An Ode to the Sudden Dance Scene

When it comes to film, there are few things that fill my heart with joy as quickly as a dance scene. And while this goes a long way to explaining my adoration of musicals, there’s a special place in my heart for non-musical films that proclaim ‘sit down and shut up. We’re going to have some dancing now.’

It’s a wonderfully versatile storytelling device, with an enormous array of styles and histories available to convey any number of feelings. That kind of raw, directly representational movement, when it’s done well, can stir up fierce emotion in a way dialogue couldn’t. Of course, when done badly it can bring the whole film down. So just for fun, let’s take a look at five examples of dance scenes in film (musicals being exempted, because that’s a whole different rule set to deal with), and what they impart.

5. Labyrinth

The only scene starring David Bowie’s eyeshadow rather than his leather pants

The crowded ballroom is a device you’re most commonly going to find in period pieces, but it’s been known to crop up elsewhere as well. The scene sets the two characters into the middle of a crowd of whirling bodies around them, all following strictly patterned steps that are at once deeply intimate and yet a parody of that closeness. It can be used as an excuse to get two would-be love interests closer, and certainly that’s the most common occurrence. But I prefer the latent threat of the ballroom, like you’ll find here (I also was sorely tempted to include the attempted seduction dance of Eyes Wide Shut, but couldn’t find any available clips that properly encapsulated what I wanted to discuss).

Check out the atmosphere on that scene. The air of sensuality still remains – Jareth is an alluring devil type figure, after all. If Sarah is to reject him and give it any meaning, there must be something there that’s appealing. But more than that there’s this emphasis on alienation and being watched: the uncanny, vaguely humanoid masks; the laughter of the guests, staged in such a way that it all seems to be directed toward Sarah (the feeling of adolescence in a nutshell); the mechanical, repetitive spins of the dance and the predatory movements Bowie makes; along with the clear sensation of being seen and not seeing. It makes the formality of dance a threat, and traps the protagonist in it. And as much as it can it capitalizes on the motif of being led or controlled – a ballroom dance is composed, more than many other forms, of leader and follower. It makes neat and almost frightening work of Jareth’s manipulations, as Sarah is very nearly drawn into the tapestry of his design.

4. Billy Elliot

In true British film fashion, it is as engaging as it is painfully awkward

Footloose was also a contender for this spot, but I couldn’t miss the chance to promote a movie I love and that deserves so much more love. What’s lovely about this moment is the way it allows itself to be, at times, stilted. This is the Big Moment in the film when Billy’s father realizes he really could have a shot as a professional dancer, and…well.

It doesn’t look professional, does it? It’s no Flashdance moment, or even the flashy lights showmanship of Cabaret (where Liza Minnelli did some serious damage to herself deliberately doing things amateurishly).  There’s no non-diegetic lighting coming down from the ceiling to highlight this as a special moment, and there’s a minimal amount of cutting. They just let him dance, and let it be small – the pirouettes aren’t fully extended, say, and there’s some filler jumps between the jetes and the fancy bits of footwork, as if you can see him thinking of what to do next. It feels like the work of someone still learning, someone desperate to put their best show forward without time to prepare. There’s a beautiful, frustrated desperation in his movements that’s a clear bleeding of his emotions.

But at the same time, don’t think for a second that just anyone could do that routine. Every bit of him is articulated and precise, and the muscle tone and control it takes to do all of those moves correctly is nothing to be sneezed at (there’s that dance minor. I missed it). It’s raw potential is what it is, telling of the character and the scene, carrying a pivotal moment through physicality alone.

3. Clerks II

Makes me happier than all the kitten videos on the internet

Alright, so this is my go-to clip on bad days. There is nothing I don’t love about this scene. It uses dance in both a practical sense and as an emotional moment, and it does it on all levels with the scene: the crescendo of movement and energy on the part of cast and camera, the song choice that doesn’t just lend itself well to the choreography but is right-on-the-money addressing the emotional point of the scene, the saturated colors (this is also the only scene in the film where they’re rendered that way), the many permutations of dance between people within the scene, and the beautiful surreality of it that still manages to feel honest within the story’s tone. That, and the big chorus dance is an homage to The Blues Brothers, one of the greatest movies to come out of the 1980s.

It’s a purely effective emotional high, a little slice of giddiness that’s incredibly difficult to work into a movie that’s not all singing and dancing – an especially sweet note in an unexpectedly tender movie.

2. The Adolescence of Utena

Stop me before I swoon

Some of you might remember another essay on this blog, wherein I proclaimed this to be one of the most romantic scenes in film. I stand by that. Every decision in this scene drives it toward the purpose of an emotional, heartfelt resonance between Utena and Anthy. Unlike the Clerks II example, this dance is pure, symbolic surrealism from beginning to end. T

he animation is unbridled loveliness in a film that’s already stunningly gorgeous, and it gives us a first glimpse into what the characters haven’t been able to put into words. Not only is the dance joyful, it’s free – the simple steps of the waltz become more and more far-flung and exuberant, until it seems as if they are truly flying and dancing on the air. The images on the water go from another time and place (an idealized self, the Utena and Anthy of the TV series, a lost connection, or all those things) to moment they’re permitted to make real. Dance becomes intimacy without needing to use an especially sensual series of steps, and the moment exists both as in-narrative advancement and as metaphorical emotional realization. It’s just about perfect.

1. Princess Tutu

A proper essay for this one. Someday

Yeah, you might go ahead and call this one a cheat. Tutu is an anime bound up completely in the power and symbolism of dance (and a series rather than a film to boot), and to exploring the many different contexts in which dance conveys emotion. I could throw up any episode from the series here, and it would make a fitting capstone to this article.

I chose this scene because it carries a little bit of each of my other four examples: it uses the strict form of the dance (a pas de deux) in contrast with how we’ve seen it used many other times throughout the series, making it an intimate experience as well as tying it to the discussion at hand – it goes from a convincing/example of being led to a decision/mutually strengthened dance; it is a reflection of the bittersweet emotion of the characters expressed as movement, a moment of coming together that is both a kind of romantic realization as well as a form of goodbye; it grows in scale from small steps and snippets to whole portions of dance as the conversation goes forward, both an integral moment to the propulsion of the plot and an address of the characters’ emotional wants; and it is achingly, painfully romantic, a quiet moment of realization on a surreal plain that is at once a part of and apart from what will come next. A perfect duet in a show dedicated to love of dance.

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