Cheyenne Jackson and Gena Rowlands in Arthur Allan Seidelman’s “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.” | IAN L. SITREN/ FILM COLLECTIVE & DADA FILMS
Just as dance instructor Michael Minetti (Cheyenne Jackson) fails to make a good initial impression on his first client, Mrs. Lily Harrison (Gena Rowlands), “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” starts off badly. The film’s opening scenes feel awkward and artificial, as if the characters are in two different films. But like Michael, who slowly ingratiates himself with Lily, Arthur Allan Seidelman’s film, based on Richard Alfieri’s play, eventually finds its footing.
The story, set in Florida, has the elderly Lily hiring the young, attractive Michael for six lessons. The pair don’t get along at first, mostly arguing and insulting each other. Lily threatens to cancel the lessons, but Michael convinces her that he needs to keep the job. She relents because she, in turn, needs to keep active. The plot soon feels like “Dancing Miss Daisy,” as the two keep meeting and dancing and ultimately form a heartwarming friendship.
Seidelman, who mostly works in television, makes much of the film feel stagy. This approach works well in the quieter scenes set in Lily’s apartment or at Michael’s home, where we see the two talking about their lives. When the story is opened up to dance halls, it feels forced, the emotions never swelling like the music.
Gena Rowlands shines in choppy comedy about learning the steps from Cheyenne Jackson
The lessons really aren’t about dance, we soon understand. Michael and Lily discuss honesty and integrity, aging, sexuality, and loneliness. Tolerance is more important than the tango when Michael, after a particularly successful lesson, decides to be honest with Lily about being gay, despite his trepidation because she’s the widow of a Southern Baptist minister. How the two dance around this topic but eventually come to understand and accept each other is the heart of “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” though it must be said that the film works mostly because Rowlands is such a wonderful actress and Jackson is so handsome.
Rowlands carries the entire film effortlessly, arousing emotion just in the way she purses her lips while looking at an old photograph. Her dignified, subtle playing is like a fine waltz with the steely strength to absorb Jackson’s aggressive boogie-woogie performance. His broad turn is fine in scenes with Irene Mossbecker (Jacki Weaver), who uses her in-home dance lessons with Michael as an opportunity to grab his ass. These comic moments provide counterpoint to the more refined relationship between Michael and Lily.
Unfortunately, Michael, as scripted, brings vulgarity to otherwise tender moments with Lily — talking about a “fuck me” dress or about putting her check in his pants as though he were a stripper. The comments set Lily off but they are also jarringly off kilter in the context of the emerging relationship between the two. Jackson’s performance only hits its stride when Michael dials it way down and embraces the intimate bond Lily craves.
While the two bark at each other early in the film, Michael rarely gets the upper hand and that may contribute to the seeming weakness of Jackson’s performance. The film finally gets their relationship right when Lily cancels their appointment because she is not feeling well and Michael brings her soup. “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” is far more interesting when the characters actually start doing something for each another. When Michael talks about his late mother and his bad dates and Lily recalls her late husband, he finally becomes more than simply a cardboard cutout foil for her.
“Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” may be uneven, but it is enjoyable when it gets in step. The upbeat ending ties together many of the film’s themes and redeems its rougher moments.
SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS | Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman | The Film Collective and Dada Films | Opens Dec. 12 | Village East Cinema, 189 Second Ave. at 12th St. | villageeastcinema.com | AMC Empire 42nd Street, 234 W. 42nd St. | amctheatres.com