imagination. And Bobbie bursts out of quite a few of her tops. (At a competition, Bobbie's skirt is ripped off when John falls.)
Link confesses that the fake life he leads to disguise his enthusiasm for dance makes him want to “put a gun to his head.” Two women get into a catfight over an insult involving a bloated bovine. A female dancer slaps her partner after they learn that they've been disqualified. There’s lot of mild physical humor of the kind that you’d expect from a group of guys learning to dance—hitting each other with balance sticks, tripping, etc.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Miss Mitzi drinks on the sly from a flask in her locker, but gives up the crutch when the studio is re-energized in preparation for a big competition. There’s wine on the table at John’s birthday party, and champagne on the tables at the dance competition and a wedding reception. Other characters casually imbibe at bars, but no one overindulges.
Other Negative Elements
Bobbie, not-so-fondly referred to by her male students as the “Bobbinator,” is crude, crass and rude. She frequently assaults and insults others with verbal garbage. For instance, before branding him a loser and a liar, she growls at a heavyset partner, “You’re disgusting. You’re soaking wet. I already had a shower today.”
Shall We Dance, a remake of the popular 1996 Japanese movie of the same name, could have easily gone off the deep end. It’s a rare man, who in the midst of a midlife crisis, walks away sexually unscathed after becoming attracted to a beautiful—younger—woman. Here, he dances cheek to cheek with her on more than one occasion, and pines after the idea of her (he feels as though her soulfulness and sensual sadness might give meaning to his own sense of melancholy), but he refuses to take things to a carnal level. Similarly, it’s a rare wife, who, distanced from and deceived by her husband, and offered another man’s attentions, firmly walks away with nary a flirtation.
Instead, the movie boldly faces those temptations and comes out every time on the side of marriage. John recognizes the wife of his youth as his perfect partner and makes a decision to sweep her off her feet once again with flowers and kisses and dances in the kitchen. Beverly not only stays faithful to him and forgives him for not originally taking her into his confidence, but also willingly embraces his new passion and his new friends.
But while John's dancing destiny is to reinvigorate romance with his wife, a fellow student's is to "discover" that he's attracted to other men, implying that each end is acceptable and appropriate. It's a very minor plot point, but together with exasperating sexual jokes and spurts of foul language, it adds quite a bit of klutziness to what might have been a beautifully choreographed routine.