Heavenly Bodies: Canada’s contribution to the 80s dance movie craze
Since the Canadian independent film boom of the late 80s and early 90s, our country's output has been proud of being different from Hollywood movies. When I was coming of age, to be considered great, a Canadian film had to be weirder, more diverse and often smarter than its American counterparts. That’s why I think I have a particular curiosity for Canadian output during the tax shelter era and earlier when Canadian film didn’t try for uniqueness, but instead tried to play by the rules, yet produced films that still felt different. Today I want to take a look at Canada’s play in the dance movie craze of the 1980s: Heavenly Bodies.
If you’re unfamiliar with this cable classic, Heavenly Bodies follows your usual dance plot structure: dancing dreamer Samantha (Cynthia Dale) opens a dancercise studio with friends and must eventually out-dance a corporate team to keep developers from taking her building. The whole story of how the film came to be is quite elaborate and best told be co-writer Ron Base, but I’ll give you a quick rundown. Producer and actor Lawrence Dane, best remembered for his heel turn in Scanners or Canuxploitation classic Rituals, came up with a quickie TV movie inspired by Flashdance, but the pitch kept growing and growing. Playboy threw their hat in as producers, and soon MGM also offered distribution as well as a pumping 80s soundtrack with bands like Sparks to back Samatha’s dancing. While it might all seem calculated, it does have plenty of unique notes, and you can be proud as a Canadian that Heavenly Bodies predates the infamous Jamie Lee Curtis aerobics film Perfect by a whole year!
I’m not here to claim Heavenly Bodies is a hidden artistic gem, it’s not. However, it is absolutely exuberant, corny 80s cheese with few equals among Canadian films. The Playboy connection brings along a few sleazy scenes that were common in our popular 80s output, but it’s nothing too far outside of Flashdance or any other studio picture. In some ways, its frankness and adult sexuality make it a little more interesting than some similar mainstream fare. Dane also does a great job filming the dance sequences with real energy and staging a series of numbers that don’t feel at all repetitive. It’s mostly just wall-to-wall dance, big Hollywood romance and some cornball plotting that’ll have you laughing and cheering along.
What makes it especially fun as a Canadian is seeing the ways our culture still peeps through even in a story set in anytown North America. Cynthia Dale of course steals the show with her energetic dance routines and by walking an amazingly fine line between cutesy instructor, tough single mother and sexy single. She handles everything the movie throws at her, showing her potential as an actress. The cast also reflects the diversity of Canada, and even if the side characters may not get much to do, just seeing faces and bodies that don’t fit the Hollywood norm does feel exciting. Also keep an eye peeled for a charming bit of Canadiana that might have left U.S. audiences scratching their heads: a romantic pierogi dinner.
There’s comfort and fun in Canadian film, ever the underdog, jumping for the brass ring of mainstream popular culture. Not all movies have to be art, and Canadian film shouldn’t need to be above trends and popular culture. A lot of fun can be had in that less formal space. You know the beats, but the tune is slightly different, expressing a little familiarity that tickles you in unexpected ways. Whether you’re a big fan of corny 80s dance movies, love Cynthia Dale, or just need some aerobic inspiration, Heavenly Bodies is a movie you won’t want to miss.