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Dance In Movies

By Edited Dec 24, 2015 2 8


Dance films, movies with plots driven more by choreography than story, are not typically big money makers.  Stories that focus on life in the dance world are sometimes referred to as “dance for camera”.  These productions could be considered a separate genre from musicals.   Musicals, especially those from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, often dropped in song and dance numbers just for the sake of entertainment.  The musical numbers didn’t necessarily move the story forward.  Gene Kelly’s films Singin’ In The Rain and An American In Paris, or Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and ceiling in Royal Wedding, are excellent examples. They were giant hits during a much simpler era when audiences had the patience for slower developing stories.  The majority of movie ticket buyers today look to films with different expectations.

So why did the song and dance, academy award winning movie Chicago break the mold with historic box office?  The movie may be one of the best exceptions to successful music and dance story telling in recent times.  Adapted from the stage play of the same name, Chicago was directed by the choreographer, and multiple Tony award nominee, Rob Marshall.  With one foot in the world of theatre and one in film, Marshall’s dual expertise resulted in song and dance that revealed the story in a way no other film of it’s kind had done before.  Neither song nor dance halted the plot, but rather helped audiences understand the conflicts and characters.  When Roxie Hart sings "Funny Honey", viewers get a peek into her troubled, twisted little mind, her relationship with her husband, why she cheated on him, and the motivation for the crime.

Sometimes the line that divides a movie that happens to feature a couple dancing, from a musical or dance film, gets a little fuzzy.  The resurgence of dance has been propelled by hugely popular TV shows like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.  Whether we’re willing partners or not, the influence of these hits spills into our culture via network and cable series shows in unexpected ways.  In a recent episode of the series White Collar, FBI agent Peter Burke struts his stuff by doing an impressive Tango with a serial bride, all with the intent to investigate the mysterious death of her husbands.  Singular dances like this Tango seem to be popping up more and more lately on TV shows and film.

A huge crop of new dance styles promise to change the landscape of choreography in the future and have already been the focus of films. Hip Hop and Street dancing were featured in Breakin’, Stomp The Yard, Step Up, Take The Lead and other contemporary movies.

If you love to watch a variety of dancing, here are some films produced in the late 1900s that might you might want to add to your NetFlix list.

Scent Of A Woman – 1992

A blind, medically retired Army officer who is angry at the hand life has dealt him, struggles through a relationship with his temporary companion (Chris O’Donnell).  The only dance in this movie is a Tango expertly delivered by Al Pacino and Gabrielle Anwar.  The couple dominates the dance floor, which in itself is a great achievement.  But in addition, Pacino plays a blind person convincingly, his eyes seemingly staring into space as he dances.  Not only was it a brilliant and moving Tango, Pacino also looked like he was enjoying every second of it.  He won an Oscar for this role.

Dirty Dancing – 1987

Dance is the catalyst for the relationship between Baby, a little rich girl and Johnny, a rough-around- the-edges dance instructor.  In the lead, Patrick Swayze came into his own with some of the sexiest dance routines since John Travolta’s discoing Tony Moreno.  Swazye's partner, Jennifer Gray comes of age in this tale while audiences come to their feet in the finale when the entire cast dances to “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life”.  And we certainly did. 

Footloose – 1984

What better antagonist can you have for people who love to dance than a town in which rock music is outlawed?  Kevin Bacon who plays Ren, is the coolest guy on the block with enough soul to deliver a groovy dance performance.  Although the movie was not wildly popular in terms of story, the music and dance were sheer entertainment.

Saturday Night Fever- 1977

Twenty-something John Travolta nearly single-handedly made disco dancing the most popular dance of its era with this movie.  As Tony Manero, he’s unhappy with his dead-end job and boring life and turns to dance, the one thing he does very well.  Weekends give his life meaning as he moves across the floor at 2001 Odyssey, the local discotheque.  While the plot involves a dance competition, it doesn’t revolve exclusively around the disco.  A relationship between Tony and Stephanie, a dancer with bigger dreams, creates the glue for this story.  It’s hard to hear the Bee Gees them song from this film without picturing the lights of the disco ball flashing off Tony’s slinky white suit.

Urban Cowboy – 1980

Travolta trades in his tailored threads for jeans, a western hat and the name Bud in this film featuring country western dance.  Although most scenes take place at Gilley’s, a local beer and dance hall, the focus of the story is the romance between Travolta and strong-willed Sissy, played by Debra Winger.  If you like country western dancing, especially line dancing, you’ll enjoy watching how Travolta boot scooted this film to a $54 million box office hit in the U.S.

Flashdance – 1983

Could there be a more unlikely female dance star than a female welder?  Jennifer Beals does the transformation from steel-worker by day to unbridled bar dancer by night.  Although there was a good balance between plot and dance sequences, critics panned the film because of the somewhat predictable story and typical “strive for fame” plot.  But no one listened to the critics and Flashdance became the third highest grossing film in 1983.

Pulp Fiction – 1994

If you’ve ever seen any of Quentin Tarentino’s films, you’d never guess that a most memorable dance occurs in one of his works.  Again, Travolta is on the floor, this time with Uma Thurman.  The dancing here isn’t so extraordinary, but it’s the delivery by the actors and the way the dance takes us by surprise that makes you want to watch it again and again.  The only dance in the film, it breaks the tension at a moment in the story when it’s really needed.

Chicago – 2002

Starring Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, John C Reilly, Queen Latifah, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago is a musical look at Prohibition-era corruption.  This was a cast most audiences had never seen sing or dance and before the film’s release, crowds were dubious.  But the thoroughly talented celebrities were keenly up to the task and proved the masses wrong with numbers like “Can’t Do It Alone” “Mr. Cellophane” and “Cell Block Tango”.   


More About Dance

Dance Classes On Your Computer



Jul 12, 2011 11:43am
Great list! I remember as a teen standing in a long line in Hollywood with a group of my friends, all of us excited to see "Saturday Night Fever." We all came out of that theater singing "Staying-alive, staying-alive..."
Jul 13, 2011 11:11am
It's great when dancing and singing affect you so much. I bet you still feel the same when you hear the song today.
Jul 12, 2011 1:41pm
All favorites of our family, dance movies always seem to have another story to tell with dance as the anchor. Flashdance has always been a fave, Scent of Woman, not exactly a dance movie, but an ooh so memorable dance sequence. Haven't seen Black Swan yet, but probably more what you are referring to in this well-written piece about dance films.
Jul 13, 2011 11:25am
Thanks Sharon! Because Black Swan is truly performance art, it might not be as engaging for some in terms of dance. But the dance was certainly a perfect backdrop for an intriguing story... or vice versa!
Jul 13, 2011 4:56pm
This list of movies certainly brought back some memories of lovely evenings spent in movie theatres! Even as a little girl, I loved to watch the old dance routines in movies ... even Shirley Temple doing a simple tap dance. Great fun.
Jul 13, 2011 6:31pm
I love the older movies with dancing too. I never missed a Shirley Temple film!
Jul 21, 2011 4:09am
Great article and you have chosen all the best dance sequences too. I liked Pacino in Scent of a Woman but the all time best, in my opinion, is Travolta as Vincent Vega with Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction.
Jul 21, 2011 2:37pm
Can anyone to this day hear Chuck Berry sing You Never Can Tell and not want to sweep their fingers across their eyes? Killer dance by Travolta and Thurman. Thanks for your comment!
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