The ‘Dance Movie’
A poetic analysis of that lesser-appreciated cinematic genre: the Dance Movie.
I have a confession to make. I’m quite partial to dance movies. Movies about dancing. Those faintly ridiculous films in which dancing not only features, but is a key ingredient in the very fibre of the main characters’ lives. Films like Dirty Dancing, Footloose, Step Up, Step Up 2, Step Up 3D, Save the Last Dance, Breakin’, Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo, You Got Served, Strictly Ballroom et cetera.
It’s one of my many guilty pleasures. Anyway, these films, it has to be said, are something of a different animal to the conventional Hollywood movie. Yes, they have plot and narrative and pathos and all that good stuff, but they exist to do more than simply tell a tale. They exist to celebrate dance. See, the dance movie’s hook is the whole dancing thing – we know even before the opening credits that we’re going to see some hot moves, regardless of any subtextual social commentary/ politics/ comment on the human condition/ whatever.
The titles allude to this. Dirty Dancing would probably be better called ‘The Abortion Scandal’ or ‘The Summer I Lost My Virginity’. Footloose might be titled ‘Overcoming Christian Dogma’. And what about all those dance movies that tackle the theme of interracial relationships? (eg: Save the Last Dance, Breakin’). ‘He’s Black and She’s White’ perhaps?
Structurally, the dance movie pretty much goes from Dance to Dance, via Dance. A big dance at the beginning, lots of little dances along the way as the narrative works through its complications, and a big celebratory dance at the end, when all is well. There is literally no deviation from this format, and if there is, it isn’t a dance movie.
Language and Imagery:
With such a clear emphasis on dancing, the dance movie is largely preoccupied with capturing what we can call ‘hot moves’. All these films feature key set pieces sprinkled evenly throughout the narrative, in which great pains are taken to make dancing seem as exciting as is humanly possible. These sequences are always frenetic and busy – lots of bodies throwing lots of shapes and fast editing to make it all that more kinetic. Then there’s the montage…
The Montage (yes, it deserves its own subheading)
A key feature of the dance movie is that bit, somewhere in the middle, where someone needs to get better at dancing in order for the plot to reach resolution. This is where a montage comes in – a little cut up of dance sequences set to energetic, motvational music, by the end of which the protagonists are significantly better dancers than they were, three minutes hence. I love it. Below is a little rundown of some classic dance movie montages:
Dirty Dancing: Johnny and Penny teaching Baby to Rhumba. Song – ‘Hungry Eyes’ by Eric Carman
Footloose: Kevin Bacon teaching his shitkicking hick buddy to barn dance. Song – ‘Let’s Hear It For the Boy’ by Deniece Williams
Breakin’: Turbo, Ozone and Kelly training to form a new breakdancing crew. Song – ‘Ain’t Nobody’ by Chaka Khan
Step Up 2: The misfit dancing form a super dance group to compete in the upcoming underground street battle. Song – ‘Shake Your Pom Pom’ by Missy Elliot
Save the Last Dance: The black guy teaching the white girl how to dance ‘street’. Song – ‘You Know What’s up’ by Donnell Jones
Needless to say, some of the dance movie’s most memorable images are taken directly from the montage sequences. The beauty of the montage is that it’s got almost no purpose other than to show off some dancing, make the protagonists look sexy, and include a few comedic bloopers – perfect to create memorable snapshots.
The beauty of the dance movie is that it has no delusions as to what it is and as a result, a dance is never far away. These films, as you might expect, have a definite rhythm, with regular peaks of dance-fuelled excitement, culminating in a mind-blowing explosion of dance insanity. The narrative is constantly leaning forward towards this culminating moment, be it Dirty Dancing’s swan lift, Footloose’s barn dance or Strictly Ballroom’s rule-defying competition win.
Any quiet moments exist purely to allow the characters to ‘develop’ and/ or reveal poignant facts about their troubled pasts, which makes the subsequent dances all the more important. We care a lot more about Johnny’s ability to cha cha cha after we find out about his subjugated life as an exploited dancer, for example. These moments of pathos tend to come after the montage, setting up a melancholic penultimate act before the victorious ending. Dramatic stuff.
Dancing aside, the dance movie is almost uniformly melodramatic. There’s always some troubling context surrounding all the dance action that drives the narrative forward, and it always leaves the protagonists in some kind of dramatic flux: Love triangles, social pressures, mysterious pasts, lost dreams, racial conflict, et cetera. Further to this, there is always a point reached where things get so screwed up that not even dancing can save the day, until, of course, dancing saves the day. You know when these bits arrive because a)no-one is dancing and b)the soundtrack gets all minor key.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. These films always, and I do mean ALWAYS, end in celebration, a huge triumph where dance has enabled the protagonists to overcome their problems. Yay.
The central message behind every dance movie is as follows:
“No matter who you are, no matter what you do, all of life’s problems can be overcome through dance.”
And when I say ‘problems’ I mean everything up to and including racial injustice, class prejudice, gang warfare, bereavement, parental conflict, religious oppression and poverty. At this point, I ‘m tempted to make some overblown statement about how these films are fundamentally about the resilience of the human spirit and flight of the soul in the face of oppression etc etc, blah blah blah, but I won’t. I’ll leave you to make those conclusions – here’s the ‘Hungry Eyes’ montage from Dirty Dancing, for inspiration. Enjoy.