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25 Iconic Dance Sequences In Film

by The Playlist Staff
December 3, 2010 6:05 AM
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Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" hits theaters today, and it's easily one of the very best films of the year, and seemingly a culmination of everything that the director's been working towards for years. It's also a rarity, in that it's a serious film about dance -- in this case ballet.

There've been plenty of dance movies in recent years, but mostly of the cheap-and-cheerful "Step Up" variety, which while they have their charms (it's hard to watch these films without being impressed by the dance sequences), but they're not exactly substantial, generally being badly acted, and thin on anything other than excuses for doing the soft shoe shuffle.

But "Black Swan" builds something more significant out of the art form, and between that, and the fact that the dance scenes are so exquisitely staged, performed and shot, we decided it was worth celebrating. So below, you'll find a list of our favorite dance sequences from films. They're not all highbrow, and they're not all from films revolving around music, but they're all memorable for one reason or another.

"The Red Shoes" (1948)
"Black Swan" cribs from a number of films (not in a bad way, mind you), but none are quite as influential as Powell & Pressburger's "The Red Shoes." Like Aronofsky's film, it tells the story of a dancer in the ballet of a classic story -- in this case, Hans Christian Andersen's titular fairy tale -- while simultaneously retelling that same story. The film's a classic as a whole, one of the pair's very finest films, but the key section is the ten minute "Ballet of the Red Shoes," which sees Moira Shearer's character dance up a storm in a ballet created especially for the film by composer Brian Easdale and choreographer Robert Helpmann. It's perhaps the greatest dance sequence ever shown on film -- the ballet itself is a feast, but as it runs on, the directors pull off every trick they had available, bursting through the proscenium arch to use POV shots, dissolves and special effects. As you'll see below, the scene so tremendous that it risks overshadowing the rest of the film.

"Pulp Fiction" (1994)
For a movie as singularly unforgettable as "Pulp Fiction," full of moments and characters and snippets of dialogue that still resonant or replay in your mind 16 years later, the most iconic moment might be the dance sequence. Thug Vincent Vega (John Travolta) has been tasked with squiring his boss' wife Mia (Uma Thurman) for a night on the town, which brings them to Jack Rabbit Slim's, a '50s themed restaurant that seems to have been constructed entirely inside director Quentin Tarantino's brain, filled with pop culture relics both noticeable and obscure. It's here that the two take part in a dance contest, moderated by an Ed Sullivan impersonator and set to the tune of Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell." It's here that the meta-textual bubble that is the Tarantino-verse threatens to burst: Travolta, surrounded by a physical reality constructed of pop culture debris, is sending up his own iconic movie star image as a dancer in such films as "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever" and in the process is creating something bold and new and totally refreshing. He even does dances that reference other moments in popular culture, like "The Batman." The moment is, for all its smarty pants wink-wink baggage, totally euphoric and rings completely true. Even if you're a gangster or a gun moll, sometimes all you've got to do is dance.

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More: Films, Feature, Black Swan

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  • Katie | February 2, 2011 6:32 AMReply

    The Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Barn Raising dance number has to be in this conversation. PERIOD. :)

  • Willem van der Plas | December 6, 2010 9:33 AMReply

    best boney m moment ever:
    From Shanghai Dreams

  • Larry Billman | December 5, 2010 12:30 AMReply

    A great - and very provocative- list. The minute you ask for "Iconic" or "Best," it all depends on the age and exposure to dance scenes in film. And what resonates with the viewer. Is it the stars, the characters and the arc they make, the emotion, the movement, the story? And, what is a "Dance?" Is it the over-30-minute-long waltz scene in "The Leopard?" The dizzying and emotionally powerful waltz in "Madame Bovary?" Or is it when Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze simply get into a dance position as he materializes in "Ghost?" How about the finest leg kicking, high-flying, girl tossing, plot developing dance ever in film: the "Barn Raising" in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?" Thanks for opening heads, as we all start thinking about our favorite dances. And THAT IS A GOOD THING. Too many forget what "dance" can do in film.

  • debra levine | December 4, 2010 11:11 AMReply

    Really appreciate this great effort, and the scope of it, but, come on guys, no Jack Cole? Without whom there would be no Bob Fosse? Jack Cole, the great forgotten genius of dance choreography for film?

    Obvious starting Point: "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" But there is so much more!

  • John Hickey | December 4, 2010 6:21 AMReply

    I think you made an error in leaving out David Lynch's "Do The Locomotion" scene in Inland Empire.

  • Eliza | December 4, 2010 6:20 AMReply

    Great list! I agree that there should probably be some Busby Berkeley in there somewhere, and I would add maybe A Clockwork Orange's "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Time Warp" from Rocky Horror. I'm sure I could think of a million more. I may have to go through my collection...

  • MikeD | December 4, 2010 2:40 AMReply

    Also the cafe muller scene (opening scene) from Talk to her (2002)

  • Mz | December 3, 2010 10:06 AMReply

    Dancer in the Dark? The factory AND the court scenes a beautifully depressing~

  • NickL | December 3, 2010 7:44 AMReply

    Where is the triumphant climactic dance scene from Napoleon Dynamite?

  • JoeB | December 3, 2010 6:55 AMReply

    Great stuff- though I was really hoping the great jukebox scene near the end of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" would make the list

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