That’s basically the premise of every so-bad-it’s-good dance movie ever made. What is a good “bad” dance movie, you ask? Well, “West Side Story” it ain’t. Instead cha-cha on over to “Work It,” Netflix’s newest offering to the incredibly entertaining genre. In it, a classic overachiever with the rhythm of a robot must assemble a hodgepodge dance team in a matter of weeks to win a dance competition that will then guarantee her admission into Duke University. This plot is completely acceptable.
The dialogue cedes the floor to the dancing. The first kiss always comes after a slow, sensual dip. The romance is based solely on the opposites-attract premise. And the line, “I’ve never seen dancing like that before!” is in there somewhere.
Sure, the acting is off, critics universally pan them and the dancing can be just so-so, but the category endures because there is still something so great about the completely nonsensical yet formulaic comfort of a good bad dance movie. And yes, while some of the films below are eye-roll-inducing and others are genuinely entertaining, let’s face it: None of them ever stood a chance on an Oscars shortlist.
Presented here, in chronological order, are just a few of the genre’s best available for streaming.
“Center Stage” (2000)
Okay, fine, we saved the best for first. What sets “Center Stage” apart is simple: Everyone can actually move. Unlike so many dance movies that lead with an actress who can barely two-step, this cult classic is chock-full of actual dancers. Loosely based on Manhattan’s School of American Ballet, the movie follows a dozen young hopefuls as they leap toward greatness — and pursue wildly inappropriate relationships (we’re looking at you, Jody and Cooper). And it gave the world Zoe Saldana, a former ballerina herself, and the most bourgeoisie comeback ever: “I am the best g--d--- dancer in the American Ballet Academy. Who the hell are you? Nobody.” (Stream on Amazon Prime)
“Save the Last Dance” (2001)
A ballerina and B-boy. A White girl from the suburbs and a Black kid from Chi-town. “Save the Last Dance” is a Romeo and Juliet plus “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” fairy tale rolled into one. Julia Stiles’s character, Sara, is forced to live with her estranged father in the “inner city” after her mother dies in a car crash while rushing to attend Sara’s Julliard audition. Needless to say the girl is traumatized. Enter Derek, a straight-A student on his way to Georgetown, who teaches Sara how to put some “S-E-X in those H-I-P-S.” But that’s hardly the film’s most enduring quote. That award goes to Kerry Washington, in her first major role, as Derek’s sister, Chenille, who approves, disapproves and then approves of his interracial relationship with Sara. “You can’t help who you love, Derek, you’re not supposed to,” she says wistfully. (Stream on HBO Max)
A curly-haired Jessica Alba stars in this early aughts Cinderella story as a bartending dancer with big dreams of being a music-video choreographer. Crop tops, 20-year-old lingo and hoop earrings abound as Alba’s character, Honey, climbs her way to the top only to be brought down by an evil video director. There’s also a subplot staring Lil’ Romeo as a troubled youth caught up in “the streets.” Eventually, Honey figures out that fame and fortune aren’t worth it. Come for the 2000s nostalgia, stay for the Missy Elliott cameo. (Stream via Hulu’s Starz add-on or rent on Amazon Prime)
“You Got Served” (2004)
Is there a plot to this movie? Does it matter? Some dance movies need a story line to hang on to, but “You Got Served” isn’t one of them. The reason to watch is for the cool dance-crew battles, which play like an endless YouTube binge session. Written and directed by Chris Stokes, the music manager behind boy bands B2K and Immature, the movie does what a good bad dance movie should: Give the audience great moves, including random popping-and-locking scenes in the rain because why not. (Stream on Amazon Prime)
“Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” (2004)
When you mix Cuban salsa (a.k.a. Casino) with politics and racial injustice, you get “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.” The film is loosely based on the life of its producer, choreographer JoAnn Jansen, who moved to the Caribbean island’s capital in the 1950s. The fish-out-of-water tale follows Katey (Romola Garai), a bored American teen with a brain, and Javier (Diego Luna), a waiter at the fancy hotel she lives in, as they practice for the big salsa competition. Meanwhile, the world as they know it is imploding while Javier tries to get Katey to “feel the music.” Patrick Swayze makes a surprising cameo, but there’s a reason “Havana Nights” is on this list and the original “Dirty Dancing” is not. (Stream on Hulu)
“Step Up” (2006)
Five years after “Save the Last Dance,” “Step Up” reinvigorated the B-boy meets ballerina story line with two actual dancers (and a onetime, real-life couple, but that came later). Channing Tatum stars as Tyler, a troublemaker with a dancer’s heart who is forced to do community service at a “Fame”-like high school in Baltimore where Jenna Dewan’s Nora just so happens to be looking for a new partner. You know what happens next. The “The Fast and the Furious” of the genre, “Step Up” sparked not one, not two, but four film sequels based on the premise that dancing changes lives. (Rent to stream on Amazon Prime)
“Take the Lead” (2006)
If “Dangerous Minds” and “Sister Act” had a baby, it would be “Take the Lead.” The film stars Antonio Banderas as a salsa teacher who volunteers to teach some “inner-city youths” about ballroom dancing. Based on the off-screen story of Manhattan dance instructor Pierre Dulaine, the cast (which includes “Step Up’s” Dewan) eventually learns to meld hip-hop and ballroom and, yeah, there’s a competition to be won. (Stream on HBO Max)
“Stomp the Yard” (2007)
This is actor Columbus Short’s opus. An ode to Black Greek-lettered organizations’ history of stepping and the legacy of historically Black universities, “Stomp the Yard” is a film about redemption. After his brother — played by a fresh-faced Chris Brown — is murdered (another cliche of the genre) at a dance crew battle gone wrong, Short’s character, DJ, goes away to college to get out of trouble. Once there, DJ falls in with a different kind of crew — a fraternity — and struggles with following the “played” steps. The film puts the stepping art form front and center. And Short, a trained dancer/choreographer who toured with Britney Spears, brings it home in the final seconds. (Rent to stream on Amazon Prime)
“How She Move” (2008)
The mid-2000s were clearly a boom time for these types of films. Exhibit A is “How She Move,” a reverse “My Fair Lady” in which Raya, a pre-“True Blood” Rutina Wesley, is summarily forced out of her private school and dropped back into the local run-down neighborhood high school. Her old friends are none too pleased, but she manages to stomp onto a crew of steppers as the only girl. Of course, there is a competition and a huge prize, and, yes, she needs the money for college. (Stream on Tubi or Pluto TV)
“Magic Mike” (2012)
Channing Tatum is back in a dance movie that is light on the sweetness and heavy on the half-naked men. With “Magic Mike” (and its 2015 follow-up, “Magic Mike XXL”), the genre took a sharp turn off the Disney-fied, teen rom-com rails. Drawing from his real-life experiences as a male exotic dancer, the film follows Tatum as Mike, who is funding his furniture-making dreams with ones and fives from the strip club. Also: Matthew McConaughey stars as Dallas, the den mother of Mike’s ragtag group of stripper pals. Somehow all that works. (Stream on HBO Max)
“Step Sisters” (2018)
The genre keeps folding in on itself. “Step Sisters” is “Stomp the Yard,” with a little bit of the racial overtones of “Save the Last Dance” mixed in. Jamilah (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is the president of a Black sorority who has her sights set on Harvard Law School. Another sorority on campus has a PR problem and the school’s dean “guarantees” Jamilah’s admission to the Ivy League university only if she can clean up the other girls’ acts by getting them into the annual stepping competition. This makes sense somewhere. (Stream on Netflix)
“Work It” (2020)
“According to my research of every dance movie ever made, we have a very important ingredient for winning: a can-do spirit,” announces Quinn (Sabrina Carpenter), a Type-A high school senior trying to — you guessed it — get into the college of her dreams in “Work It.” Her eventual love interest and the would-be coach of her dance team, Jake (Jordan Fisher), replies: “That’s, uh, not how dance works.” But it is how good bad dance movies work. (Stream on Netflix)