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We open with Katey Miller narrating while we see her, her mother (Sela Ward), sister (Mika Boorem), and father (John Slattery) arriving in Cuba. She isn't very happy to be uprooted to another country senior year, although the rest of her family seems happy to be there. We learn that she is a self-described bookworm and planning to go to Radcliffe for college. We also learn that this is right around the time that Castro is staging a revolution against Batista.
She meets several other rich Americans down by the pool, including James Phelps (Jonathan Jackson), who is her father's boss. She's disgusted, however, when one of the girls (January Jones) refers to the pool boy as a "stupid spic" when he knocks over some drinks. We learn that the poolboy is Javier (Diego Luna), who works at the hotel to support his family.
We see Katey and her father watching a filmstrip of her parents dancing. In their day they were champion ballroom dancers but gave it up to provide for a more stable family. She and her father start to dance, and we see that she's pretty good.
Katey goes to the local private school, where her smarts earn snickers from the class but admiration from James. He invites her to a dance at the country club later on, and she accepts after a while. She misses her ride home because she stays at school to work and ends up walking home. On her way, she sees several Cubans dancing in the street, and one of them turns out to be Javier. She is transfixed by the dancing and is embarrassed when he sees her. She admits she's lost and he walks her home. The next day, she finds a book of salsa steps and tries to practice them in front of a mirror, but she's stiff and awkward. Javier finds her trying to dance they speak for a while. He leaves, however, when he finds out that she is going to the country club with James, saying she should forget salsa and just learn the fotxtrot.
She borrows a dress from her maid (hers is embarrassingly frumpy) to go to the country club, where the same girl who was rude to Javier earlier basically calls her a slut.
When she invites them over for drinks, Katey declines, saying she and James have decided to go to a Cuban club, the Rosa Negra. James goes along with it and they leave.
At the Rosa Negra, Katey can't believe the way the Cubans move. She sees Javier dancing again and he spots her. He asks her to dance and she accepts. She is awkward at first but responds to the music and has a pretty good time. James, seeing her reaction to the music, thinks he's got a chance for some action and comes onto her in the car, tearing her dress. She storms back into the club where she finds Javier, who is royally pissed at James and tells her he'll take her home. They walk to the hotel, where Javier has to leave her because he's not allowed to fraternize with the guests. She goes upstairs, not realizing that her sister Susie and the rude girl from the country club, who were smoking on the beach, saw the whole thing. The next day, James tries to apologize to Katie, and she brushes him off. He tells her that Javier has been fired because of her sister and the mean girl.
Katey finds out about a local "Latin Ballroom" contest from the dance instructor at the hotel (Patrick Swayze!!) He encourages her to enter.
She finds out where Javier lives and goes to his house, where his mother directs her to a shop where he takes apart stolen cars.She also meets his brother, a revolutionary, who clearly dislikes her. She apologizes for getting him fired and he is pretty cold. She then tells him that she wants them to enter the contest, where the winners get a cash prize to make up for his lost income and a chance to go to America. He refuses and she leaves, but he shows up at her school the next day and agrees to enter.
They begin to practice but they're having problems. Katey doesn't understand how to "feel the music" and Javier can't stand the structured style of ballroom dancing. She also freaks out when he starts to put his hands on her hips and touch her more closely. At the Rosa Negra one night, she finally swats him away, whereupon he grabs another partner and finishes dancing with her. Later he comes over to Katey and accuses her of being afraid to let him touch her, which she denies.
She goes to talk to the dance instructor again, who informs her that in order to dance well she has to be comfortable with herself. He practices with her a little and we see her loosening up.
She finds Javier and admits that she's afraid. She shows him the footage of her parents and he tells her that they have to want to be in each others' arms as much as her parents do. They begin to dance in front of the projector, getting more and more lost in themselves, when they're interrupted by her brother.
There's the requisite dance montage that shows Katey and Javier getting better and better, as well as closer to one another. James is guilted into covering for Katey, and their families believe that they are dating. Javier shares the story of how his father, a revolutionary, was killed by Batista's thugs.
Katey has it out with her sister, eventually forgiving her and sharing what she's been up to with Javier.
The dance contest is on Christmas Eve at the Palace, and that night at dinner Katey's father announces that the whole family will be going to watch the contest with James' family. Katey is freaked out but puts on a brave face. At the palace hers and James' mothers keep telling them what a cute couple they make. They press James to ask her to dance, and when he does, Katey excuses herself to the restroom. She goes backstage and meets Javier, and they get ready to go out on the floor.
They dance incredibly, but, well, dirtily. James, as well as his parents and Katey's, are shocked by the suggestive routine.
Katey and Javier make it into the finals and share a passionate kiss on the floor.
Katey's parents are furious with her, especially her mother (Sela Ward). She ends up slapping her and Katey runs to Javier's house, where she stays the night (nothing happens). She tells him that she has decided not to go to college, but to stay in Cuba for him.
She returns to the hotel, where her mother tells her that she can't approve of her relationship with Javier, but supports her dancing 100%.
The finals arrive, and the whole family turns out in support. Katey's parents end up dancing for the first time in years. Katey and Javier watch the other two finalists, who are amazing, and then take their turn on the floor. While they dance, Javier notices his brother in a waiters' uniform and realizes that there's an assassination attempt occurring. A gun fires and the whole place erupts in chaos. Javier saves his brother from being killed by a guard, and then rants at him for being so reckless. They exchange words, but in the end reconcile.
It turns out that same night Castro made his move and Batista has left the country. The entire Cuban population is dancing in the streets, but Javier returns to the hotel to find Katey. They end up on the beach again and sleep together in one of the cabanas. The next morning Katey tries to convince Javier to come to America with her, but he declines, saying that he believes that things will be better now that the revolution has occurred.
The two share a painful goodbye a little while later, but Katey is confident that this won't be the last time they see each other.
The movie ends with Katey and Javier dancing at the Rosa Negra on her last night in Havana, with her parents and sister there as well.