Thirty years ago, Ren McCormack fought for his right in Footloose. “This is our time to dance,” he argued. “It is our way of celebrating life. It’s the way it was in the beginning. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s the way it should be now.” As Kevin Bacon put on his old sweats and threw an old cassette on the stereo for Jimmy Fallon last week, we were reminded in the resonating power of dance scenes…
Only, we often remember the most polished dance sequences and forget that “from the oldest of times, people danced for a number of reasons.”
Though lists like to remind us over and over of the usual suspects – the films boasting carefully rehearsed choreography ((500) Days of Summer), musical numbers (Singin’ in the Rain), practiced moves (Dirty Dancing), and audacious comedy (Little Miss Sunshine) – there are many memorable dance sequences that break the barriers. Most are raw and unpolished as they push dance out of its narrowly choreographed confines and use it as a method of exploring everything from idiosyncratic inner tension to the charm of goofy exuberance – and they are a pleasure to behold.
9. Denis Lavant and David Bowie in Mauvais Sang
This is, arguably the most overlooked dance scene in cinema – one that slips into your memory and presses you to explore how Lavant’s movements relate to the story. Lavant’s Alex is about to turn on the radio when he explains to Juliette Binoche’s Anna that just tuning in will “get the very tune that was humming inside your head.” He urges that they should “let it guide our feelings,” and he does, the tension and angst exploding out of him as Bowie’s song begins to play. He beats and shakes himself in a careful series of movements until he seems to break out of his inner angst and runs, only to skid to a stop and return to Anna.
8. Greta Gerwig and David Bowie in Frances Ha
In the supplementary materials for Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach swore that his homage to Mauvais Sang wasn’t intentional. He was a fan of that scene, but it infiltrated his feature subconsciously, being both a replica of Lavant’s earlier work and a departure into something new and full of mirth. The twist showed how the slightest tweaks can make the same song both an explosion of inner turmoil and an expressive, running dance of joy.
7. Faye Wong in Chungking Express
In Chungking Express, “California Dreamin’” is Faye’s wishful mantra, and literally, her soundtrack for dreaming of California. She plays it over and over, loud enough to drown out any sound as she tries to immerse herself in her daydreams. Dancing to The Mamas & The Papas is Faye’s way of getting through a night at work, and it’s her daydreaming soundtrack when she plays in Cop 663’s apartment. Every time she starts to sway, her tongs or cleaning supplies becoming instruments to dance with as she moves to the music over and over until she can escape and actually find her way to The Golden State.
6. Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn in Reality Bites
Sometimes the dance isn’t deep or profound, but simply the vehicle for friendly bonding. The Reality Bites scene perfectly encapsulates both character and age in less than a minute. Lelaina and company are trying to be adults, but they’re still locked into youthful capriciousness. “My Sharona” is a song they love, and they can’t help but dance. Their dancing is then juxtaposed with the stodgy Troy, who is mortified at their outburst, but doesn’t chastise them. His choice reveals a level of envy, as he stiffly watches from the sidelines and offers the exasperated cashier a blink-and-you-missed-it smile.
5. Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine
When Ryan Gosling’s Dean chooses to sing “You Always Hurt the One You Love” to the woman he’s pursuing, Michelle Williams’ Cindy, it’s eerily prophetic. Dean and Cindy are doomed, as the flashes to the future relay, but in this moment, the song epitomizes their growing attraction. They have walked, and talked, and they are in that rare space when sharing becomes less guarded – so much so that they fall into the whimsy of youth to relay their growing adult attraction.
Cindy giggles through a chronological listing of the presidents when Dean asks if she has any talents, and then she overcomes her shyness to tap dance for him as he sings. The dance is sweet, but also telling. Cindy is easily embarrassed, and soon stops, but only after feeling comfortable enough to perform for him.