Thirty-one of cinema’s greatest dance sequences
To what effect do dancing sequences in films? For begin, you’ll experience an incomprehensible joy. When the words fall flat, the dancing begins in earnest. You have to leap into the air on a trumpeter’s high note to show your love, your anger, or your excitement when you can no longer hold it in.
Moving from stage to screen has never been easier than it was with the advent of cinema musicals in the early half of the 20th century, when dancing became bigger, more potent, and more spectacular than it had ever been before, and audiences fell in love with it. “La La Land,” a film in the golden age style, has become a mainstream hit.
It was an appealing task to go through film’s dance archives to find the best examples of the art form. In selecting the best dance scenes, I considered a variety of aspects, including technical proficiency, creative choreography, musical quality (which is extremely crucial), as well as visual appeal and plot development. Dance doubles and sleight-of-hand editing are less important to me than genuine emotion. Ultimately, transcendence triumphed. To what extent can dancing transport me, bring thrills down my spine and distill some truth about the human condition? It doesn’t matter whether it’s a flawless display of technique and precision, a hilarious hot mess, or an intriguingly bizarre dreamscape; great dance moves you.
In order to compile this list, I had to establish some ground rules: I focused on certain dance sequences rather than a film’s overall excellence. Documentaries and international films were excluded, as was “Pina” and “Mad Hot Ballroom.” In terms of movement, music, and choreography, the 1940s and ’50s top my list, yet even those aren’t comprehensive enough. I chose the best of the era and then moved on. Since Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could eat the list if I didn’t handicap them, I only allowed them to perform one dance (my No. 1, the best of the best) from the 10 films they appeared in together. Dazzling dancing has a long and illustrious history in film, and a line must be drawn somewhere.
1. ‘Swing Time’ (1936) ‘Never Gonna Dance’ scene
To put it another way, there is no finer dance musical than Fred and Ginger’s work together. Artistic, emotive, and imaginative dances are accompanied by a stellar soundtrack that includes Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George Gershwin. And these aren’t just short stretches of time. The plot is enriched by what Astaire and Rogers express through dance. “Swing Time,” their final waltz, is the best of their ten flicks, in my opinion. Why? When you think of Astaire and Rogers as a couple, you think of this dance as expressing something fundamental about their relationship. You have to be careful not to break it. When they first meet, their moods are sour but the sexual tension is blazing hot. Rogers demonstrates to Astaire the kind of soul mate he’ll miss if he doesn’t open up about his feelings through perfect movement mirroring. When Astaire realizes this, he becomes increasingly agitated. Her dress flies in the wind as he turns her erratically. We’re all left hanging, wondering what will happen next, as she bolts out the door, leaving him and the rest of the audience in suspense.
2. ‘Stormy Weather’ (1943) ‘Jumpin’ Jive’
The Nicholas Brothers, real names Fayard and Harold Nicholas, were nothing short of tap shoe miracles. Astaire, Gene Kelly, and a host of other legendary dancers were among the stars that flocked to see them perform at the Cotton Club in New York City. In this moment, they dart through the orchestra, skate on top of the drums, and end it all by falling down a flight of steps, leapfrogging buoyantly over each other to land in the splits, and then springing up again. They only needed one take to get the whole thing.
3. ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952) Title number
Who can forget Gene Kelly’s brilliantly choreographed splashfest? That inescapable cosmic drenching experience is the theme of this song’s dance anthem. What’s the best thing to do? Soak in as much of the wet weather as you can while spinning around puddles and playing a brass band in your head. Despite Kelly’s penchant for experimentation, this is his most uplifting and enduring song. He would go on to compose more technically impressive songs for future films.
4. ‘An American in Paris’ (1951) Final ballet
Leslie Caron was pulled from France for this film’s climax 17-minute ballet dreamscape. For the month-long production, it was necessary to film the scene. To this day, no other film can rival its luscious, Technicolor intensity and the dancing, swaying among paintings that have come to life, Parisian flower marketplaces, and moonlit fountains. When paired with Gershwin’s sensual jazz, the stars of the film explode.
5. ‘Ship Ahoy’ (1942) ‘I’ll Take Tallulah’
My favorite female dancer, Fayard Nicholas (see No. 2), was the subject of one of my earlier questions. Eleanor Powell was the name he came up with. It’s obvious why. As the best female tap dancer in film history, Powell commands the screen in her solo performance (after Bert Lahr serenades her). Powell’s agility, Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra’s star power, and the inventive way he taps around the poolside set define this sequence. In the midst of an ocean of guys, she swan-dives into the water, swings on a rope, cartwheels, and snatches flying rings, before rejoining jazz maestro Buddy Rich to hammer out a brilliant finale.
6. ‘Broadway Melody of 1940’ (1940) ‘Begin the Beguine’
Tap dancing’s holy trinity: Cole Porter, Fred Astaire, and Eleanor Powell. This incredible duet has a full-body, carefree energy, with a sense of friendly competition, and it’s a marvel of perfection. At one point Astaire and Powell are like wild spinning nickels whirling around one another in the skewed universe, as they chase, taunt, and one-up one another. It’s hard to believe that two people can move so quickly, precisely on time, and with such joy.
7. ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ (1954) ‘Barn Dance’
It’s hard to miss the nods to reels, logging, and barn-raising in Michael Kidd’s superb choreography. High-pitched and energetic, the dance advances from an outdoor stage to picnic tables to wood beams. There are polka steps and lifts, as well as back flips and diving somersaults. On the choreographers’ roster are such luminaries as Tommy Rall from “West Side Story,” Jacques d’Amboise from “The Nutcracker,” former Olympic gymnast and now “West Side Story” actor Russ Tamblyn.
8. ‘Small Town Girl’ (1953) ‘I’ve Gotta Hear That Beat’
Ann Miller was regarded as the pinnacle of the Hollywood tap dancers because of her height, beauty, and speed. A machine-gun fire of her taps. Her most well-known scene was the one directed by Busby Berkeley and choreographed by Willie Covan. Disembodied musical instruments, including violins and trumpets in the hands of unseen players, spring out from the floor as Miller whirls through them. She manages to avoid ricocheting off the trombones despite her frantic spinning. A fitting tribute to Miller’s skill and talent as a musician — her tapping is a work of art in and of itself — the scene’s inventive design does not detract from Miller’s genius.
9. ‘West Side Story’ (1961) ‘America’
Both Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s music serve as fuel for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris’ tinderbox relationship. However, once they begin to dance, their sexual energy might light up the entire city. ‘ Scenes like this one, in which bullfighting and flamenco and mambo are layered together in an exuberant display of a gender battle, stand out in this film. As a result, the characters’ rage is well-deserved, as they confront the clash of cultures and bigotry that will ultimately bring them all down in song and movement.
10. ‘Saturday Night Fever’ (1977) ‘More Than a Woman’
From a technical standpoint, this isn’t the most difficult dance. It wouldn’t take long for either of us to figure it out. (Simplicity is always a good thing.) Nonetheless, John Travolta transforms it into a goldmine of carnal pleasure. The enchantment cast by this scenario ranks among the greatest, far above its simple mechanics. Other movies’ dance moments are more complex and well-executed, but this one is unusually engrossing – I’m sucked into a fever dream of emotion while watching it. It’s easy to see how Travolta’s smooth synchronized steps and slow dips with co-star Karen Lynn Gorney, who’s dressed like a show pony in a polyester suit and platform shoes, are a disco-driven lead-up to lovemaking. I love how he revels in his charisma as she looks at him in wonder, as if he’s her dream come true. (He was, for many of us.) It wasn’t a simple task filming. That Brooklyn nightclub was so hot and smoky that Travolta had to be put on oxygen at one point. Costly: The Bee Gees floor lights cost a lot of money to install. It had been well worth the effort.
11. ‘All That Jazz’ (1979) ‘Take Off With Us’
As one might expect from a film on Bob Fosse’s life, there is enough of his trademark fast, sensual choreography. Members of the cast of a Broadway production practice a song about flight attendants in this clip. The tight small steps, the hats, the strained eroticism, and amazing control of the dancing are just some of the things I adore about it. It’s also the spot-on description of what rehearsals are like. Naked performers sing and shake in front of a snorting creative crew who scribble their thoughts on the walls. The stage is set, and the curtain has been raised, so to speak.
12. ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1953) ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’
That hot pink gown, the cherry-red backdrop, and the extraordinarily long gloves all worked together to create a striking scene. This scene, choreographed by the legendary Jack Cole, features Marilyn Monroe to the tee. The shimmy here, the arm extension there, the shaking and — whoopee! — a well-timed gesture to her back porch were all expertly placed to highlight her best assets. This humorous dance is a passionate celebration of the female attributes, performed by one of the most vivid bodies in cinematic history, with a limited vocabulary and unrestrained flair and personality.
13. ‘The Band Wagon’ (1953) ‘Dancing in the Dark’
For a waltz of seduction that begins with these two great dancers going around Central Park, Cyd Charisse is wearing flats, the right footwear. It’s amazing to see Michael Kidd’s choreography unfold; it’s full of spirals, zigzag lines, and sudden shifts in direction, sending the couple over seats and up steps, and finally into a horse-drawn carriage! Astaire and Charisse glide effortlessly over the complexities of the dance, each move blending into the next as if it were a piece of cake.
14. ‘Sweet Charity’ (1969) ‘The Aloof, the Heavyweight, the Big Finish’
“We don’t dance,” snarls one of the partners-for-hire in the sleazy ballroom of this movie. “Music serves as a means of defense for us.” Fosse, the king of diabolical sexuality, choreographed an enticing, decadent floor-show extravaganza of ’60s go-go. Suzanne Charney and a youthful Ben Vereen were the show stealers. Eyeliner, minidresses, Fosse-licious broken-doll struts, isolated joints, and hips, hips, hips are all part of the package.
15. ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948) Ballet sequence
When it comes to art and passion, there is no better example than this amazing film to illustrate the fiery passion of artists than this whole ballet. In the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of enchanted shoes that dance their wearer to death, Moira Shearer, a redhead ballerina, is the alluring victim. This gloomy, wordless thriller is at times hallucinogenic and Hitchcockian because of its beautiful lighting and design.
16. ‘Dirty Dancing’ (1987) Final dance
Patrick Swayze struts onto the Borscht Belt stage, and Jennifer Grey melts in his arms. For many of us of a certain age, this is the definitive movie dance sequence. As we watch Swayze and Grey grow up in front of our eyes, their sensual grace and the swoon of the crowd, it’s a strong concoction. Because it takes place in a middle-class family and has performers who weren’t yet household names, we can identify with them and feel as if we’re flying along with them. I can’t get enough of the adrenaline rush.
17. ‘Damn Yankees’ (1958) ‘Whatever Lola Wants’
As a demon sent by Satan to seduce a baseball star, Gwen Verdon sounds like a winner. Even though she was petite, Verdon possessed a commanding presence that radiated exactitude and power, even though she was delicately constructed. Choreographed by Fosse, who would become her husband, she’s sensual, humorous, and impish in this sequence. A nonhuman in a new role and loving it is conveyed at every stride. Verdon maintains this complex persona throughout her frantic frolic laced with flamenco, burlesque, and quasi-Indian fillips, as well as her awkward-on-purpose striptease. There is no way you can withstand my charm, you narcissist,” she says. Yes, I believe that is correct.
18. ‘All of Me’ (1984) Closing scene
Lily Tomlin’s soul gets transmigrated into Steve Martin’s body in this spritely screwball comedy. When she has one side of his body under her control and the other, it’s a high-pitched tug of war. When Martin looks in the mirror, we see Tomlin’s reflection. It all comes together in the end, with the two of them twirling around in a dance of pure ecstasy, captured in a mirror, that gets goofier and goofier to the accompaniment of a swinging rendition of the title-track jazz standard. Previously, Martin and Tomlin’s bodies had been a prison; now, they’re a vehicle for dramatic release, and the exhibition of joy between well-tuned spirits is immensely contagious..
19. ‘Stepmom’ (1998) ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’
Because it encapsulates the essence of life and love, this makes me cry. Susan Sarandon, who is dying of cancer, sings the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell hymn into a curling iron with her children. They leap onto the bed in a hysterical state. They strut their stuff down the hall. Life-affirming blows to the caboose from them.
20. ‘La La Land’ (2016) Opening sequence
The dance routines in this tribute to Hollywood’s musical history are so physically euphoric and vicariously exhilarating that they almost pull you out of your seat.. After a traffic gridlock on a Los Angeles highway becomes a full-throttle celebration of life with people singing, spinning and thumping on their cars’ roof, BMX bikers, skateboarders and freewheeling skateboarders ride the concrete barriers.