Dance is a live, three-dimensional art, whereas film is an art of prerecorded footage compiled and projected onto the silver screen. What both dance and film have in common, though, is a dependence on the continuity of fluid motion—dance is the art of moving bodies, film is the art of moving pictures.
Since the earliest days of film, cameras have often served to capture some of the fleeting moments of dance. Because dance is about transitions and the spaces in between, film makes a much more complete preservation of dance than do other arts such as drawing or photography.
From ballet to swing to jazz, from documentary to drama to horror, dance in the cinema is becoming as widespread as Beatles’ covers.
Sure dance movies have their downsides—often the characters and plot are two-dimensional. But if you can overlook their weaker elements and focus on the dance sequences, dance films offer much to enjoy.
After success of last year’s Black Swan, surely even more leaping and whirling dance movies are soon to come. In the meantime, reacquaint yourself with some of my favorites over the past 75 years.
Director: Adrian Lyne
Writer: Tom Hedley and Joe Ezterhas
Dancer: Jennifer Beals
Flashdance does not have the most original or believable story—a young woman working as a welder in Pittsburgh dreams of attending the fictional Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance—but Jennifer Beals is natural and likable. Her whizzing jazz pirouettes and punchy leaps are the film’s most genuine moments.
Director: Rob Marshall
Writer: Bob Fosse, Maurine Dallas Watkins, Fred Ebb and Bill Condon
Dancers: Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones
As a musical, though better known for its songs, Chicago by definition is at least 30 percent dance. Actresses Zellweger and Zeta-Jones put on their dancing heels for a few showy numbers, but the highlight is the varied Cell-Block Tango, which features six female murderesses telling their stories through stylized pas de deuxs.
Director: Carlos Saura
Writer: Carlos Saura
Dancers: La Paquera de Jerez, Merche Esmeralda, Manolo Sanlúcar, Joaquín Cortés, Manuel Moneo
Saura’s art-documentary on Spanish flamenco weaves together colorful sound-stage vignettes of the nation’s most famous art form. The dancers, from children to their grandparents, make it great. They are true flamencos and flamenco students, not famous actors pretending.
17. Center Stage-2000
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Writer: Carol Heikkinen
Dancers: Amada Schull, Zoë Saldana, Susan May Pratt, Ethan Stiefel, Peter Gallagher and Sascha Radetsky
One of the most stereotypical dance movies in existence, Center Stage redeems itself through its casting of American Ballet Theatre standouts Ethan Stiefel and Sascha Radetsky. The final rock ballet reeks of cheese, but Radetsky and Stiefel, and even the actress Zoë Saldana, project a grace and balletic charisma rarely seen outside the world’s legendary opera houses.
Director: Bertrand Norman
Writer: Bertrand Norman
Dancers: Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova, Ulyana Lopatka, Alina Somova and Evgenia Obraztsova
The elegant French documentary Ballerina highlights five contemporary Russian prima ballerinas, and the only English is in its subtitles. Ballet fans will adore the exclusive rehearsal footage and dancer interviews, but others may crave more drama than the non-fiction narrative is able to provide.
15. West Side Story-1961
Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Dancers: Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer, George Chakiris, Francesca Bellini and Elaine Joyce
Based on Robbins’ musical, the film West Side Story won ten Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and an additional Oscar for Brilliant Achievements in the Art of Choreography on Film (despite that choreographer Robbins left the project early due to artistic differences). The winningest film-musical to date, West Side Story contains a fantastic combination of Latin and street moves as battling gangs dance through the alleyways of New York.
Director: Alan Parker
Writer: Christopher Gore
Dancers: Irene Cara, Gene Anthony Ray, Laura Dean and Antonia Francesschi
The winner of Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Song, Fame is set in a New York performing arts high school, and students frequently break into full-out song and dance anywhere from the school’s cafeteria to the city’s street corners. Dance is only one of various arts in the film, but the students’ passion is so hopeful and spontaneous other dance school movies are often considered lesser versions of a theme Fame hits spot-on.
13. Mao’s Last Dancer-2009
Director: Bruce Beresford
Writer: Jan Sardi (based on the book by Li Cunxin)
Dancers: Chi Cao, Amanda Schull and Camilla Vergotis
Featuring Amanda Schull of Center Stage fame, in a similar roll as a would-be ballerina who lacks the necessary technique, Mao’s Last Dancer was the highest grossing Australian film of 2009. Unlike many dance movies, which downplay their connection to the true stories that inspired their plots, Mao’s Last Dancer keeps the same title as Li Cunxin’s autobiography (on which it is based) and is set around the real Houston Ballet company, referred to by its actual name, not an alias.
12. Ballets Russes-2005
Director: Dayna Goldfine and Dan Gellet
Writer: Dan Geller, Dayna Goldfine, Celeste Schaefer Snyder and Gary Weimberg
Dancers: Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska, George Zoritch, Alicia Markova and Yvonne Chouteau
Ballets Russes, a 2005 documentary about a company nearly a century old, was an official selection of the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. Footage is old and grainy, but the retired dancers’ reminisces are magic. Where else can you view the historic productions that introduced ballet, and thereby the art of dance, to much of Western Europe and the world?
Director: Wim Winders
Writer: Wim Winders
Dancers: Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers
Nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Pina is a 3-D German language film about the work of Tanztheater choreographer Pina Bausch, who died suddenly while the film was in production. Fortunately the film’s dancers convinced the director (Winders) to complete the project. The film is an integrative tribute to Bausch’s humanistic movement vocabulary, featuring sections of her choreography amidst landscapes and cityscapes at once surprising and familiar.
10. Singin’ in the Rain-1952
Director: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Writer: Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Dancers: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Jean Hagen
Gene Kelly (together with Fred Astaire) did much to make the art of dance more acceptable for males. Singin’ in the Rain, exceptionally well received both critically and commercially, showcases a charming Kelly happily tap-dancing and splish-splashing through growing puddles.
9. All That Jazz-1979
Director: Bob Fosse
Writer: Robert Alan Aurthur and Bob Fosse
Dancers: Ann Reinking, Erzsébet Földi, Sandahl Bergman, Eileen Casey, Bruce Anthony Davis and Gary Flannery
Modeled after the life of choreographer Bob Fosse and casting dancer Ann Reinking in the role she inspired, All That Jazz won several Academy Awards including Best Original Score, and if the Academy gave an award for Best Dancing, it would have won that 1979 award too. The humor is dark, and sometimes references to Fosse’s life become overly complex, but the dance sequences, ranging from audition to rehearsal to casual to fantasy, are brilliant.
8. Happy Feet-2006
Director: George Miller, Warren Coleman and Judy Morris
Writer: Warren Coleman, John Collee, George Miller and Judy Morris
Dancer: Savion Glover (as Mumble)
An animated family feature about arctic birds may not seem the most logical choice for a list of dance movies, but because the American-Australian musical Happy Feet revolves around a tap-dancing penguin, a great number of dancers played essential roles in the film. Dancers, led by tapping legend Savion Glover, trained in penguin movement, and then motion capture technology translated their steps into the digitized wonder-world.
7. White Nights-1985
Director: Taylor Hackford
Writer: James Goldman and Eric Hughes
Dancers: Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines
In White Nights dance superstars Mikhail Baryshnikov (a ballet dancer) and Gregory Hines (a tap-dancer) join forces, after overcoming their differences, to escape the Soviet Union. Their duets and dance rivalries are unparalleled. Both, despite their age, give some of the best shows of their careers.
6. Top Hat-1935
Director: Mark Sandrich
Writer: Allan Scott and Dwight Taylor
Dancers: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
The screwball musical comedy Top Hat is only one of many worthy partnerships between the American icons Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Their sweeping waltzes and skipping duets expand beyond the grand ballrooms and off the screen. Despite the eighty years that have since elapsed, they remain the greatest American dance pair of all time.
5. The Turning Point-1977
Director: Herbert Ross
Writer: Arthur Laurents
Dancers: Leslie Browne and Mikhail Baryshnikov
The Turning Point, Baryshnikov’s silver screen debut, was nominated for 11 Oscars but did not win one. Still, American Ballet Theatre dancers Browne and Baryshnikov made a fine transition to the cinematic stage, and Shirley MacLaine is strong in her role as a former ballerina who regrets giving up the dancer’s life to have a family.
4. Black Swan-2010
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin
Dancers: Sarah Lane (for Natalie Portman), Maria Riccetto (for Mila Kunis) and Benjamin Millepied (also choreographer)
Former New York City Ballet principal dancer Benjamin Millepied, also a mentee of Jerome Robbins, choreographed 2011’s much-discussed movie Black Swan, in which American Ballet Theatre dancers served as dance doubles for the principal actresses. Because Black Swan exaggerates every bad cliché in ballet, the film is either love-it or hate-it. Still, its creative Swan Lake fantasy, which projected ballet into the limelight for mainstream audiences, helps keep the art of dance alive and relevant.
3. Dirty Dancing-1987 (and mention Dirty Dancing Havana Nights)
Director: Emile Ardolino
Writer: Eleanor Bergstein
Dancers: Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey and Cynthia Rhodes
The popular and light film Dirty Dancing is not loved for its moving content, but simply because something about Baby’s journey, from a timid dreamer to a young woman who has come into her own both as a person and on the dance floor, is relatable and makes you feel good. Full of oft-quoted lines (“Nobody puts Baby in the corner!”) and romantic levity, the Sixties country club in New York’s Catskills turns out to be the perfect place to get your groove on.
2. Billy Elliot-2000
Director: Stephen Daldry
Writer: Lee Hall
Dancers: Jamie Bell and Julie Walters
Dancers at heart will connect with the British film about a young working-class boy who discovers his passion for dance. Class, gender, economic, sexual and familial issues intertwine as Billy and his family come to terms with the reality of his dream to attend the Royal Ballet School at the same time as his father and brother are involved in the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. Billy Elliot has now been converted to a successful musical on Broadway and the West End.
1. The Red Shoes-1948
Director: Michael Power and Emeric Pressburger
Writer: Michael Power and Emeric Pressburger (based on the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen)
Dancers: Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine and Ludmilla Tchérina
Built around the story within a story device, The Red Shoes is the quintessential dance film—a young dancer (Shearer) joins a ballet company and is busy with the production of a new ballet, The Red Shoes, based on Andersen’s dark fairytale. With appearances by standout dancers of the Ballets Russes (Massine and Tchérina) and the interweaving of dance and life, The Red Shoes has a classic and almost eerie magic that will keep it a favorite for decades to come.
Feel like dancing yet? Or maybe you fancy throwing a bit of dance into your next film project? Go ahead—dance, even when translated into film, is a universal language that tells seamless visual stories of the human experience.
I just went through your article and the clips...wow bless you so so so much. Well summarised and written, I love dancing and also undertook a screen writing course at Raindance, hence my interest in your article of dance on film.
From the classics of The red shoes, dirty dancing, fame, west side story etc to the art-house documentaries - Pina, Flamenco et al I truly loved going through your article. I wait earnestly to seeing the next generation of dance on film, where the passion and freedom of dance marries with directors; bearing a cinematographic mindset which will transport audiences to the next level of visual intimacy. Well done for all your acheivements Karlanna and good luck for the future.
Thank you so much for your kind, thoughtful words. This article was great fun for me to write and it's wonderful to know your appreciation. A question for you--are there any dance films I missed that you would have included? I hope to see you at a Raindance event sometime soon!
Surprised that Nine wasn't on the list.
Penelope Cruz in lingere doing a rope dance with Daniel Day Lewis watching.
Thanks for your feedback--I'm not so familiar with that scene so it slipped by me...of course, with any list the limited slots means something often gets missed. I'm off to acquaint myself with Penelope Cruz's rope dance now!
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Karlanna Lewis, whose dreams include becoming a bird, completed her honors B.A. in Russian and Creative Writing at Florida State University in spring 2011, with an honors thesis in poetry and minor in computer science.
At Florida State Ms. Lewis was selected as an Outstanding Senior Scholar. As a graduate student at Florida State Ms. Lewis was a 2011-12 Rhodes Scholar Finalist.
She has also presented a research project on Russian literature and dance at various conferences. Ms. Lewis is a published writer and galleried artist, and in August 2011 she published her first book, Cante de Gitanas con Nombres de Luz / Songs of the Gypsies with Names of Light.
A native of Tallahassee, Florida, Ms. Lewis is a principal dancer for the Pas de Vie Ballet and has led an honors service project teaching dance to local schoolchildren. Ms. Lewis has worked multiple jobs as a cashier, teacher, and journalist her entire collegiate career and volunteered as a DJ and the continuity director for the V89 radio station.
Now as an intern at Raindance Film Festival in London, Ms. Lewis is writing articles about film, assisting with Web building projects and translating the Web site into Russian. When she leaves Raindance at the end of April she will spend a month in France as a writer-in-residence at Camac Art Centre.
In the future she plans to pursue her M.F.A. in creative writing and to eventually become a university professor. Serving as an art director for a production team is her ideal film job. Passionate about the arts and the environment, in 2011 she founded the non-profit Dancearth, an arts for social change initiative celebrating movement and the earth in which we move.
Check out her website: karlannalewis.com
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