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 mold.
Taking stock of film’s dance treasury to pick the paragons was an irresistible challenge. In making my choices for the best dance scenes, I looked at several factors: mastery of technique, imaginative choreography, quality of the music — this is very important — and design and storytelling. I value authentic expression more than dance doubles and tricky editing. But, in the final analysis, transcendence won out. Does the dancing carry me away, give me chills, distill some truth about the human experience? Whether it’s a masterpiece of steps and skill, or an intentionally funny, hot mess, or a dreamscape that’s intriguingly weird — dancing that moves you is great dancing.
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 marvelous dancing, and one has to draw the line somewhere.
‘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.
‘Stormy Weather’ (1943) ‘Jumpin’ Jive’
Fayard and Harold Nicholas, a.k.a. 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 marveled 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.
‘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.
‘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, sweeping 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.
‘Ship Ahoy’ (1942) ‘I’ll Take Tallulah’
I once asked Fayard Nicholas (see No. 2) to name his favorite 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.
‘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 spiraling 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?
‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ (1954) ‘Barn Dance’
Michael Kidd’s exceptional choreography is full of earthy vigor 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 back flips 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.”
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘All That Jazz’ (1979) ‘Take Off With Us’
Of course, Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical film contains his own snappy, sultry choreography. In this scene, cast members rehearse a flight-attendant-themed number for a Broadway show. What I love about it is not only the dancing — full of Fosse hallmarks, the tight little steps, the hats, the tense sexiness and exquisite control — but also the spot-on depiction of what rehearsals are like. The nearly naked performers sing and shimmy their hearts out, while the creative team watches impassively, smoking, frowning, scribbling criticisms. It’s show business, baby.
‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1953) ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’
That hot-pink dress, that cherry-red backdrop, those long, long gloves. Marilyn Monroe is glamorous perfection in this scene, choreographed by the great Jack Cole. He brilliantly played up her strengths, focusing on those beautiful bare shoulders with a shimmy here, an arm extension there, a lot of shaking and — whoopee! — a well-timed gesture to her back porch. Restrained in vocabulary and uninhibited in style and spirit, this witty dance is an exuberant celebration of the female assets, performed by one of the most vibrant bodies in cinematic history.
‘The Band Wagon’ (1953) ‘Dancing in the Dark’
Cyd Charisse was tall for Fred Astaire, so she’s wearing flats here, the perfect footwear for a waltz of seduction that begins with these two extraordinary movers simply strolling through Central Park. Michael Kidd’s choreography is fascinating; it unspools in an expanding array of spirals, zigzagging lines and sharp changes of direction, sending the couple over benches, up steps and, finally, into a horse-drawn carriage. Astaire and Charisse sail through the complex geometry, each move flowing into the next, as though it were all just a walk in the park.
‘Sweet Charity’ (1969) ‘The Aloof, the Heavyweight, the Big Finish’
“We don’t dance,” snarls one of the partners-for-hire in this film’s sleazy ballroom. “We defend ourselves to music.” You feel that bite in an irresistible, decadent floor-show extravaganza of ’60s go-go, choreographed by Fosse, the master of sinister sexiness. The starring attractions: dancers Suzanne Charney and a young Ben Vereen. Also, loads of eyeliner, minidresses and those Fosse-licious broken-doll struts, isolated joints and hips, hips, hips.
‘The Red Shoes’ (1948) Ballet sequence
Within this masterful film, about the flaming passions of artists, lies a complete ballet that echoes the theme and foreshadows its tragic conclusion. The ballet tells the Hans Christian Andersen tale of enchanted shoes that dance their wearer to death; redhead ballerina Moira Shearer is their beguiling victim. Beautifully lighted and designed, this dark, wordless drama is by turns hallucinatory and Hitchcockian.
‘Dirty Dancing’ (1987) Final dance
For many of us of a certain age, this is the defining movie dance scene, as Patrick Swayze struts onto that Borscht Belt stage, and Jennifer Grey melts in his arms. It’s a singularly potent concoction: Swayze’s erotic beauty, Grey’s coming-of-age right before our eyes, the lusty grace of their moves, the crowd’s collective swoon. Because it happens in a middle-class family setting, with actors who weren’t yet icons, we can see ourselves in them, and fly along with them, at least in our minds. It’s an unbeatable, vicarious rush.
‘Damn Yankees’ (1958) ‘Whatever Lola Wants’
Gwen Verdon as a leggy demon sent by Satan to seduce a ballplayer — okay, I’m in. Verdon, a singing, dancing, acting wizard of stage and screen, had a unique, commanding presence; although delicately built, she vibrated exactitude and authority. She’s funny, sexy and gleefully impish in this scene, choreographed by Fosse, who was soon to be her husband. Every step conveys that she’s a nonhuman in a new role and loving it. Verdon stays in this complicated character throughout her awkward-on-purpose striptease and a manic romp touched with flamenco, burlesque and quasi-Indian fillips. “I’m irresistible, you fool,” she taunts. Um, yes.
‘All of Me’ (1984) Closing scene
In this sparkling screwball comedy, Lily Tomlin’s soul transmigrates into Steve Martin’s body. Result: a high-pitched tug-of-war — she controls one side of his body, he’s got the other. (We see Tomlin’s reflection whenever Martin passes a mirror.) This internal mayhem smoothly resolves in the end, when we see the two whirling in a let-it-all-hang-out dance of pure joy, captured in a mirror, that grows goofier and giddier, accompanied by a swinging rendition of the jazz standard of the title. Before, the body had been a prison for Martin and Tomlin; here it’s a vehicle of spectacular release, and the display of rapture between well-tuned spirits is utterly contagious.
‘Stepmom’ (1998) ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’
This makes me cry, because it captures the very essence of living, and love. Susan Sarandon, dying of cancer, carouses in her pajamas with her kids, belting out the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell anthem into a curling iron. They jump on the bed. They prance down the hallway. They give Death a big, fat, life-affirming kick in the caboose.
Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection
‘La La Land’ (2016) Opening sequence
The dance numbers in this loving nod to Hollywood’s musical history are so physically rapturous and vicariously thrilling that they almost lift you out of your seat. Attitude adjustment starts with the opening sequence, which turns a traffic jam on an L.A. highway into a full-throttle celebration of life, as folks sing, spin and stomp on the roofs of their cars, while a BMX biker and a freewheeling skateboarder surf the concrete barriers.
Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evans
‘White Nights’ (1985) The duet
Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, two of the greatest male dancers of the late 20th century, united on the dance floor: How can you beat that? This scene offers a side-by-side view of their styles — the tapper’s heavy-hitting power and connection to the floor, the ballet maestro’s elegance, airborne ease and elasticity. Watch how Baryshnikov sinks into his knees, while the lankier Hines stays more upright. In other ways, though, Hines is looser and jazzier, while Baryshnikov is knife-sharp.
‘You Got Served’ (2004) Dance battle
Dance contests come and go, but this one boasts muscular grace, jaw-dropping execution and incomparable street style. The most spectacular street moves require immense (that is, male) upper-body strength — the head-spinning and upside-down windmilling — and we get to revel in that here. But the ladies also have their moments to shine. Although the editing tends to get in the way of the best view of the dancing, the displays of raw, rhythmic power matched with impeccable precision and daring don’t get much better than this.
‘Silver Linings Playbook’ (2012) Dance rehearsal
Cute couple awkwardly learns to dance with the help of their cool friend. Bradley Cooper is the odd man out in this threesome, while Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Tucker offer up the dancing thrills. Okay, so they’re modest — this is not showstopping material — but it’s so adorable. Tucker knows just how to womp up Lawrence’s uncooperative hips: “Girl, you gotta move your junk.”
‘Center Stage’ (2000) ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’
Tutus and motorcycles: a match made in dance heaven. These white-frocked ballerinas are dutifully dull until Ethan Stiefel roars onstage on his bike. At the time, Stiefel was a star at American Ballet Theatre, and this scene offers a terrific look at his virtuosic technique (those pirouettes, those airy leaps — pure gold), as well as his heartthrob appeal. Accompanied by Michael Jackson’s bouncy pop song, this is simply tremendous fun. Classical ballet steps, beautifully performed, get funkified.
‘Bye Bye Birdie’ (1963) ‘Got a Lotta Livin to Do’
Ann-Margret’s “torrid dancing almost replaces the central heating in the theater,” Life magazine declared in its cover story about “Bye Bye Birdie” and its young heroine. This is the movie that made her a star. She’s also a sensational dancer, in a vamped-up display of seduction aided by belly-baring ruffles and the sexiest pink capris you’ve ever seen. With all of her slinky allure, she also twists, hully-gullies and Watusis with the ensemble to the soundtrack’s brisk jazz. This frisky production is a great mood-booster.
‘White Chicks’ (2004) Dance-off
The premise: Two African American FBI agents — Keenan Ivory Wayans and Shawn Wayans — disguise themselves as white women to lure a kidnapper out of hiding. It sounds so wrong, but it’s so funny, especially when miniskirted squads of frenemies shake off their frustrations on the dance floor. The undercover agents jump into the mix, in their low-rise jeans and pastel leathers (the girl clothes are craptastically horrendous). They’ve done such a good job of being female, and now their true, testosterone-fueled selves come out in aggressive, head-spinning moves that are just plain out of reach for most of us ladies. That should blow their cover. No one seems to notice this.
‘House Party’ (1990) Dance scene
Teens want to hang out together, have fun and party — this hasn’t changed since forever — but it’s the partying here that’s extraordinary. We see it on their terms, in the close, crowded quarters of a living room, with just enough space for explosive moves, sassy personal expression, all kinds of style and exhilarating, good-natured fun. It’s an instantly immersive experience; you feel like you’re on the dance floor with them, bopping along as hip-hop duo Kid n Play show off their swiveling, sliding, twisting footwork.
‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994) Twist contest
“I wanna dance, I wanna win, I want that trophy. So dance good.” A menacing Uma Thurman and a game John Travolta shed their shoes for an intense go-go scene that comes out of nowhere, in the middle of a bloody crime film. Director Quentin Tarantino has said he was inspired by New Wave master Jean-Luc Godard, known to drop an incongruous dance into his work. Note how the actors draw our focus to their fingers and toes. Of course, we’re also thinking back on the younger, disco-dancing Travolta, so the scene is poignant as well as darkly funny. And very, very odd.
‘The Cotton Club’ (1984) ‘Crazy Rhythm’
Brothers Maurice and Gregory Hines were estranged for 10 years in real life, and this scene re-creates the emotional reunion on the dance floor of the siblings who had been childhood tap partners. Francis Ford Coppola’s film brought veteran hoofers such as Charles “Honi” Coles back to the spotlight, and these scenes are priceless. But the Hines duet is infused with warmth and bone-deep sympathy.
‘A Chorus Line’ (1985) ‘Next’
In some ways, the dancing life is like the military, especially here. This film about Broadway opens with auditions, where the dance captain is a drill sergeant and the chorines are uber-disciplined grunts firing off a battery of moves. A lot of movie dancing shows us the slippery ease and glory of moving to music, but here we see the opposite: the punishing work, humiliations and stoicism behind it. And after all that, the four cruelest words a dancer will ever hear: “Thank you very much.”
‘Pennies From Heaven’ (1981) ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’
Talk about nerve: In this tribute to Depression-era musicals, Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters take on one of Astaire and Rogers’s greatest numbers. And they do it justice. They’re a well-matched pair — Martin, light-footed and quick; Peters, all soft edges. The black-and-white design, complete with a tuxedoed ensemble, is timeless.
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Illustrations by Ali Mac for The Washington Post