The simultaneous release of two of the tackiest exploitation pictures in memory raises a metaphysical question: What is the lambada, anyway?
Well, it's a kind of shorthand, anyone-can-do-it update of the tango that centers on one very simple move: A male and female dancer stare into each other's eyes, then the guy glides his knee between the girl's thighs, and there's lots of soulful writhing. On the dirty-dancing scale, it makes the Solid Gold Dancers look like Astaire and Rogers.
Then again, as presented in these two movies, the lambada isn't quite a dance. It may be the first dance concept what it means here is doing any sort of hot, sexy, vaguely ''Latin'' moves you want, as long as the music and nightclub setting are appropriately Brazilian.
The appearance of the low-budget quickies Lambada and The Forbidden Dance reflects the meeting of two separate pop phenomena: the incredible success of the movie Dirty Dancing and the rise, during the mid-to-late-'80s, of a powerful new wave of Latin-flavored mass culture everything from movies like La Bamba and Stand and Deliver to groups like Miami Sound Machine to the reemergence of Cheech Marin as culture hero to the coke kingpins on Miami Vice, who (though villains) helped establish a newly sleek, insolent, and complex image of Latin American machismo.
Yes, folks, Latin chic has arrived. Only in these films, it has all the allure of a frozen burrito.
Both Lambada and The Forbidden Dance are being distributed by major studios (Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures), but the real auteurs are their respective producers ex-partners Yorum Globus and Menahem Golan, the former kings of '80s trash. The idea of the infamous ''Go-Go Boys'' now desperately trying to out-exploit each other for a share of the lambada marketplace has a certain poetic irony to it. Then again, having sat through both of these films (the movie-critic equivalent of a day on the rock pile), I can assure you that the box-office horse race is infinitely more interesting than anything on-screen.
Both producers came up with the bright idea of turning their lambada pics into message movies. Globus' Lambada barely even has any dancing in it; it's a gloss on Stand and Deliver, an inspirational, get-an-education movie. Golan's The Forbidden Dance crusades for saving the Brazilian rain forests. Never have two more whorish films strained harder to show their hearts of gold.
In Lambada, the hero is a high school math teacher by day, a lambada dancer by night. After strutting his stuff at the local nightclub, he goes into the back room and heads up a special-education program for wrong-side-of-the-tracks kids. The name of the program? Galaxy High (because these kids are reaching for the stars!). If nothing else, Lambada has the distinction of being the first dance movie to climax with a trigonometry competition, and it has a few camp moments, as when one of the guys at the club tells a dirty-dancing dandy named Ramon, ''Ya got potential. College potential.''
The Forbidden Dance is every bit as shamelessly farfetched. It's about a beautiful Brazilian Indian princess who comes to Los Angeles to crusade for preserving the rain forests and ends up working as a kind of lambada-dancing escort in a Sunset Strip sex club. This one at least has some dancing (though the choreography is lackluster, at best), and it does feature two amusing minutes from Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Still, its PG-13 version of a Hollywood-vice plot is so inept it puts you in a stupor.
In their slapdash way, these movies are testaments to how little honest joy there is left in today's endlessly recycled pop culture. And though their ''messages'' are so trivial they're barely worth dismissing, it takes a lot of nerve to preach to inner-city kids about doing their math homework when you consider it's movies like Lambada that are rotting their minds. The grade for both flicks: F