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25 Iconic Dance Sequences In Film

by The Playlist Staff
December 3, 2010 6:05 AM
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“Rad” (1986)
Words cannot express the joy we get from seeing BMX bikes jumping in slow motion in a gymnasium as Jesse Katsopolis’s lady friend glides across the screen, all set to the sweet, sweet sounds of “Send Me an Angel” by Real Life. It’s possibly one of those embarrassing films from your youth, something you thought was awesome as a kid, but if you saw now you’d wonder if you had a learning disability growing up. And how about those drunken old men, just hanging out at the dance hoping to find the next BMX star? This kind of scene could only come from ‘80s.

"Southland Tales" (2006)
In Richard Kelly's kaleidoscopic sci-fi mélange "Southland Tales," anything should be possible. This is a movie, after all, set in a post-apocalyptic (but not-too-distant) future, whose central plot involves time travel, dimension-hopping, and a perpetual motion machine just offshore California. The cast alone reads like someone was throwing darts at a board marked with the most bizarre collection of character actors ever assembled - where else would Dwayne Johnson perform alongside Jon Lovitz, Christopher Lambert, Mandy Moore, Wallace Shawn, and the dwarfish woman from "Poltergeist?" Still, when the "plot" of the movie slips away for the moment to reveal a dance sequence, led by Justin Timberlake's drug addicted Iraqi vet Pilot Abilene, you're stick shocked. It might be the movie's most transcendent moment. Or its most bizarre. Or both. In the sequence, Abilene, who acts as the film's de-facto narrator, takes Liquid Karma, a kind of slushy offshoot of the aforementioned perpetual motion machine. It causes him to enter into a psychedelic trance, translated here as a mini-dance sequence set to The Killers' "All the Things That I've Done." The dancing isn't all that great, although there are a lot of cute girls in nurse outfits (for some reason) and Timberlake does a nifty little sway with his body that betrays the charismatic stage presence underneath, but the sequence perfectly sums up the movie's merrily overarching WTF-ness, even if it's not as totally baffling as the scene in which two cars start fucking.

"The Blues Brothers" (1980)
Yes, it’s way too long and its reach exceeds its grasp just as often as it doesn’t, but the “Blues Brothers” remains one of the rock ‘n roll road movie benchmarks, although the film nearly peaks before it’s halfway through. The story follows Jake and Elwood, two misfits “on a mission from God” to save the Catholic orphanage where they grew up. So where better to get your bearings before you begin your mission than with a stop at a church presided over by Reverend Cleophus James (James Brown)? The brothers walk into a rousing, Southern style service that takes the standard effusive vocal call and response proceedings and jacks it up into a full on singing, dancing rave up. James Brown shimmies behind the pulpit, sweat flying, while parishioners break more moves in front of pews on a Sunday morning that at a club on Saturday night. But that’s not all. Divine revelation is just around the corner, and though Elwood nearly misses it (“What light?”), never have two words (“The band!”) carried so much meaning.

"The 40 Year Old Virgin" (2005)
We have to admit, we really didn’t like it the first time around, but it took another viewing (or two) for it click and realize that Judd Apatow’s decision to close “The 40 Year Old Virgin” with a song and dance number set to The 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” was kind of genius. Because what better way to capture the post-coital relief/happiness/satisfaction of losing your cherry than with the hippie anthem that more or less defined the free lovin’ 1960s. It’s great fun to watch the cast dance and sing -- and we use both of those terms very loosely -- as they romp across a grassy hillside. Also, extra points to Romany Malco for sexing up his verse and props to Paul Rudd for bravely attempting (with hilarious consequences) to scat. Nope, it’s not perfectly choreographed (it looks like they made most of it up on the day of shooting) and the singing can be charitably described as “unique,” but it's a fun way to come down from a film that worked so hard for two hours to keep your funny bone up.

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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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