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25 Iconic Dance Sequences In Film

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by The Playlist Staff
December 3, 2010 6:05 AM
10 Comments
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"Simple Men" (1992)
Take it from an erstwhile Hal Hartley acolyte, not all of his offbeat, deadpan films have aged well. But one that has retained its sense of resonance in the midst of all the stylized quirk is 1992's "Simple Men," arguably his best film (and featuring his regular troupe of actors, Robert John Burke, Elina Löwensohn, Bill Sage, Martin Donovan,) and one containing the the nee plus ultra of out-of-nowhere ‘90s dance sequences (in fact, it utilizes some of the same dance steps, though, yeah, there's not a lot of competition of this title unfortunately). It’s also very much a spiritual sequel or direct kin of Jean-Luc Godard’s aforementioned dance sequence and the indie filmmaker was arguably channeling the spirit of Godard often and interpolating similar ideas in a new context (see this person who’s also made the connection in video form) “I can’t stand the quiet!” Donovan’s character rages and the cadre of misfits who convene in a local town suddenly break the 4th Wall and inexplicably burst into a choreographed dance set to Sonic Youth's "Kool Thing," and then quickly go back to the movie about two estranged brothers who become stranded in backwards nowhere while looking for their escaped anarchist father once the song fades away. Arguably it's an moment expressing the collective frustration the characters feel -- like many ‘90s Hartley films, the characters grapple with alienation and existential disaffection -- and or maybe it's just one of the stylistic tics Hartley loved throwing in his films. A laymen might be puzzled, but devotees grinned ear to ear at the time - so, so, so Hartley-esque. It's all fodder for another day, but if Whit Stillman is considered a forefather to Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, perhaps Hartley will one day get his due as another influential predecessor.

"Dirty Dancing" (1987)
So we can all just agree that the end of "Dirty Dancing" is the greatest end to a movie ever right? Is there anything more satisfying than watching Johnny remove Baby from the corner, take her onstage for a shining moment of mambo, they nail the lift, and everyone joins in for a group dance, even lovable curmudgeon Jerry Orbach? Rhetorical question, nope, there is nothing more satisfying. So yes, we love "Time of My Life" and it makes us happy every time we watch it. But let us not forget the cute "Hey Lover Boy,", which is a perfect example of adding a little dance to a scene and making it sexy, funny and flirtatious. The training montage to "Hungry Eyes," and the mambo scene where Johnny teaches Baby how to dirty dance for the first time are also fun, but come on, we watch this movie over and over for "Time of My Life." Just search YouTube to see how many people have attempted this at their own weddings.

"Footloose" (1984)
Dance movies that are NOT musicals sometimes ask the viewer to suspend a lot of disbelief in the process-- of course there's a choreographed routine at the prom, a la "She's All That," (true confessions time: this writer actually did do this). "Footloose" is no exception to this phenomenon. Yes, when the ban on dancing is finally lifted in this little podunk Midwestern town, there are somehow kids busting the Bronx's best breakdancing moves -- just go with it, ok? On the more realistic end of things, we are partial to the sweet "Let's Hear it For the Boy," where Kevin Bacon teaches Chris Penn (Sean's dearly departed bro) how to actually dance. Of course, he busts out some overly advanced tricks for a kid who just learned how to snap, but we suggest swiping some of Penn's random-er dance moves for your next wedding reception. However, if we HAD to choose one (this was a real Sophie's Choice; we wish this entire feature was about "Footloose," we haven't even mentioned Sarah Jessica Parker yet!) we'd have to say the more iconic number is also the most outlandish-- Bacon's Olympic-worthy gymnastics (there is a high bar portion) angry dance in the barn to "Never" by Moving Pictures. Ever felt so frustrated and stifled there's nothing left to do but dance it out? "Never" is the epitome of that feeling and Bacon's sweaty, acid-washed intensity (coupled with the athleticism of his dance double) just makes it all work. We buy it.

"Flashdance" (1983)
We'll include “Flashdance” even though Jennifer Beals barely did any dancing other than shimmying that mop of hair around (the heavy lifting was done by a dance double). Fun fact: “Flashdance” was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and the dance numbers are executed like bombastic action sequences. The famous water bucket scene in the strip club is all back-lighting and flying water droplets; the climactic “What a Feeling” is a gold standard of the finest '80s choreography has to offer (see also, “Cats,” “Stayin’ Alive”), but the "She's a Maniac" rehearsal number, which configures Alex’s body as a sinewy finely-tuned machine, is really the one that has left the most indelible impression on pop culture. Much like “Footloose,” this is the dancer all alone, just dancing for the sake of sanity, the filmmaker using the dance to illustrate this aspect of the character. Turns out David Cronenberg and Brian DePalma both turned down the director's chair before Adrian Lyne stepped up to the plate and it would be fascinating to see what those other two guys might have turned out with the story of a girl with big dreams working as a welder by day and an exotic dancer by night. It's still one of the most iconic '80s dance films, was a huge box office smash, AND it also introduced the world to break dancing with a short cameo by the Rock Steady Crew.

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10 Comments

  • 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
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUKxDVilH8M

  • 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!

    http://artsmeme.com/2010/11/10/jack-cole-marilyn-reunited-jacobs-pillow/

  • 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.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djh1UprzoLk

  • 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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