Growing up, I was the kid who would cartwheel and somersault around the soccer field during recess. I was the kid who would choreograph elaborate dance routines with my friends during sleepover parties. I was also the kid who, instead of playing video games or terrorizing my babysitter after school, would dance around my living room to Janet Jackson in a self-fashioned crop top. Dance was the essence of my life from ages three to twelve, until puberty arrived to squash my ambition of being the world’s best dancer. But for those nine glorious years, I strived to be the best dancer I could be, and that is mostly due to the inspiration my favourite dance movies instilled in my little kid heart.
Dance-themed movies have stirred us up since the dawn of film, with some of the earliest incarnations being 1937’s Shall we Dance, starring Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers, and 1939’s ballroom biopic, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. To witness the sheer emotive and physical power of a dancer is an impassioned experience, and can move the viewer to tears. Attending a live dance show, while incredible, is often out of reach for most people who do not live in culturally rich cities, or for those who simply cannot afford the price of admission. Bringing dance to the film world has made it considerably more accessible to the general public, and has been a powerful tool in spreading all of the joy the art form embodies.
I’m willing to bet a ticket to the ballet that I’m far from the only kid who’s been gripped by the inspiration imbued in dance films. Even as an adult, it’s hard for me to stay still after watching an amazing dance-filled movie. If you’re looking for a little inspiration to get your body moving, I recommend an immediate viewing of one of these best (in my opinion) dance-themed films.
- Dirty Dancing - This one is such an obvious choice, that I considered not including it, but it’s too good to ignore. I watched Dirty Dancing for the first time at an age that was way too young to understand the plot, thanks to my much older cousins who would watch it while babysitting me. But that didn’t prevent me from wanting to be Baby (Jennifer Grey) in Patrick Swayze’s strong man arms. Even at such a tender age, the passion expressed in those sweaty dance scenes was not lost on me. There’s a reason it’s become such an iconic film, and it’s not because of the groundbreaking themes it explores, or the award-worthy acting of its stars. Its influence transcends what traditionally makes a film stand the test of time. Dirty Dancing is outstanding because of how it makes us feel - such is the power inherent in emotive dance. Couple dramatic dance scenes with an exceptional soundtrack and this film has achieved the ultimate recipe for success.
- Save the Last Dance - From the exploration of interracial relationships, to the stellar hip hop and ballet dance scenes, this movie has all of the elements that allow a teen rom-com to stand out among the fluffy drivel that surrounds it. As a dancer, I was heavily inspired by Save the Last Dance as a young tween, especially because I personally hated the strict barriers separating dance genres within the formal atmosphere of old school dance academies. I loved the hybrid style of the classical ballet training of Julia Stiles’ character, Sara, and the street hip hop influence taught to her by love interest, Derek, played by Sean Patrick Thomas. It was the convergence of these completely disparate dance worlds that ultimately scored her a spot in the prestigious Juilliard Academy. That thread of infusing two discrepant elements to create something even stronger is mirrored in the love story. Despite facing significant resistance by the people surrounding them, the interracial coupling of the protagonists breaks down the boundaries erected by societal and cultural expectations to prove how arbitrary these rules are. This film leaves a lasting impression, imparting wisdom that’s still relevant 18 years later: live your life, embrace your love and nurture your craft, even if it goes against the grain.
- Girls Just Wanna Have Fun - If you love cheesy 80’s music, hair, costumes, choreography, and stereotypical characters as much as I do, you probably love this film already (but watch it immediately if you haven’t seen it yet). By no means can it be considered a high quality or critically acclaimed production, but it showcases the best representations of diverse dance styles popular in the 1980’s. The plot is centered on young Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Janey, a hopelessly idealistic dancer who wants nothing more than to score a spot on her favourite show, Dance TV, which is clearly a play on popular dance shows of the time, Soul Train, American Bandstand, and Dance Fever. Here we see hilarious examples of ballet, breakdance, jazz, gymnastics, ballroom, roboting, and the list goes on. Throw in a rich lady villain, a ruggedly sexy love interest, a kooky best friend, and too many montages to count, and you’re left with an extremely funny, outlandish, watchable 80’s film that just makes you wanna dance.
- Black Swan - Definitely the darkest choice on this list, the haunting Black Swan is a disturbing portrayal of the intense mental and physical pressures a professional dancer suffers as she (Natalie Portman as Nina) competes for the starring role in a production of Swan Lake. It serves as an important reality check, shining an impossible to ignore light on some of the horrors that exist, and have long existed, in the world of professional ballet training, and the pressures surrounding the pursuit of creative perfection as an artist on a macro level. Growing up as a competitive dancer, I too faced the unrealistic, and at times unhealthy, bodily expectations of the dance industry. The pressure to be thin and strong, with impeccable technique and unwavering work ethic can take a devastating emotional and mental toll on any young dancer, and is one of the most damaging facets of classical dance culture. To me, dance is supposed to be fun, and at times, can be a therapeutic channel of creative expression. Witnessing the joy people feel when they dance for themselves is a beautiful thing, but we can’t forget the negative aspects of the professional dance industry. Black Swan embodies the stress and agony a dancer experiences in this shadow world of dance, and also happens to feature incredible acting, writing and visually stunning fantasy scenes.
- Breakin’ - The plot of this 1980’s dance film has very similar elements to that of Save the Last Dance, in its merging of stuffy traditional choreography with street style dance. It also centers on a young dancer, Kelly, who rejects the strict rigidity of her formal dance training in favour of non-traditional, and disregarded styles of hip hop and breakdancing. She forms a dance troupe with Venice Beach breakers, Ozone and Turbo, and together they dance their way into winning a respected dance competition that initially rejected them because of their radical style. Again, this film isn’t groundbreaking or award worthy by critical standards, but it succeeds in stirring up that buoyant jubilance that inspires us to get up and dance. The soundtrack is poppin’, the costumes are rad, and the dance sequences are absolutely incredible.
Honorable Mentions: Footloose, Step Up, Center Stage, Flashdance, Billy Elliot, How She Move, Honey, Beat Street.