‘At its best, Saturday Night Fever gets at something deeply romantic: the need to move, to dance, and the need to be who you’d like to be. Nirvana is the dance; when the music stops, you return to being ordinary.’ – Pauline Kael
‘People dance because dance can change things. One move can bring people together. One move can make you believe there’s something more. One move can set a whole generation free.’ – Moose, Step Up 3-D
Step Up: All In, the fifth in a contemporary movie franchise that’s second only to Paranormal Activity in terms of frequency and replacability of its cast, opened in theatres across North America last weekend. On the eve of its release, Vulture’s Amanda Dobbins published a list of ‘24 Dance Movies, Ranked by Danciness.’ I expected to disagree with the ranking – that’s what ranked lists are for: debate. But I didn’t anticipate Dobbins to totally misunderstand everything about dance movies! For one, she acts like no dance movies existed before 1977. That aside, the list also features some glaring omissions (both Breakin’ movies, Wild Style, You Got Served), some glaring inclusions (Bring It On?) and – most importantly – the Step Up movies are listed in the complete wrong order! Anyone who thinks the original Step Up movie is the best or even ‘danciest’ of the series is too addled with lust for Channing Tatum to be trusted. There’s more dancing in the average episode of Orange Is the New Black. The sad part is, this (totally wrongheaded) list is, aside from the usual reviews, one of the only pieces of writing you’ll find on dance movies. You can find a million ‘thinkpieces’ online days after Guardians of the Galaxy or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hits movie screens or the most recent episode of Game of Thrones airs, but almost none on that most maligned of action genres: the dance movie.
That’s right. Dance movies are action movies. At any of the few remaining physical video rental stores, you’re likely to find Step Up filed under ‘drama,’ but ‘action’ would be the more appropriate label. What else are action movies but films featuring extended action-based set pieces, physical feats and stunts, and visual spectacle? In fact, most dance movies feature more actual action than the current crop of CGI-smeared action movies. (Compare the stunts in any Step Up to one of the Expendables movies.) But because that action is ‘feminized’ (in our traditional gender binary notions of the feminine), dance movies aren’t seriously considered action movies. This distinction may be a Hollywood bias: in Bollywood films, action movies frequently feature song and dance numbers, as in the highly entertaining Dhoom series.
I love kung fu movies. What is a dance movie but a pacifist kung fu movie? (And yes, I realize that many kung fu protagonists are pacifists compelled into violence.) Think about it: heroes from humble origins must defeat others in displays of action, a series of battles. Or competitions. How is that not like every dance movie you’ve seen? Dance is non-contact martial arts. The black Power Ranger, Zack, was on to something with his personal brand of Hip Hop kido.
Audiences of dance movies, like the audiences of martial arts films, are there for the action. They want to see dazzling dance moves, they want to see popping, locking, and the occasional lift. The thinner the plot, typically the better (which is proven by the Step Up series), but those thin dance movie plots are nearly always marinated in real social problems and class struggle. Let’s assume Saturday Night Fever (1977) is the first contemporary dance film, separating it from earlier classics like The Red Shoes (1948) or Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Saturday Night Fever is largely remembered for its disco-pathic fashions and choreography (and fair enough), but have you seen Saturday Night Fever? It’s more disturbing and damning than Raging Bull in its portrait of working-class masculinity. (Following this film, it was extremely rare for the protagonist of a dance movie to try to rape his dance partner.)
And let’s not pretend Saturday Night Fever is some kind of outlier in the dance genre. Perhaps it’s more gritty and realistic than some of its antecedents, but many dance movies tackle social issues. So much so, they seem like the ‘message films’ of the 1930s and ’40s, but with, like, way more dancing. Think of the examples: Footloose (religious conservatism), Dirty Dancing (class differences, abortion), Billy Elliott (again looking at working-class masculinity), Save the Last Dance (interracial relationships). Early street dance films Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, which basically drafted the blueprint for nearly all dance films that followed, also featured an interracial dance relationship 17 years before Save the Last Dance. Can we pretend Silver Linings Playbook is a dance movie about mental illness? Because when I think of it that way, it makes me really love it.
Step Up: Revolution is more politically ambitious (and thus, ridiculous) than most dance movies. Revolution’s protagonists, dance crew The Mob, aim to raise class consciousness through flash-mob-style dance interventions. Sure, the film’s understanding of class and American economics is not … let’s say … sophisticated. But it’s no less sophisticated than, say, critical darlings The Dark Knight Rises or Snowpiercer. And yes, its entire political message is undermined in the final moments when The Mob accepts a contract from Nike. While product placement is probably the real culprit behind that final-act twist, I prefer to think that Step Up: Revolution’s political message was deemed, by the film executives, to be simply too anarchic to be unleashed, undiluted, upon Step Up’s primarily tween audience.
Subsuming all these particular social issues and themes in dance movies is a subversive streak of utopianism. That is, in these movies, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, once you’re on that dance floor. Dance battles have become a staple of dance films since Breakin’, and are the highlight of every Step Up movie (and its British equivalent, StreetDance). Dance battles are an amazing utopian wish fulfillment: to think that rival gangs can resolve their conflicts through aggressive dance. Perhaps it’s the dream of all musicals: to solve your complex problems through song and dance. Audiences know that in real life (IRL), some idiot like Riff from West Side Story (1961) would bring a knife or a gun, and the dance battle would end the old-fashioned, tragic way.
But utopianism is what these dance movies represent, not only in their dance battles, but in their vision of urban (and, sometimes, suburban) America, with their multi-ethnic dance crews (what would the Step Up movies be without tWitch or Jenny Kido or the Santiago Twins?) and frequent black or female protagonists – almost all dance movies pass the Bechdel Test. Even the dancing itself manages, in most dance movies, to avoid the touristy cultural appropriation of Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift videos through a mixture of respect and inclusion. (The only way dance movies continually fail is in their representation – or non-representation – of LGBTQ characters.) The utopianism continues behind the cameras. Look at how many people of colour and women are directors on dance films and compare that to any other genre of film: Sylvain White (Stomp the Yard), Thomas Carter (Save the Last Dance), Malcolm D. Lee (Roll Bounce), Dania Pasquini (StreetDance 2, StreetDance 3D), Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3-D), Trish Sie (Step Up: All In). Audiences know that this racial and gender utopianism doesn’t exist in real life – perhaps this week more than ever – but its wonderful to imagine it exists on the dance floor.
The primary struggle of all dance films, however, is the one so cynically portrayed in Sydney Pollack’s super-depressing dance film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969): dance as a way to rise above one’s station. In that film, and films like Flashdance (1983), it’s specifically an economic rise. But the best dance films show instead the transcendence dance can bring to individuals living in hard times, whether they be the relative misery of rural America in Footloose or suburban malaise in Girls Just Want to Have Fun or the urban decay of You Got Served. Think of the clowns and krumpers in the documentary Rize (2005) and the meaning dance brings their lives in post-riot south central Los Angeles, or even how, in the great documentary Planet B-Boy, hip-hop culture and dance struck a chord with Algerian immigrants living in France and rural South Korean teenagers. Maybe the utopianism of dance battles is possible in the real world.
Without fail, the most important scenes in dance movies are the dance sequences. I’d argue this is true of many non-dance films: consider the climax of Napoleon Dynamite (2004) or Ducky’s Otis Redding lip-synch in Pretty in Pink (1986). The dance sequence is when characters are able to transcend their unfortunate circumstances – even their selves – if only while dancing. And they do so in a marriage of movement and music that truly takes full advantage of the film medium. Like a Jackie Chan fight sequence, the choreography and sound and editing of the dance sequence brings film close to its true potential. You can keep your thousands of exploding nondescript spaceships or exploding tanker trucks; let me watch Donald O’Connor make ’em laugh in Singin’ in the Rain, or Moose and Camille turn their neighbourhood into an impromptu dance studio in Step Up 3-D. It’s these dance sequences that place dance movies somewhere between action film and abstract art (see Step Up: Revolution’s scene in the Miami Museum of Fine Arts). Like the Sufi Whirling Dervishes, the heroes and heroines of dance movies attempt to reach spiritual ecstasy through ever-more frenetic music and movement. Really, Step Up 3-D is a more religious film experience than The Ten Commandments or any Kirk-Cameron-directed opus.
Despite all this, dance movies are overlooked, unexamined as a genre, which is unfortunate at least. A travesty at most. If anything, I hope these scattered thoughts serve as a rallying cry for more thoughtful analysis. Even the late, great Roger Ebert – a massive Jackie Chan enthusiast – could never seem to muster any love for these pacifist kung fu epics. But perhaps that notion that the power of dance movies lies in the transcendence of dance itself makes it so difficult to write about. The things that make dance movies so important are impossible to qualify in words. To paraphrase Elvis Costello, it’s like dancing about architecture. And so, movie critics will continue ignore and gently deride the genre. That’s cool. Moose, tWitch, Camille, and I will be over here, dancing on the right side of film history.
Special thanks to Sarah Dunn and Crissy Calhoun, friends who introduced me to the magical world of Step Up.