Samantha Powell’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
In my childhood and early adolescence, Boston was filled with movie theaters. Over time many of them shuttered as the city transformed from a place that felt like home to one that I had trouble recognizing. Most of those old theaters were hidden away. One neighbored a Chili’s in a corner of my local mall. Another sat tucked next to one of the many parking garages that litter the downtown area. The Boston Common and Fenway megaplexes didn’t arrive until my high school years, so it was in those small theaters that I saw many of the movies that defined my 90s childhood and early adolescence. There was no stadium seating or movable armrests but there were other perks, layouts that allowed you to watch multiple films despite having only purchased one ticket and disaffected teen employees who were heavy handed when putting the butter on your popcorn.
My mind is filled with memories of those long gone theaters. I remember resting my violin case on a sticky floor as I watched Titanic with my mother on a Saturday afternoon following my weekly lesson. I remember the afternoon when I used one ticket to watch three movies, including Hocus Pocus. Then there are the things that get lost. I remember the anxiety before, and the relief after, buying my ticket to see Scream 2 with a friend when we were both a hair underage. I shudder at the memory of the week of nightmares that followed. You can’t hold onto all of it, and so it is with some frustration that I can’t remember the precise moment when, or the precise place where, I saw Center Stage for the first time when it was released in the spring of 2000.
What I do remember is the aftermath. For a time the movie was my singular obsession. One day during the summer following its release, my last high school summer, I sat in a friend’s bedroom playing The Game of Life. When deciding what she would name the little blue peg that was to represent her husband, she settled on Charlie. “From Center Stage,” she added. As if I didn’t know exactly whom and what she was referencing with that name choice. As if we hadn’t spent so much of our time that summer talking about Jody and Eva and Charlie and Cooper and Maureen and Eric “O for Oprah” Jones.
Most of that last high school summer is hard for me to get a handle on. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember where and when I first saw Center Stage. Everything is hazy and all that’s left are long, aimless afternoons filled with sunshine and days peppered with an anxiety about the future, an anxiety yet to reach its apex.
It was a golden age for the teen film, well golden in numerical terms at least. I and my cohorts represented the last echo of the Baby Boom and so our numbers overwhelmed. We were everywhere and we were dominant. In turn, there was no shortage of movie options upon which a ’90s teen could fix her gaze and her mind. Can’t Hardly Wait, filled to the brim as it was with the stars of the era, seems a good option. Or our generation’s re-telling of Pygmalion, She’s All That. There were those aforementioned Scream films and Center Stage’s more serious dancerly companion, Save the Last Dance.
But I can’t remember the last time I watched any of those films at all, either in clip form or in full. My DVD collection houses none of them. However, Center Stage I have owned from the moment it became possible for one to have her own copy. In fact, I’ve owned three copies. My VHS was ruined in a moving debacle after my freshman year of college. DVD No. 1 was borrowed from someone and, in a bout of innocent forgetfulness, never returned. In more moving turmoil, it was lost as well. DVD No. 2, the one that currently lives next to a pile of recent fashion magazines, was purchased during a trip to Target sometime in my mid-20s. But it seems this obsession is not mine alone. Fifteen years on I live in a world where Center Stage comes up at a rate that one would not expect of a teen film that, on the surface at least, hasn’t aged well.
Center Stage is a pastiche of several stories that we’ve seen all of our lives. The small-town girl moves to the big city to pursue her dreams. The good girl/good guy/bad guy love triangle told twice over with one Cooper Nielsen as pivot point. The boarding school drama. The dance film. There is a comforting element to these familiar beats. It is possible to take a well-worn story and transform it through the telling, but that’s not what was going on here, at least not at first glance.
I’ve wandered off, haven’t I? Theories on storytelling aside, it’s not like the other films that I mentioned weren’t doing the same work, telling those same, standard stories. This generation’s Pygmalion. This generation’s Porky’s. This generation’s [insert Shakespeare play of your choice here, preferably a comedy]. But not all of them hold in their running time a perfect encapsulation of the end of a moment. There’s no way to go in knowing that that is what you’re creating. Such things can only be understood in the after. There were the New York City-specific things. Cooper’s Brooklyn loft in the moments before the gentrification tidal wave really hit. A SoHo that was still a little dirty. And then there were the more universal elements. Non-villainous characters smoking. A dress that I’m pretty sure I spied in a Delia’s catalog in 1998. Recent winner of the men’s figure skating gold medal in Nagano, Ilia Kulik. The absence of even a flip phone.
I don’t include Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows on this list because, c’mon, Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows are timeless.
As separate pieces, each thread is seemingly inconsequential but together they form a clear picture of a time, a place, and a moment that we had no idea was quickly to come to an end. But nostalgia was not what made me go out and buy a VHS of the movie despite being fully aware that that technology was dying. It didn’t make my friend choose Charlie as the name of her Life partner as we sat on her bed in that Boston suburb. Even now, nostalgia is a state that I often find myself trying to avoid for fear of whitewashing the past.
At just seventeen, I had yet to tire of tales in which a non-descript, white female protagonist was meant to play the part of stand-in for me as audience member. Now I would have approached it warily, but then I consumed it gleefully and without reservation. But if that had been the only story being told, I probably would have revisited it as sparingly as I have all of the other films of my teen years, despite the perfect snapshot of the end of the ’90s or Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows. What kept me coming back, what kept me watching it at every suggestion of enemy or acquaintance or bosom buddy, was that in the end the story was so little about Jody.
From the moment the camera pulled back to reveal her auditioning her little heart out, it was obvious what path she would end up on. After that first watch, her journey slipped into the background in favor of Eva and Maureen’s, journeys that after many a rewatch share more than I initially realized. In the front half of the film, they were sketched as caricatures, two sides of the same bitchy coin. Jody, on the other hand, was malleable. Soft. Naïve. Her anxiety about her life and the future was less palpable. In a way all of these traits were desirable to me. I wanted my own anxiety to take a similar shape, wanted the sharp pains in my chest to subside as summer melted into fall and I approached the end of my high school years. However, it refused to do so.
Eva and Maureen were none of those things. But hard exteriors constructed in an effort to hide something away are often revealed to be more fragile upon closer inspection. While Jody walked along her set line, they took journeys of their own. Not that their paths were completely free of clichés. Eva had her caring, invested teacher and Maureen had her the caring, invested boyfriend. Yet even with those elements, these twin tales, which eventually converged, broke the film open.
Defiance is a common enough teen trait although often in films it can read, or is expressly portrayed, as defiance for defiance’s sake. Instead within these two young women was a purposeful defiance, masked by a nonchalant air and tinged with fear. On the first watch, it is hard to see where they are headed. What is the end game for them? Will Eva get in her own way? Will Maureen finally admit that she’s sure about being unsure? Those questions spoke to me then and they continue to speak to me now.
On an afternoon not long ago, I sat in a bright and airy coffee shop with some version of these words in the foreground of my laptop screen as Center Stage played quietly in the background. I knew every beat, every change in pace, every important musical moment. I tapped out words as I silently mouthed “I am the best goddamn dancer in the American Ballet Academy. Who the hell are you? Nobody.” Whenever I pulled the DVD application to the fore, to watch Cooper and Charlie battle for Jody’s heart with jumps and spins or to finally admit that I liked Jonathan’s ballet better than Cooper’s, I looked around to see if anyone was glancing over and catching me in the act. There was no embarrassment there. Only joy. I was searching for someone with whom to share the moment.