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25 Iconic Dance Sequences In Film

by The Playlist Staff
December 3, 2010 6:05 AM
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“Top Hat” (1935)
We’re gonna cheat this entry a bit, to stand in for all of Fred ’n’ Ginger’s filmic oeuvre, to which we could (and should, IMHO) probably dedicate an entire list of its own. And why this particular film and not, say, 1937’s “Shall We Dance” (which features a great rollerskating scene) or the 1936 double-bill of “Follow The Fleet” (notable for Rogers’ awe-inspiring sailor bell-bottoms) or “Swing Time” (Ginger’s personal favorite) to name just a few? Well, “Top Hat,” aside from being the duo’s most successful film, is perhaps the perfect distillation of their charm and chemistry, liberally peppered with some of the most hummable of Irving Berlin’s tunes. Of the bigger numbers “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” is Astaire’s solo outing, and if you’re slightly unconvinced of the star quality of this gnomish man, the second he does that pretend assassination thing with his cane, you’re hooked. “Cheek to Cheek” and “Isn’t This a Lovely Day ...” are two-handers (and was ever a woman better at the difficult task of being sung-at than Ginger Rogers?), numbers that never outstay their welcome and never lose their frothy, fizzy-lifting-drink joyousness. This is not dance as social commentary or even personal expression: it is dance as visual confection by two past masters who make it look as easy as falling off a log and a lot more graceful. And yes, every time you see them together Rogers does prove the truth of the Ginger Rogers feminist paradox - that while she never got as famous as Astaire, she can clearly do everything he can, backwards, and in heels.

"Chicago" (2002)
Rob Marshall's Oscar-winning adaptation of the Kander & Ebb musical remains divisive to this day, but this writer firmly believes that it's aged well in the last decade or so. It's arguably overly indebted to the theater version, but Rob Marshall's stage bound take to the musical numbers works infinitely better here than in last year's "Nine," and some of the sequences really crackle, none more so than "Cell Block Tango." Performed by Catherine Zeta Jones, along with Susan Misner, Denise Faye, Deidre Goodwin, Ekaterina Chtchelkanova and pop star Mya, it has an oddly rhythmic nature to it that works terrifically on film, and the sexually charged, murderous dances at the heart of it are probably the best expression of the film's fantasy conceit (even if the use of red handkerchiefs are a bit drama school). Considering Marshall's background as a choreographer, it's not surprising that the dancers are unbelievable, but he shoots the hell out of the scene as well, messing around with shutter speeds in a way that's over-done in action sequences, but works like gangbusters here.

“The Fisher King” (1991)
Mad genius Terry Gilliam has always been more about satire than sighs, but his (inevitably) quirky dramedy “The Fisher King” has a few moments that will make even cynics swoon. Robin Williams is damaged, homeless hero Parry (as in “Parsifal” the knight of the grail legend, the inspiration for the film), who has a broken heart and an equally fractured mind. However, he thinks he’s found his soul mate in painfully shy Lydia (Amanda Plummer), and he waits for her in the middle of rush hour at New York City’s Grand Central. When he catches sight of her, Parry follows Lydia, only to have things slow down as commuters (and a group of nuns) break into a spontaneous waltz through the glittering lights of the main hall. The mass dance is only Parry’s dream--and it only lasts for a few minutes--but it’s as much an ode to the transformative power of love as it is to the city itself.

"Oasis" (2002)
In Lee Chang-dong's Korean masterpiece, a man shy of a few bricks (Sol Kyung-gu) and a woman with cerebral palsy (Moon So-ri) share an unlikely (and beautiful) romance, finding a comfort with each other that their families have failed to provide. So what is a perfect couple in a movie without their own dance scene? In one of the few times Moon breaks character and physically illustrates her liberating happiness, the pair create their own oasis and bust a move in her empty apartment. Joining them are an elephant, an Indian woman with confetti, and a young boy in a white turban and shorts… not to mention teary eyes and sniffly noses for one of the most affecting scenes committed to celluloid. Be warned, the clip below does include the scene near the end, but is otherwise a selection of scenes from the film edited to "True Colors" by Phil Collins, and should therefore probably be watched with the sound down.

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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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