At the age of nine, I went with my mother to see Footloose in the theater. It made me giddy with a feeling of rebellion—and not just because the plot of Footloose poses rock music and dancing against buttoned-up small-town evangelicalism. I thought being in the audience itself enacted rebellion, one vividly symbolized for me by the boy three rows up sporting an “MTV” t-shirt. To state the obvious, it was in fact decidedly unrevolutionary to go, at the age of nine, to see a Hollywood movie with my mom. But there was still something magical about the viewing of that film, in that theater, with that audience, that I still think about. So, excited as I am for another season of So You Think You Can Dance, I want to talk about what the dance movie allows us to imagine.
I make no claims that dance movies are the hidden avant garde of contemporary cinema. In fact, their plots are some of the most generic and predictable ones outside of action films. The ballerina with the bad feet but the heart of a star. The dancer who, because of personal trauma, quits but must learn to embrace dance again. The trained ballerina who longs to incorporate street dance into the world of traditional ballet. The nondancer who learns how to truly live through dance. The demands of professionalization on the body. But who goes to a dance movie for originality? The plot is almost less important than the familiar plot elements: you know this movie will contain dance classes, rehearsal montages, some mid-plot tragedy, and that it will all end well for the characters (except for uptight, rich snobs, who are usually the genre’s villains of choice). Topping all of that, it will finish with a stirring dance sequence that will make you shed embarrassed tears. Original expression is not necessarily the goal of a dance movie, as it isn’t necessarily the goal of most dance. Or let me put it differently: as with dance itself, dance movies achieve fresh insights via discipline and form. Dance is a sonnet, often best expressed by a formulaic movie.
That’s why if we’re talking formulas, I’ll offer that the most important rule for finding a fulfilling dance movie is that real, trained dancers have to dance in it. This isn’t always obvious to Hollywood producers bent on casting Natalie Portman or Julia Stiles in a lead role, but when the camera must film around a body double who is likewise moving, the form of the dance itself is broken. What you can’t produce without dancers, especially in lead roles, is a long, sweeping dance number like “Good Morning” in Singin’ in the Rain. Go back and watch that scene: four minutes of dancing with only eight cuts. As Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds run to a coat rack for props or upend a couch, they represent joyful spontaneity with a precision only possible with exacting technique.
Yet unlike in a musical, where everyone simply has the singing and dancing talents demanded by the plot, showing how they got there is the heart of the dance movie. When in Center Stage—an example par excellence of a generic dance movie—Peter Gallagher chides a dancer with “you make it look like work. I need to see the movement, not the effort behind it,” the movie tips nearly into self-conscious meta-commentary. If the line wasn’t delivered by Gallagher, you’d almost believe they meant to be this meta. After all, the genre of the dance movie is precisely about showing you the effort behind the movement. Montage, the editing technique that bends and conflates temporal sequence, is used in nearly every dance movie to compel a viewer into the work of creating form out of movement. Montage sequences of training and rehearsal economically convey the time and labor of a dancer. Robert Altman’s masterful The Company is, in retrospect, an ode to the dance movie montage elevated to the level of plot. Class, rehearsal, performance, class, rehearsal, performance. You almost forget, in retrospect, that James Franco shows up at some point to date Neve Campbell.
In his adaptation of the genre, Altman was also aware of something else about the dance movie that is so apparent that it almost escapes direct commentary: how film may well be the best medium for appreciating dance. Perhaps this is why the best dance movie ever made remains Herbert Ross’s 1977 The Turning Point. The acting is left to the incomparable Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, and the dancing to Leslie Browne and Mikhail Baryshnikov. I can go on and on about the barre montages, the punches thrown by MacLaine and Bancroft outside of the Met, the final performance of Don Quixote that I used to imitate in my room as a kid. (And this is not to mention the plot of the movie, about middle-aged women and the choices they made between a career or family – the type of movie Hollywood studiously avoids these days).
Most importantly, what The Turning Point articulates so well is what it is we watch when we watch dance. As the gala performance starts, we hear Anne Bancroft’s voice intone, “Even now there are moments when it all comes together … the dancing … the music … the lights” as we watch MacLaine’s face watch the dancing. The rapture with which she participates mirrors our own investment in the movements on the screen. Even though the scene is ostensibly about a live performance, it actually calls attention to what the camera can do: it gets close enough to show Leslie Browne’s coy expression as she dances to Duke Ellington but then swoops out in a wide angle shot, giving us the pattern of her movement across the floor. Our access seems unimpeded though doubly framed (by both lens and stage), and, as it does for MacLaine, this invites an audience to respond in kind, sympathetically.
If the dance movie as a genre were simply about moving viewers’ bodies in tune with those on screen, I would say that is good enough. But there’s something more. Because dance invites, even demands, imitation, dance movies draw the viewer into an intimate, physical community. There is a truth about dance that the camera, better than any other medium, captures: the way community can be forged through artistic discipline. Perhaps this is why 1980s dance movies like Footloose, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and Dirty Dancing still seem to have a monopoly on the genre. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s final lift is not satisfying because they have broken free from dance’s restrictions, becoming individuals who “make it their own,” in the language of reality television. On the contrary, the culmination of the film is communal, and that community is expressed through the demonstration of technical ability.
When Swayze leads the rest of the resort’s workers in the dance step he had taught them (but had been banned from performing), the camera angle comes to rest behind Grey so that, as the dancers move up the aisle, we watch them from above with her. Cutting back and forth between shots looking up at Grey and shots of the dancers from her perspective, we see how the dance movie asks us to embody one of the dancers in it. We know this dance. Smiling from the stage, Grey moves in time with the music and in appreciation of their movements, nodding when, as Swayze looks up, she understands what the next step of the dance is. The final panning shot as she runs toward Swayze is no longer from above or below. She and Swayze, now on the same level, can fulfill the dance’s logic as well as that of the film’s—equality.
In even claiming that the end of Dirty Dancing promises a vision of a more equitable society, one that isn’t completely absorbed back into the logic of heteronormativity and late capitalism, I know I may be accused of sheer naïveté. But what happens when we take that plunge? Surrender to the final sequence of a dance movie and you will be surprised at how far the experience might take you. The endings of dance films may be filled with naïve idealism, achieving goals merely within the local frame of the movie, but they stage a style of optimism that isn’t always appreciated enough: the potential for form to liberate. Without form, organization and community do not happen. This is the ultimate fantasy of a dance movie, to be sure. But that fantasy is important. Dance movies – corny, generic, silly, sappy – teach us to believe in the possibility that discipline and form can achieve more than just a good performance. They can imagine new worlds.
Justine Murison: Lazy Enthusiast.