What do dance scenes add to a movie? Unspeakable bliss, for starters. Dancing starts when dialogue fails.
When lovers need to move beyond conversation when conflicts boil past negotiation when joy can’t be expressed in any other way than by leaping into the air on a trumpeter’s high note.
With the rise of movie musicals in the early part of the 20th century, dancing moved easily from stage to screen, becoming bigger, more potent, ever more spectacular – and a lasting love affair with the moviegoing public was born.
It’s still going on: Witness the mainstream success of “La La Land,” a film in the golden age mould.
I also had to set some rules for this list: I considered specific dance scenes, not the quality of entire movies. I didn’t include documentaries or foreign films; no “Pina,” no “Mad Hot Ballroom.”
With matchless artists in movement, music and choreography, the 1940s and ’50s dominate my choices, but even those aren’t exhaustive. I settled on the era’s best and moved on.
I handicapped Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, limiting them to just one dance (it’s my No. 1, the best of the best) from all the jewels in their 10 films together because if I didn’t, they’d eat the list.
Our vast cinematic history is studded with marvellous dancing, but one has to draw the line somewhere.
1. ‘Swing Time’ (1936), ‘Never Gonna Dance’ scene
There are no greater dance musicals than the ones Fred and Ginger made together, because they accomplished so much, so beautifully.
Their dances are artistic, emotional and inventive; the music is superb (Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin); the costuming and set design create a stylistic whole.
And they aren’t mere interludes. What Astaire and Rogers communicate through dance deepens the story. To pick the pinnacle among their 10 films isn’t easy, but my choice is their final waltz in “Swing Time.”
Why? Because we’ll think of Astaire and Rogers forever as a unit, falling in love on the dance floor, and this dance expresses something profound about their bond. It’s about the perils of breaking it.
They begin by simply walking together; their mood is blue, but the sexual tension is red hot. Through a precise mirroring of movements, Rogers shows Astaire the kind of intimate soul mate he’ll lose if he doesn’t ‘fess up about his feelings.
Astaire senses this and grows desperate. He spins her around dizzily, her dress whipping like a flag at sea. Then the cliffhanger: She whirls out the door, leaving him, and us, bereft – and dying to see how the movie ends.
2. ‘Stormy Weather’ (1943), ‘Jumpin’ Jive’
Fayard and Harold Nicholas, aka the Nicholas Brothers, were a pair of miracles in tap shoes. They hoofed their way from the Cotton Club to Hollywood, where their fans included Astaire, Gene Kelly and other dance greats who marvelled at their skill, daring and sheer brilliance.
This scene is the consummate joy-fest: They dart through Cab Calloway’s orchestra, skate atop the drums and piano, and end it all by plunging down a flight of stairs, leapfrogging buoyantly over each other to land in the splits, and then springing up to do it all again.
They shot it all in one take.
3. ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952), title number
Is there any more beloved dance scene on film than Gene Kelly’s inspired splashfest? This is the dance anthem for that inescapable experience of a thorough cosmic drenching. The answer: Enjoy it!
Spin through puddles, gambol in the gutters, play a brass band in your head, and soak up every drop.
Kelly was constantly experimenting, and although he whipped up more technically dazzling numbers in other movies, none is more uplifting or enduring than this one.
4. ‘An American in Paris’ (1951), final ballet
Kelly lured Leslie Caron from France especially for this movie and its climactic, 17-minute dreamscape of a ballet. The scene took a month to film.
Its lush, Technicolor intensity has never been matched, and the dancing, which sweeps through paintings come to life, Parisian flower markets and moonlit fountains, feels like the very embodiment of postwar optimism.
But the chemistry between its stars, accompanied by Gershwin’s sexy jazz: explosif.
5. ‘Ship Ahoy’ (1942), ‘I’ll Take Tallulah’
I once asked Fayard Nicholas (see No. 2) to name his favourite female dancer. His answer: Eleanor Powell. It’s easy to see why. Powell is arguably the greatest tap dancer on film, male or female, and in this number, she has the spotlight all to herself (after Bert Lahr serenades her).
Three things distinguish this scene: Powell’s punchy, rascally athleticism, the musical star power of Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, and the imaginative way Powell taps around the poolside set.
She trades drum licks with jazz virtuoso Buddy Rich, hops on tables, swan-dives into an ocean of men, swings on a rope, cartwheels and catches flying rings and, still spinning, seizes airborne drumsticks and rejoins Rich to hammer out a scintillating flourish.
6. ‘Broadway Melody of 1940’ (1940), ‘Begin the Beguine’
Cole Porter, Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell: the holy trinity of tap. I love the full-body, freewheeling spirit of this amazing duet – it’s a marvel of precision, with hints of friendly competition.
Astaire and Powell chase, tease and one-up each other, ending in a synchronized storm of turns that sends them spiralling around each other like crazy spinning nickels in a tilted universe.
How can two humans move so fast, in perfect time, with such giddy ease?
7. ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ (1954), ‘Barn Dance’
Michael Kidd’s exceptional choreography is full of earthy vigour and references to reels, logging and barn-raising. High-pitched and unusually athletic, the dancing moves from an outdoor stage to picnic tables to wood beams.
There are backflips and diving somersaults, along with polka steps and lifts. The dancers include Tommy Rall, one of cinema’s greats, ballet star Jacques d’Amboise and Russ Tamblyn, the former gymnast about seven years shy of stardom as Riff in the movie of “West Side Story.”
8. ‘Small Town Girl’ (1953), ‘I’ve Gotta Hear That Beat’
Ann Miller was considered the queen of Hollywood tap dancers: She was tall, gorgeous and insanely fast. Her taps were like machine-gun fire. This scene, directed by Busby Berkeley and choreographed by Willie Covan, is her most famous.
Miller, sequined and sparkly, whirls through an assortment of disembodied musical instruments; violins and trumpets in the hands of unseen players pop up through the floor. Spinning madly, she somehow avoids ricocheting off the trombones.
It’s a tribute to Miller as the consummate musician – her tapping is a symphony unto itself – and the scene’s ingenious design, while visually striking, allows nothing to distract from her brilliance.
9. ‘West Side Story’ (1961), ‘America’
Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are a combustible couple, taunting and teasing each other through Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s music.
But once they start dancing, their sexual energy could light up the city. Great dance fills this entire movie, but this scene stands out for the neat layering of Latin motifs – bullfighting, flamenco, mambo – and the exuberant staging of a gender war.
There’s also well-earned fury: In lyrics and physical expression, the characters directly engage with the clash of cultures and racism that will undo them all.
10. ‘Saturday Night Fever’ (1977), ‘More Than a Woman’
This is not the trickiest dance from a technical point of view. You and I could pick it up in a snap. (Simple is good.)
But John Travolta turns it into erotic gold. This scene rates among the greats for the spell it casts, far surpassing its modest mechanics.
Plenty of other movies’ dance scenes are more complicated, more expertly executed, but this one is unusually immersive – I’m swept into a fever dream of feeling. Strutting like a show pony in his polyester suit and platform shoes, Travolta communicates the intent behind his smoothly syncopated steps and slow dips with co-star Karen Lynn Gorney; they’re a disco-driven lead-in to lovemaking.
The dynamic tension is perfect – he revels in his own charisma, she looks at him in misty disbelief, like he’s her fantasy come to life. (For many of us, he was.)
Filming wasn’t easy. So much heat and smoke filled that Brooklyn nightclub that at one point, Travolta was on oxygen. Installing lights in the floor, to flash along with the Bee Gees’ music, cost a fortune.
It was worth it.
The Washington Post