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.
4. Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing
During the era of The Cosby Show, where an affluent black family lived in a pristine brownstone and danced to introduce every episode, this Rosie Perez-dominated opening both juxtaposed and worked with the sitcom – the dancing body becoming the entry point to the narrative. Her motions perfectly framed both the media environment the film was stepping into and the world that Spike Lee would reveal.
Clips hop back and forth of Perez in a neat dress in front of a clean row of brownstones, in spandex in front of an urban storefront, and as a boxer in front of a graffiti-covered wall. Tough, boxing-influenced dancing moves are intermingled through popular jigs (one of which Cosby kid Vanessa would even use for the show’s sixth season). It is rare example of a full dance scene that is not cut short, and one that rests solely on your engagement with Perez’s movements.
3. Sam Rockwell in Charlie’s Angels
It begins with the revelation that Sam Rockwell’s Eric Knox is evil. Instead of a post-coital embrace with Drew Barrymore’s Dylan Sanders, he turns on Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” and starts to slightly groove. Rockwell’s moves become the physical embodiment of his character’s evilness. First, just the slightest slides and sways leak out, until he’s in his lair, and Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says” begins to play. Then the evil is in full throttle as his feet slide and legs wag, in the style that’s followed the actor through films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and other Jimmy Fallon dancing odes, but now as an indicator of coolness, not evil swagger.
See also: Christopher Walken, who dances more than you might think, though we’re well-reminded of his moves in these post-“Weapon of Choice” days.
2. Elina Lowensohn, Bill Sage and Martin Donovan in Simple Men
The scene is a definite homage to Jean-Luc Godard, as a woman and two men casually dance in a restaurant. Elina begins a strange dance alone, one that offers a mix of verve and stiffness. She stomps, and the men around her are mesmerized, hovering and then joining in when they understand the steps. It’s the organic version of the impromptu dance sequence that would become the centerpiece of many films. It’s also a brilliant, physical encapsulation of Hal Hartley’s aesthetic. It’s revealing and artistic yet raw and melodramatically awkward. They dance, and wordlessly bond as they both capture the screen and continue to groove in the background.
1. Paul Rudd in Overnight Delivery
And sometimes, dance is so ridiculous, and so utterly infused with charm that it becomes the moment people wait for in movie after movie. With Paul Rudd, it’s never about music, but about the wholly particular and ridiculous way he moves. All of Wyatt Tripps’ flamboyant actions lead to this celebratory scene where he lets loose and dances on the truck. His style is so damn insidiously likeable that it continues to slip into most of the films he makes, in some way or another, but it was only relished in all its glory when he got to star in Overnight Delivery.