This week, our crack correspondent William Bibbiani has been covering Step Up 3D with real gusto. The film opens on the 6th of August, and as the title promises, it will bring the floor-scorching legacy of its predecessors – Step Up (2006) and Step Up 2 The Streets (2008) – right up into your face. If all goes well, and the producers hold to their even-year sequel schedule, the setup will be eerily perfect for Step Up 2012: Dance Floor Apocalypse. Are you listening, Hollywood?
But swing kids and dancing fools are nothing new to the screen. Throughout the history of film and television, characters have been expressing their hopes, desires, and hang-ups through dance. Today we take a look back at some of our favorite toe-tapping moments. Kick off your shoes and cut a rug with William Bibbiani, Julia Rhodes, and me (Dan Fields). Just watch out for your toes.
**Special thanks to the respective copyright holders of the following sequences, and to the intrepid YouTubers who posted them where we could get our grubby mitts on them.
Charlie Chaplin’s “Roll Dance” in The Gold Rush (1925, dir. Charlie Chaplin)
Funny as it is, The Gold Rush has a lot of tragic elements. Chaplin finds himself snowed in, starved, double crossed and nearly shoved off a number of cliffs. Who but the Little Tramp could make light of all this hardship? Despite all the ensuing antics and comic mischief, Chaplin’s gold rush doesn’t look like any more fun than the real one, though it certainly is exciting.
When not battling the elements and the avarice of his fellow man, Chaplin’s Tramp is busy falling in love. In one very poignant scene, he imagines throwing a splendid dinner party for the girl of his dreams. He charms his guests with an inspired bit of lunacy – a cheery little tabletop dance using his dinner rolls as “feet.” As accustomed as you may be to Chaplin’s pratfalls and skidding around, it’s a wonderful and surprising piece of physical comedy. By now it’s been imitated countless times, but it remains a classic. The greatest gift of a true comedian is imagination, and people like Chaplin had it to spare.
Al Pacino’s tango in Scent of a Woman (1992, dir. Martin Brest)
Colonel Frank Slade (Pacino) is blind, bitter, and at the end of his rope. Charlie (Chris O’Donnell) is friendless and down on his luck. When the old man gets placed in the care of the young man over the holidays, they set about bombarding one another with life lessons. Initially Frank’s intention is to get himself to New York City, engage in a whirlwind of Epicurean delights, and commit suicide on the highest note possible. Charlie just needs a few days of work, faced as he is with the threat of unfair expulsion from a very expensive school.
They cobble an uneasy friendship over the course of the weekend, and despite Frank’s insistence on ending his life, Charlie’s loyal character and need for guidance eat away at his resolve. He takes it upon himself to instruct the younger man in two key areas: standing up for himself, and taking life by the horns while he has the opportunity. The fortunate outcome for Frank is the admission that there may still be people and things in life worth caring about.
At the top of his game, Frank can still be the life of the party. In a swanky restaurant, he and Charlie encounter a lovely woman (Gabrielle Anwar) who seems to have everything in life but a dance partner. Frank is quick to discern this deficiency and obliges by offering himself for a tango. In the process he demonstrates to Charlie (and himself) that his old charm has not abandoned him. He also, presumably, leaves his appreciative partner wondering if an occasional dance is the only thing missing from her life.
Groucho’s Double Romance Dance in A Day At The Races (1937, dir. Sam Wood)
The Marx Brothers had a few advantages over most other comedians. Besides their masterful timing and delivery, they were also brilliant musicians. In addition, Groucho was not a half-bad dancer, but he understood how much comedy could be mined out of looking like a half-bad dancer. In A Day At The Races, he is in rare form.
Most of Groucho’s plot lines involved some variety of sham courtship between Groucho and the long-suffering Margaret Dumont. She always wanted his love and he always wanted her money, and they worked tirelessly to con these things out of one another. Nevertheless, the scoundrel Groucho thought nothing of trying to make a date with any young and vivacious femme fatale to cross his path – usually in the middle of an outing with his doting dowager.
In A Day At The Races, Groucho is knee-deep in one of his usual scams – this time as a fly-by-night veterinarian posing as chief physician to a failing sanitarium for the wealthy. One night, out on the town, he meets an imposing blonde (Esther Muir) specially engaged to seduce and discredit him. Groucho is all too willing for the former and oblivious to the latter, using the confusion of a crowded dance floor to throw himself at her. He adapts his shambling, carefree steps to a number of goofy changes in the music, striking a balance between graceful and positively ridiculous. Every few steps he trots back to his date to spin her around and keep her from storming out altogether… until he’s worked up the nerve to toss her out of the party himself.
The Black Lodge (Red Room) Dance in Twin Peaks (April 19, 1990; dir. David Lynch)
This bears inclusion for its unique peculiarity, rather than for the complexity of the dance. For those not in the know, this sequence is part of a dream that sets Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) solidly on the trail of the most bizarre criminal investigation in the annals of television. At this early point in the show, all we know is that small-town beauty Laura Palmer has been murdered, and that the event, while tragic in itself, threatens to bring a lot of other dirty little secrets to light.
When the FBI sends Cooper to investigate, he finds right away that everyone – I mean everyone – in the charming little town is just a bit… off. However, he gamely warms up to most of them, lets down his guard and reveals a few good-natured eccentricities of his own. Things don’t begin to get outrageously weird until Cooper’s now-famous dream sequence, during which he realizes that absolutely nothing in this place is what it seems. He encounters a cheery little Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson), who speaks in backwards riddles (yep) and abruptly dances away. It’s a simple and understated performance, more perplexing than profound. But the image is eerily striking, and though we may not yet know it, the little man’s dance is a signal that the folks in Twin Peaks are headed once and for all down a great big rabbit hole.
Dancing is a recurring and ambiguous theme in Twin Peaks. It seems to be a way for certain characters to express secrets they cannot tell out loud. It can also provide clues about whom to keep an eye on and when. There are more extended and compelling depictions of dance throughout the series – particularly built around the severely troubled Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) – but something about the dance in the Red Room sets a crucial tone, laying the foundation for the many disturbing events that follow.
The final dance in Swing Kids (dir. Thomas Carter, 1993)
Before Christian Bale was Bruce Wayne and Robert Sean Leonard was Dr. House’s foil Wilson, the two men tackled roles as young German boys at the beginning of WWII. In Thomas Carter’s Swing Kids, Peter (Leonard) and Thomas (Bale) head a close-knit group of teenage boys whose adoration of swing music and dance both keeps them together and rips them apart. When the Nazis took over Germany, forcing boys into the Hitlerjügend (Hitler Youth), a faction of teenagers used forbidden swing music and dance as a cathartic release of the tension that ruled their everyday lives. Thomas, oppressed and bullied by his leftist father, feeds on the authority granted him by the Hitlerjügend, eventually turning on his friends.
In Swing Kids, dance is celebratory, gorgeous, sexy, and ridiculously fun to watch. It also represents these teenagers’ resistance to an unthinkably evil force that was quickly taking over Europe. In the last few minutes of Swing Kids, Thomas uses his insider’s knowledge to organize a HJ raid on a secret swing club. Peter, whose emotional strength is on its last legs, dances by himself to be free from oppression, to feel alive once more, and above all to express his rage and agony. The final scene of the movie, aside from being heart wrenching, is one of film’s finest examples of how expressive dance can be. “Swing heil!”
An underachieving middle school teacher showed Swing Kids in one of my English classes (this was probably when we were reading The Diary of Anne Frank or Chaim Potok’s The Chosen), and despite being thirteen and way too cool for it, most of us cried at the end of the film. Even the boys were sniffling back tears when the lights came up.
The ménage a trois dance in Y tu mamá también (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
Alfonso Cuaron’s inimitably sexy Y tu mamá también is a tragic love story—but not in the Romeo & Juliet sense. Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) are self-absorbed, vacantly obnoxious teenage boys when they set out on a road trip with an older woman, Ana (Ana López Mercado). The journey ends up being both literal and metaphorical, and Cuaron intersperses the boys’ wealthy insensitivity with micro-narratives about the poverty stricken Mexican civilization through which they travel. Unemotional omniscient narration detaches the audience from the protagonists while their antics and eventual outcomes draw viewers back in.
Cuaron’s films often have an overriding color palette—jade green in Great Expectations, olive for A Little Princess, steely gray for Children of Men—and in Y tu mamá también, that palette is citrusy, imbued with golden sunlight and orange desert sand. The movie’s oversaturation, steadicam, and narration create an unforgettable viewing experience, but the movie’s poster portrays the most memorable scene: a drunken ménage a troi wherein the two male leads realize their jealousy over Ana and attraction toward one another are inextricably intertwined.
First, Ana seduces the camera with imploring eyes and the last shot of tequila; then she seduces the two boys. This dance segues into drunken lovemaking, after which all three wake up completely changed. The dance is sexy, sad, and awkward all at once. It sums up the film beautifully, connecting the three characters permanently before they set off down their own paths.
The foreplay dance in Dirty Dancing (dir. Emile Ardolino, 1987)
Dirty Dancing, that late ‘80s coming of age tale that had girls everywhere spinning ungracefully around in swirling skirts and dancing on logs (or was that just me?), remains a favorite over twenty years later. Frankly, as compared to most of the other movies I loved as a kid, Dirty Dancing is one of the best. Jezebel.com’s Irin Carmon wrote that Dirty Dancing is “the best movie of all time,” and The Guardian’s Melissa McEwan calls it a “feminist masterpiece,” and though I won’t go so far as to say it’s the best movie ever, I happen to agree with its feminist undertones.
It’s the early 1960s, pre-free love, post-McCarthyism. Protagonist Frances “Baby” Houseman begins the film certain she’ll never find a guy as great as her dad. She’s prepping for a college major in Economics of Third World Countries and a career in the Peace Corp. On a family vacation to Jewish resort Kellerman’s, Baby learns more about her family and herself than she thought possible—and falls in love with “bad boy” dance instructor Johnny (a young, built Patrick Swayze).
In most other coming of age tales about girls and women, the girl transforms herself somehow by the end of the film (think Grease). In Dirty Dancing, though, nothing about Baby changes. She’s the same person from beginning to end, mostly because she goes into the summer with such an open mind. Those around her do shift and change, alternately garnering her respect, disgust, and apathy. The idea here is, of course, that Baby makes people want to be better. Her idealism outweighs the cynicism of her counterparts. When Johnny falls for Baby, it’s clear she has the power in the relationship—that she has him around her little finger, so to speak. But that’s certainly a good thing.
In no scene is this clearer than in the sequence wherein Baby visits Johnny in his tiny one-room cabin. It’s clear she wants him, and she pulls the strings to make it happen. But this isn’t a scene from a rom-com in which some drunken girl makes googly eyes at her beau or gets into debauchery and antics to get the guy. Baby simply makes her intentions clear, and so rarely is that portrayed sweetly and straightforwardly.
Check out Baby admiring Johnny’s physique and grabbing his ass at 2:08. It’s sexy without being tasteless, it’s sweet without being syrupy. This dance sequence is the first time Baby and Johnny are really alone together, and it’s also one of the rare scenes where the woman—in this case, she being less experienced, more innocent—is the lead. The final dance sequence was a close second to this one, of course.
The Beginning of West Side Story (dir. Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise, 1961)
You may have heard of a little movie called West Side Story. It was based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and reset the events amongst New York City street gangs. It won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, and is one of only two films two win a Best Director Academy Award for two credited filmmakers (The Coen Bros. would do the same, but 46 years later, with No Country For Old Men). So it’s a pretty good movie, and rather famous. I almost feel bad for bothering to recommend it. Oh well. West Side Story really is just that good.
But it’s the bravura opening dance number that we’re here to discuss today, which introduced The Jets and The Sharks prancing their way across the gritty streets of New York. The iconic finger-snapping is now familiar to even those who haven’t seen the film, and if you’re anything like me you probably catch yourself doing it every once in a while, just because you think it makes you look cool. (Even though it probably doesn’t.) Acclaimed filmmaker Robert Wise and his choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins pack a lot of expert filmmaking into these opening minutes, using the synchronized motions of the characters to imply unity, conformity and dominance of their surroundings. Along the way, as the conflict arises between The Jets and The Sharks, beautiful sweeping movements eventually devolve into discomforting violence, which perfectly encapsulates the power of the film to be both a classical musical and an intense condemnation of hatred and its ugly consequences. Exceptional work.
“Smooth Criminal” from Moonwalker (dir. Colin Chilvers, 1988)
Moonwalker isn’t much of a movie, to my recollection. It’s been years since I’ve been able to watch it in its entirety (it’s not readily available on DVD for some reason), but as best I can recall from watching it repeatedly, over and over again as a kid it’s a hallucinatory mish-mash of music videos and shorts, all featuring Michael Jackson, which eventually turns into a weird story about The King of Pop saving some adorable little homeless moppets from a drug dealer played by Joe Pesci. Then Michael Jackson turns into a car or something and flies away to his homeworld. It’s a weird flick, and not terribly concerned with narrative coherence.
But the piece de resistance, and the sequence best remembered by… well, everyone, I suppose… is “Smooth Criminal.” There wasn’t a lot of new music in Moonwalker, so of course the hit new single “Smooth Criminal” stuck out like a sore thumb anyway, but the sequence was so distinctive that it required a new director just to film it. Colin Chilvers (who mostly works as a special effects coordinator) depicted a sequence in which Michael Jackson – for some reason – walks into a 1930’s tavern and finds himself at odds with everyone inside. Naturally, he dances his way out of trouble, but the song’s violent subject matter, coupled with bizarre choreographed sequences of Jackson killing people and crushing cue balls in his bare hands, is still striking today. Add to that a distinctive breakdown, in which the music stops and the entire cast resorts to orgiastic repetition of the lyrics, and “Smooth Criminal” is as subversive as children’s filmmaking can get. (Yes, yes, we all know about the scandals.)
Of course, “Smooth Criminal” ends with Joe Pesci’s sci-fi shocktroopers blowing the hell out of the place and Michael “Friend To All Children” Jackson firing blindly back at them with his Tommy gun. How could it not? But until then we’re given some spectacular and exciting choreography that still impresses today.
The Finale of Step Up 2 The Streets (dir. Jon Chu, 2008)
Step Up 2 The Streets is not a “good” movie. Actually, it’s pretty bad. The plot is lazy and the characters are (at best) caricatures. Normally, that’s a flaw. But Step Up 2 The Streets isn’t about good filmmaking, it’s about great dancing. At no point is any opportunity to show off spectacular dance choreography missed. In fact, if more than a couple of minutes go by without somebody popping – preferably alongside some sweet, sweet locking – the film suffers for it. Luckily, director Jon Chu is intimately aware of this glaring flaw in his own film, and keeps us more-or-less consistently distracted with some of the most exceptional dance moves in recent years… if not decades.
All of this culminates in a dance competition called – get ready for it – “The Streets,” in which the put upon students of a highly respected art school have to prove their superiority to street crews who have no other outlet for self-expression.
…All right, so the film falls apart on closer examination, but to hell with it. At the end of the film, Briana Evigan and her crew “MSA” whip out some of the finest dance moves I’ve seen since Fred Astaire hung up his shoes, all spectacularly shot amidst a torrential downpour of rain which proceeds to act as visceral speed lines to the performers’ sweeping motions. It would be poetry, if the movie didn’t have to suck so much to get there. But screw it… Watch and be wowed.