I Just Feel Like Dancing: Dance and Choreography in Film
As part of #InternationalDanceDay, I wrote a list of some of my favourite choreographed dance sequences in films
As someone with an avid interest in dance (used to be a dancer when I was younger), I’ve always found it especially impressive when there’s a dance sequence/ choreographic movement in films and music videos. They can be very hard to pull off as there's a risk of it being mediocre, but when done well, it can make the film memorable.
There is a difference however when talking about dance for film. There is dance in film and dancing for camera. The latter is generally about films where dance and choreography is the main theme of the film. Think musicals or dance films such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Dirty Dancing (1987), Saturday Night Fever (1977), Footloose (1984), Chicago (2002) or the contemporary dance franchise of Step Up, Honey (2003), or Oscar winning ballet production Black Swan (2010). The filming and editing in dance films add many layers and twists in the plotline as well as psychological and emotional depth to the story.
Although dance in film can have a number of dance sequences, it is another type of art form. Films using dance techniques (not making it the central theme like the films listed above), mostly focus on the choreography of movement as a way to express the the varying tones and moods in the film.
Dance has been seen as a source of entertainment rather than being described as an art form. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century when the study of dance began in earnest; identifying its socio-historical, biological and psychological factors it plays in our cultural society from communicating thoughts and ideas to emotions and perspective.
Recognised as a subgenre in film, dance in film and dance films bring forth the spatial and physical aspects of dance and choreography, combining with the visuals and storytelling of film and video which form into a hybrid expressionist medium.
Without further ado, here’s a list of 10 great choreographed movements and dance sequences in films:
Beau Travail (2000)
Speaking on this particular scene for Senses of Cinema, French director Claire Denis talks about bodies in motion, “since I was a teenager, addicted to music and dance and nightclubbing, I never thought about choreography. And it’s only because, after a while, choreographers came to me and said, “We are interested in your work.” “Like Bernardo Montet, with whom I made Beau Travail. I was not aware. I was just doing it the way I felt it.” “I remember when I was young, a teenager, and going to parties and dancing, that girl, that boy, both very shy, suddenly revealing so much by dancing.”
While today’s definition of voodoo conjure up dark images (since its Westernisation), its original aspects focused on the worship of the earth, sun, water and air. It’s followers believed that there is an invisible link between the spirit and those from the land of the living, death being a transition to the invisible world and that their ancestors who passed before them continuing to guide and watch over them on earth.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
‘You’ll Be A Woman’
No matter the current problems that Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction was facing, in this particular scene, she lets her guard down and becomes this carefree woman, dancing being that escape route to allow her to express herself in another dimension before falling to her vices. The song of choice ‘You’ll be a Woman’ by Neil Diamond reflects the scene as Mia Wallace is searching for that something throughout the film which will give meaning to her complicated life.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Five teens from different social groups are stuck in a school for detention on a Saturday afternoon. While their movements differ from the other, in the end the characters and the viewer sees that the teens are not that different from each other.
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Jennie Livingston’s masterpiece of a documentary portrays the drag scene in the Bronx, New York. The film highlights how dance plays such an important role on ‘everything we do with our bodies’. “The rhythm of the film are the fabulous gestures, poses and struts that comprise riotous ball performances (to chants of WERK! WERK! WERK!).”
Donnie Darko (2001)
‘Sparkle Motion- Notorious’
Awkward and age-inappropiate dance sequence to Duran Duran’s song by Donnie’s 12-year-old sister and her dance troupe while their eerie like faces (they’re not smiling), adds to the sinister feel of the film.
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
“The very word geisha means artist. And to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art” (quote taken from the film). Throughout the film, Sayuri struggles with the process of being a geisha but in this scene, she finally comes into her own and triumphs over her fears and challenges. The scene soon changes into a maniacal one with the coming of a snowstorm. It’s described as a moment where her dance goes hand in hand with taking control and feeling out of control. This is a powerful and haunting scene.
Black Swan (2010)
The feeling of dread and impending doom is captured brilliantly by Darren Aronofsky as it all comes down to a dramatic and violent end. The film itself had many intense moments. However, the ending is rather disturbing. Was she still in a state of psychosis or is what is happening to her actually real? Natalie Portman and her body double really did the character justice. It's a very dark and unsettling film yet at the same time, beautiful. It delves deep into our obsession with perfection that can often lead to a darker path. A kind of mirror into the world of the ballerina? It’s a known fact of their gruelling training to get to the very top.
Blues Brothers (1980)
Walking into something which resembles a swing dance scene or Saturday night club rave rather than a church mass, brothers Jake and Elwood ‘Blues Brothers’, begin their mission from God to save the catholic orphanage they grew up in. The mass is held by none other than the iconic James Brown who could convince anyone to join his church service even if you aren’t a religious person.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
You can’t talk about dance in films without mentioning the brilliant Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. The film became a sort of green light to showcase how dance and choreography can have an impact in a film if done well, which in this case, it has. Winning numerous awards, critics and theorist began to deconstruct the relationship between the dancer and the camera.