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Dance Movies That Actually Inspire You to Dance

Dance is a thing of happiness for most, but what films actually convey that feeling?

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To me, dance is life-affirming hobby that I’ve had since I was in my teens. Dance makes me feel alive like few other things. Needless to say, I love dance films. Yet, over the years, I’ve found very few that I like. As I’m currently working on writing some dance films/musicals I used it as the perfect excuse to watch dance films again.

As I watched snippets of some films, rewatched others, despaired ten minutes into yet others, I started pondering what separated the good dance films from the bad ones, the good cinematography from the bad and so forth. So let’s have a look at what themes, beauty and disappointments can be found in dance films.

Themes

People appear to love certain themes in dance movies. Ever seen the following? 

  1. Rich kid meets poor kid and bond over (different) dance styles
  2. Kid needs to get into a dance school/company and has to overcome something to do so
  3. Kid needs to win a competition
  4. Two dance styles merge (usually linking to no. 1 on this list)
  5. One person is teaching another to dance
  6. Dance is used to sort someone’s life out/finding purpose

Even if we go all the way back to Dirty Dancing, it’s about a rich kid who meets a not so rich kid and bond over dance, albeit this time the rich kid doesn’t already know how to dance. And I guess kids are a loose term -- they were adults, really. 

The Good v.s. the Bad

There are many elements that make up a good dance film but the four main ones are:

  1. Plot
  2. Cinematography
  3. Choreography
  4. Acting

One would think that the above four go hand-in-hand and indeed they do in the best productions, but many films seem to be lacking in one or more of the above. I watched Make It Happen yesterday and was wondering why I hadn’t heard of it before while I was watching it? There was some inspired choreography (think Magic Mike, with less dry humping, and women instead of men), the acting wasn’t half bad and the cinematography was good.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Snw9aphiOnQ

Then I woke up this morning and realized I remembered very little of the movie. The plot fell flat. It wasn’t totally unrealistic, or had lines that made you cringe. It was just plain. There was nothing that made it magical. You weren’t that involved in the characters — you were a faraway spectator.

On the other hand, I was awake half the night watching Magic Mike. I remember the first time I watched it I loved the cinematography and I thought they took a gamble by making it so slow paced, yet I thought it was a good movie. This time, I was struck once more by how you got to know the characters. I cared about the characters. Well, I cared about Mike.

The second Magic Mike movie I watched on a plane and I don’t remember being impressed, on the other hand. I remember noting “there were some good moments.”

What really got to me, apart from some notes about choreographies and cinematography, is that you have to fall in love with the characters. Make It Happen is meticulously executed, yet it falls flat. You don’t feel the characters. It’s a plain story, because you only glimpse their lives; scratch the surface. In Step Up (the first one that is), you feel for the guy. You step into his life. You don’t just watch, you feel.

My Favorite Dance Films

With all the above in mind, I have a list of films I love.

Firstly, there’s Dirty Dancing. It’s the first dance film I watched that touched my heart and soul. It made me get up and dance. It also happened to be when I was fourteen and had just started dancing myself. It’s a simple story, but you feel it. And the sexy choreography is legendary. No one puts Baby in a corner! Indeed!

I had the pleasure of meeting the choreographer in L.A. (he also choreographed Michael Jackson) and he told us that Swayse injured his knee in the last scene when he does the jump, but just kept going over and over again till he could barely walk. 

Then, there’s the above-mentioned phenomena named Magic Mike...I mean Channing Tatum. Step Up and Magic Mike are both great films. There’s actually not that many interesting choreographies in Step Up, but you feel the film. And it was done before everyone else tried to do the whole ballet meets street dancing thing.

I absolutely loved watching All That Jazz which is the semi-autobiographical story about Bob Fosse's life. As a dancer I felt that movie, but then his choreography is legendary. I understand the execution looks old now, but the movie is incredible and I grew up with this kind of jazz dancing. To me it is what the dance classes in my teens looked like. 

Musicals. We’ve got some inspired ones there too. Moulin Rouge, The Greatest Showman and La La Land are the ones that stand out to me. They all have great cinematography, but Moulin Rouge and La La Land are definitively more interesting in how they’re put together. I loved the fairytale feel to The Greatest Showman too — it’s beautiful. What’s more, that movie makes me happy. I walked out of the cinema thinking I still had a show in me.

I also remember enjoying Cabaret, but it's not as easy going. I'm a huge Bob Fosse fan though, so the dancing greatly inspired me. 

There are many musicals and I can’t claim to have seen them all, but those are the ones I’ve watched and loved. That's not to say they aren't cliché at all...they are in some ways. But they are great movies too. 

I just started watching the series Flesh and Bone as well and so far it looks promising, but it is very dark. It’s not the kind of thing you watch to lift your spirits — on the contrary, it’s very hard to watch. But it’s well made and you certainly feel for the main character. Black Swan is in the same kind of category of well-made movies that make you wanna run out of the room screaming in pain. 

Another series worth mentioning is Baz Luhrmann's The Get Down -- it is a visual feast. I still haven't watched the whole series, as I wanted to watch it with some teens I work with, to hear their thoughts, but I was impressed when watching the first two episodes. It's heavy subject matters though -- set in Brooklyn in the 70s.

Compare that to his Moulin Rouge. That movie changed my life -- made me set off for Paris... 

Another movie I enjoyed was Burlesque, however, I can’t remember much of it. It was the kind of light-hearted entertainment you forget in a week, or two. Save the Last Dance is also a well-made movie. It doesn't have that much dancing in it, but it's well-written and executed. If you just want to watch dancing the first Center Stage movie has plenty of it, but the plot is not exactly rejuvenating. 

I remember watching both Fame and Flashdance and enjoying some of the choreography, but not exactly the movies. Shall We Dance and Take the Lead were sweet, but fell flat. I intend to rewatch them though, as it has been a long time. And I must confess to never having watched Stomp the Yard... 

Movies like Swing Kids may not be a dance movie per se, but having watched it in my teens, I remember loving it. It was a really good movie. Likewise, Walk the Line isn't exactly a musical, but damn it's good! I have yet to watch A Star Is Born which falls into a similar category. 

I remember watching High Strung a few years back and I got really excited, because the dancing and art direction were superb...but the movie itself was a disaster. 

That’s it. Those are the films I recommend. Some others are good enough for a rainy day, or to have some fun watching dancing, but they are possibly not the kind of movies that will make you jump out of bed and start dancing! 

Great Dance Films and Musicals (not necessarily in the right order)

  1. Dirty Dancing 
  2. Step Up (1)
  3. Moulin Rouge
  4. La La Land
  5. The Greatest Showman
  6. All That Jazz
  7. Magic Mike
  8. Save the Last Dance 
  9. Cabaret
  10. Center Stage 


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