It makes sense. Being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Leave that up to the digital wizards. But actually being able to leap? Hello, X-factor!
Who better to portray godlike aliens, aerial crime-stoppers and lethally elegant badasses than dancers? Dance training is excellent preparation for the bodily toll of action films and long days on the set. Perfectionism, physical presence, a taste for adrenaline — these attributes are par for the course for dancers. They also know how to express emotion through movement, an advantage even if their most extreme actions are techno-creations or performed by stunt doubles.
The following actors have all capitalized on years of serious dance training to make their characters nimble and dynamic, not to mention immortal.
1. Zoe Saldana
She is best known as slayer-turned-savior Gamora, the green-hued Marvel Comics character in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies. But before she found stardom in action roles — including indigenous hunter Neytiri in “Avatar” and its forthcoming sequels, and the acrobatic assassins in “The Losers” and “Colombiana” — she’d spent her childhood in ballet classes. Saldana also studied jazz, modern and Latin dance, but ballet was her obsession. She gave it up when she found she didn’t have flexible-enough feet for a professional career, yet those years at the barre served another purpose. They launched her first big film role, in the 2000 ballet-school drama “Center Stage.” Saldana played the scene-stealing, tart-tongued dancer Eva. Her combination of fierceness and classical ballet technique in that film set her up for combat roles to come. “Ballet sort of trained me for action,” Saldana told Time.
2. Tom Holland
The reigning Peter Parker/Spider-Man kicked off his career at age 12 in “Billy Elliot” on London’s West End in 2008, after being spotted in a hip-hop class. Two more years of dance training, as well as gymnastics, prepared him for his musical-theater debut. The lithe athleticism and the expressive, rhythmic grace of a dancer inform his film performances, too. Especially when he’s Peter, by turns boyishly awkward and preternaturally adept. We can read the happiness in his bouncy walk just before a mission, and he conveys a similar eagerness as he scooches along a ceiling and lands a backflip, while also demonstrating his agility and complete body control. The most amazing thing about Holland is that he possesses the coordination, fitness and elegance to nail many of his own stunts not only as Peter but also as Spider-Man. “He does it better than anyone could actually draw it,” says an official on the set in this behind-the-scenes video.
3. Gal Gadot
The “Wonder Woman” star returns in the sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984,” in June. Her gym workouts, horseback riding and the two years she spent in the Israeli army — that sounds like pretty great training for a superhero. But Gadot’s background isn’t all hardcore. She’s had a more musical, artful form of preparation: She was a dancer for 12 years, studying ballet, hip-hop, modern and jazz. She loved it so much, she told Vanity Fair, “I thought that I wanted to be a choreographer.” You can tell she’s a dancer in the simplest of actions — in the way she walks, for instance. It’s not only in her long, confident stride but in the way she conveys determination throughout her body. A fierce face alone won’t cut it when you’re marching across a battlefield in a bathing suit. Gadot shows us not only Wonder Woman’s heroism but also her moral drive, in the slight tilt of her neck, forward but elongated, her head held proudly; in her drawn-in core, and in the smooth carriage of her arms and shoulders, the muscles actively engaged but not clenched. Her hip flexibility is key in all the lunges and kicks of the fight scenes, but the keenest evidence of Gadot’s dance training is in how she carries her shoulders, broadened and relaxed in a way that says she’s not looking for a fight, but she’ll have the angels on her side if you start one.
4. Kristen Wiig
The former “Saturday Night Live” comedian may not spring readily to mind as superhero material, but with seven years of ballet training as a child — I hope you are following the thread — the sky’s the limit. In “Wonder Woman 1984,” she’ll portray the villainous Dr. Barbara Ann Minerva, a.k.a. Cheetah. Look for a (graceful?) clash of two dedicated dancers, as Wiig’s Cheetah is the archnemesis of Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Perhaps Wiig’s ballet background gave her the tools to craft her devastating physical impressions of stars such as Liza Minnelli, with tipsy, exaggerated diva gestures, and a hip-swinging, go-go-dancing Ann-Margret. In “Bridesmaids,” Wiig’s physicality, including her stumbling vulnerability, adds poignancy to her portrait of a woozy misfit.
5. Rosie Perez
She’ll play Gotham City’s crime-fighting detective Renee Montoya in the female-led superhero film with the super-long title “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” coming out next month. If you’ve seen her grooving in the opening credits of Spike Lee’s 1989 explosive Brooklyn drama “Do the Right Thing,” you know she’s got seriously powerful, uninhibited club moves and stamina. She got her start as a leading dancer on TV’s “Soul Train” and went on to choreograph for Diana Ross and the very cool, hard-hitting Fly Girls of Keenen Ivory Wayans’s show “In Living Color.”
6. Charlize Theron
The star of “Bombshell” was a classically trained dancer before getting into acting. After studying ballet in Johannesburg, she attended the Joffrey Ballet School in New York until a knee injury forced her to stop. The sense of majesty in her performances is unmistakable, especially in her superhero roles, including the title character in “Aeon Flux.” For this queen in a catsuit, she performed some of the acrobatics herself, even after sustaining a neck injury. In 2017’s “Atomic Blonde,” where Theron plays an MI6 agent, her dancer’s flexibility, length of limb and alluring grace is on view in the way she lunges and kneels while hog-tying and flipping her victims.
7. Ansel Elgort
In “The Fault in Our Stars,” he’s unbearably cute. In “Baby Driver,” he’s dangerously cool. No leaping or backflipping for him; he’s the getaway driver who releases his pent-up energy off the job. He turns a coffee run into a street ballet as the opening credits roll. His smooth control, the loose, musical roll of his shoulders, the ticktock rhythm of his walk — all signal the dancer within. This three-minute sidewalk show has its roots in the five years Elgort spent at the prestigious School of American Ballet, the training arm of New York City Ballet. He enrolled, he’s said, with hopes of building a musical-theater career. Next winter, we’ll see him get his wish. He’s starring as Tony in Steven Spielberg’s movie remake of “West Side Story,” coming out in December 2020.
8. Summer Glau
Growing up in Texas, Glau planned on a ballet career and was home-schooled to accommodate her rigorous training schedule. A broken toe, often a serious setback for dancers, put an end to her dreams, but she has plowed her physical finesse into such televised vehicles as “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and in the movie “Serenity,” playing River Tam, a warrior with lethally flexible legs. It’s not just her high kicks that set her apart, though. It’s her full-spectrum agility and the smooth rhythm of her moves as she ducks blows, leaps lightly out of reach, whirls and pivots so a well-timed elbow can finish the job her killer legs started.
9. Zhang Ziyi
The Chinese star shot to global fame in 2000 in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as a vaulting, leaping, airborne assassin with a disarmingly delicate physique. She reportedly had no martial arts training for that film, relying only on the speed, flexibility and control she developed as a dancer. She’d joined the professionally geared Beijing Dance Academy at 11 and won a national youth dance championship at 15.
Hollywood actors with significant dance training aren’t limited to action roles, of course. Here are some others who’ve pivoted from dancers to movie stars:
10. Penélope Cruz
Cruz studied ballet for nine years at Spain’s National Conservatory, then won a talent competition and landed her first TV role, which led to her film career. Even just walking around on the street, she is instantly recognizable as a dancer,with her easy, uplifted carriage and lit-from-within energy. For a glimpse of her vibrant musicality, take a look at the gorgeous salsa scene in 2004’s “Noel.”
11. Margaret Qualley
She’s a regular at classes taught by choreographer Ryan Heffington (the dance creator of Sia’s “Chandelier” music video and others) in his Los Angeles studio, the Sweat Spot. Qualley, the daughter of actor Andie MacDowell, trained in ballet and reportedly came close to joining North Carolina Dance Theatre as a teen. She switched to acting, but dancing continues to define her. She does a wonderfully goofy street corner dance about two minutes into a clip from “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” But her wildest, most expressive dancing-acting role to date is the Kenzo ad, choreographed by Heffington, where an uncontrollable primal force breaks free in her body and flings her cartwheeling into the night.
12. Channing Tatum
The childhood athlete and martial artist has dance in his bones, if not in his educational background. Dancing came naturally, whether he was stripping (a real-life job that inspired his stripper character in the film “Magic Mike”) or showing off his moves in a Ricky Martin music video and the 2006 dance film, “Step Up,” that followed. Watch his tap routine in “Hail, Caesar!” for the sheer delight of his rhythmic athleticism, cool control and lighthearted charm.
13. Jennifer Garner
The West Virginia native studied ballet as a child, but the scene where she leads a version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance in “13 Going on 30” is one of her only on-screen dance performances. It’s more common to find her on Instagram as an enthusiastic dance fan, with her #tututuesday posts of circus artists and such ballet stars as New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck.
14. Ryan Gosling
He began his showbiz life on TV’s rebooted “The Mickey Mouse Club.” Scratch that; he began even before then in his native Ontario, singing and dancing as a child with his sister in talent shows. Blah blah, “The Notebook,” blah blah . . . and voilà: “La La Land.” He displayed quiet confidence as a dancer in that nostalgic movie musical, with more ease in choreographed motion than his Oscar-winning co-star, Emma Stone. That was thoroughly in keeping with the storytelling: Gosling believably embodied a calm, steady and experienced counterpart to Stone’s nervy free spirit.
15. Catherine Zeta-Jones
Hyperactive as a child, she was put into dance classes in a church hall in her native town of Mumbles, Wales. She won a British tap-dancing championship at 11, which led to life as a chorus girl and then her big break as the lead in the tap musical “42nd Street” in London’s West End. Belting and vamping as Velma Kelly in the movie version of “Chicago” was right up her alley, and she won an Oscar for it. We don’t see her in long sequences of choreography here, but what she communicates even in brief flashes is a dancer’s unspoken intention: the come-on in a quick flick of her chin, the lack of inhibitions in the open expanse of her shoulders, the hints of a damaged soul in her purposely turned-in legs. Her physical display is far more seductive than any spoken lines or song lyrics could be. Zeta-Jones offers a master class in emotional manipulation.
16. Christopher Walken
Born in Queens, he danced as a child, learning tap and jazz, attending the School of the Performing Arts and landing roles in musical theater. If you’re used to the scary intensity of his dramatic roles, take a look at his exuberant, full-bodied tap routine on a bar from Steve Martin’s nostalgic 1981 romp through Depression-era Hollywood, “Pennies From Heaven.”
17. Amy Adams
Growing up in Colorado, she dreamed of being a ballerina and apprenticed with a local company before finding work as a dancer at a dinner theater in Boulder. Like several dance lovers on this list, however, an injury led her to audition for acting roles, and the rest is Hollywood history. Except for the occasional self-possessed spin on the dance floor, as in her ballroom waltz scene in “Enchanted,” where subtle body language enhances her attitude of wonder. I’m willing to guess it’s her dancer’s intelligence at work as she shades her elegantly uplifted bearing with a slight hesitancy in her arms, and her movements lag the music. This tells us everything about her mental state, caught between joy and disbelief.
18. Elisabeth Moss
The award-winning star of TV’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was born to musicians. She danced as a child, studying at the School of American Ballet in New York. She also trained with former New York City Ballet star Suzanne Farrell when Farrell ran a program at the John F. Kennedy Center. She’s known for playing strong women and characters that evolve into strength. Her credibility is augmented by her physical presence: fully three-dimensional, lifted in the spine, broad across the collarbones, with calm shoulders. These ballet traits even seep into her portrayal in the recent film “The Kitchen,” where Moss plays a mobster’s wife who offs her husband and takes up his legacy of violence with relish. The lesson here? Never underestimate a dancer.