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25 Iconic Dance Sequences In Film

by The Playlist Staff
December 3, 2010 6:05 AM
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"An American In Paris" (1951)
How do you finish "An American In Paris?" You've just enjoyed 2 solid hours of what many describe as a perfect film, with Gene Kelly charm, Gershwin classics like "I've Got Rhythm," the coquettish gamine Leslie Caron in her big screen debut, and enough song and dance to fill two musicals. What more can be done? If you're Vincente Minnelli, you swing for the fences with a 16-minute, $500,000 (an outlandish sum in those days) psychedelically trippy ballet sequence, and bill the thing as "The Greatest Dance Entertainment Projected on The Screen" in the trailer. Which is probably true. Minnelli let choreographer Kelly unleash every tool in his arsenal and the result is something way ahead of it’s time, and a fine example of Kelly’s contemporary style melded with traditional ballet (Caron’s milieu). Caron and Kelly have riveting chemistry, and these expressive technicians are allowed to play throughout multicolored ever-changing sets and multiple costume changes. It’s really a short film unto itself. Kelly choreographed the entire picture, and earned his only Oscar that year, an honorary one for his versatility as an actor, singer, dancer and achievements in choreography. And it paid off for Minnelli with his own little gold man for Best Picture. It goes without saying that this is a must-see. (Trailer below, unfortunately finding the real thing on Youtube has proven to be difficult.)

“Before Sunset” (2004)
This writer has heard arguments that Richard Linklater’s follow up to “Before Sunrise” is a perfect film, and it’s hard to deny that when you look at the final ten minutes, as Julie Delpy brings Ethan Hawke to her apartment, serenades him with her beautiful “A Waltz For a Night” and then proceeds to become somehow even more adorable as she mimics Nina Simone while “Just in Time” plays on her stereo. “Hey baby, you’re gonna miss that plane,” Delpy says. Were right there with Hawke as he replies, in the only way a sensible human being with blood pumping through their veins would, “I know.” Goddamn, that’s a perfect ending, at least.

"Cabaret" (1972)
The opening number from "Cabaret", "Wilkommen" quite literally welcomes you into the world we will be inhabiting for the duration of the film. Dark, tattered, tacky opulence is the name of the game in "Cabaret," and look no further than the languid, zombie-like Kit Kat girls bedecked in sparkly tap pants and frowns, shuffling sexily around the the preening, lipsticked EmCee welcoming you to the show. Bob Fosse won the Best Director Oscar for this film in 1972 and his skill of combining movement, style and story is in top form. He takes traditional jazz dance movement and skews it-- making it crooked, turned in, drooping, yet also perfectly placed, and in "Cabaret," he achieves a lazy raunchiness that is the perfect backdrop and metaphor for this dark story. "Mein Herr" is the more distilled, refined version of this aesthetic, and Liza Minnelli is fantastic in it, but "Wilkommen" builds the stage on which the rest of the numbers shine. (No embed unfortunately, but you can watch it here)

"Sweet Charity" (1969)
Bob Fosse's 1969 film adaptation of "Sweet Charity" starring Shirley MacLaine showcases his inimitable skill at weaving story and movement into one inextricable piece. "Big Spender" introduces the dance hall hostesses in a number that strips down their everyday blowsy come-hither propositions to their essence and builds them back up into an intricate and exquisite dance number. The perfectly timed and placed gestures in Fosse's signature floppy yet posed staccato jazz are interspersed with limb-flailing, hair-whipping swinging 60s dance. Fosse's greatest strength is his restraint, and in "Big Spender," the smallest twirl of a hand draws the audience's focus like a laser beam. The piece climaxes in a whirl of teased hair and flying limbs, and as the women command "fun, laughs, good time," you start to wonder who really has the upper hand in this situation.

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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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