And sometimes you just gotta watch dancing! I am frequently a fan of the convergence of dance and film. Sometimes the directing is terrible and you watch a dance scene in a movie and don’t really know what is happening in the dance. Frustrating. But on those occasions where dance and film come together so magically I really can’t contain my excitement and usually finish the movie by dancing to the credits.
Here are a few of my favorite dance numbers in film:
Cell Block Tango-Chicago (2002)
One thing that film can do for dance numbers is integrate dance with flashbacks/real time conversation. Given that this rendition of Chicago features Roxie and imaginative dance numbers, this works well. Cell Block Tango gets to me because it is about murder (morbid much?) and the dancing is incredible!!!! Each “merry murderess” is given a number unique to her circumstance, but each number still maintains a motif of black, red, and percussive movement. The exception being the innocent “murderess,” of course. And Catherine Zeta-Jones just kills it. (Laugh if you get the pun.)
Choreography-White Christmas (1954)
What can I say about “Choreography?” Well, it features Danny Kaye. Good. It somehow manages to make fun of modern dance, while simultaneously making it main stream in a way (ish). And then there is that toe. You know, the one where Vera Ellen taps ridiculously fast and whenever I watch it I wonder if it’s fake but I actually do think it’s real? It’s just an all around good number. Possibly my favorite part about White Christmas.
I Want You/She’s So Heavy-Across the Universe (2007)
This is a great example of film doing something for a number that couldn’t otherwise be done (not that film can replace stage productions, but you know what I mean). The editing, camera angles, and computer animation add something that makes the number reflect how scared the character is, besides presenting that he might just be a commodity instead of a person. And I love (LOVE) the inclusion of the “generals” manipulating the “soldiers.” It fits the theme and is such an interesting method of performance.
Never Gonna Dance-Swing Time (1936)
What would a list of dance in movies be without an inclusion of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? I love this dance in particular because it is a perfect example of dance as a conversation. “Please, Ginger. Forgive my idiocies and stay with me. But if you can’t, please just dance with me.” Love. And Ginger Rogers’ dress! Golly gee, it’s fantastic! I remember reading that during the filming of this scene Ginger Rogers bled through her shoes but didn’t say anything about it or complain. I’ve bled through my dance shoes before and let me tell you, IT. HURTS. She is one devoted dancer, and I just can’t get enough of this number. This is also a good example of great editing. I think older movies are especially good at capturing the actual dance and letting it speak for the emotion and story. Many modern dance numbers in film have too much cutting to faces and bystanders so you miss out on a lot of the actual dancing.
White Nights-Koni (1985)
This number might speak for itself. Helen Mirren crying? Yeah, that’s me. And Mikhail Baryshnikov? To quote my high school creative writing teacher, “I have joined the ‘Wow’ club.”
Make ‘Em Laugh-Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Ah, Singin’ in the Rain. What gets better? Not much. It’s hard to choose just one number from Singin’ in the Rain but I landed on this one because it delivers exactly what it says it will: It makes me laugh! And the acrobatics are unspeakably amazing. It is slap-stick comedy, it is song and dance. Donald O’Connor delivers humor in every movement of his body, including his face! How? How does he do it?
Silver Linings Playbook-Competition Scene (2012)
This number shows that a lot of the time (most of the time? All of the time?) dance isn’t about being the best or winning. It’s about dancing. You dance because you need to. You dance because it gives you something great. You dance because it’s FUN! Even if you mess up on that lift, if you’re having fun you did it perfectly! And if you watch the movie you know that they are ecstatic about a score of 5.0. Nice.
Ballet-An American in Paris (1951)
An American in Paris. Gene Kelly. Perfection. Near the end of the film is a ballet about 20 minutes long. The entire thing is choreographed by Gene Kelly and I could watch it on repeat for hours. I’m no film or dance historian, but I feel like Gene Kelly may have had something in him that was beyond what the world could handle. His movies contain dance numbers that in some ways seem out of place, but were amazing and fantastic and wonderful and seem to me a step ahead of what else was going on at the time. As the scene is 20 minutes long, the clip below is one of my favorite parts from the overall ballet. There is just something magical about stepping into a painting or drawing and dancing it. In high school I was sometimes late because I watched this part over and over and over again before class. And yes. I used it for inspiration for a piece I contributed to as a senior. You probably couldn’t tell by watching me, but this dance is in there somewhere.
Jai Ho-Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Slumdog Millionaire is quite the movie. It hurts. It calms. It questions. I love it. It is really quite a serious film. But at the end of it all, during the end credits, there is a dance number featuring the cast to a song that it is happy and uplifting. And it’s just lovely. And those two kids in the background! So adorable!
Prologue-West Side Story (1961)
Well, of course West Side Story is on this list. A gang fight as a dance scene? Yes, please.
Dancing-Billy Elliot (2000)
Just a warning, there is brief, strong language at the beginning of this clip. But the dance is stupendous! This is an example of film and dance at its best. The camera zooms in on his feet. The camera zooms out to see him put his sweater over his head. The camera allows the viewer to see him dance in an enclosed space. And I just love it when dancers use objects/walls/etc. as part of their movement. This movie is a classic in my dance movie world.
And for good measure, here’s another clip from Billy Elliot. Take that! I will dance instead of box if I want to!
So, can we just dance now?
Edit: January 2017 I added the below dance numbers.
Funny Face (1957)
This is probably my favorite dance number in a film.
Broadway Melody-Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse are monumental.