Dance scenes in movies can often reveal a lot about a character. Sometimes they even serve as pivotal moments for the overall narrative of a film. And perhaps most importantly, the best ones have the power to inextricably link themselves to the songs that they use. Can anyone resist imitating Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega when “You Never Can Tell” comes on? Whether these scenes are surprising, frightening, or just plain fun to watch, a little bit of dancing never hurt.
Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and Kyoko’s (Sonoya Mizuno) synchronized dance to Oliver Cheatham’s disco tune “Get Down Saturday Night” is the quintessential unexpected movie dance scene. Ex Machina is a brilliantly tense film that gets more and more unsettling the further it goes along. Nathan is a pioneer of artificial intelligence, but he’s also an enigma, and we never really know how to feel about him. That is, until this moment where he treats the distraught Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to a little performance. Terror sets in as we realize that, while the man is undoubtedly a genius, he may just be out of his mind.
I’ve always thought that Ex Machina‘s dance scene might have been inspired by this one. They both deliver a terrifying truth—that this guy is fucking insane—in the most fun way possible: through dance! Just as how we’re never really sure what Nathan is thinking in Ex Machina, Michael Madsen‘s Mr. Blonde is surrounded by a shroud of mystery throughout Quentin Tarantino‘s feature-length directorial debut. When he finally breaks out into some cool but reserved dance moves to “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel before severing a man’s ear with a straight razor, we realize that this guy is about a hundred times crazier than any of us could’ve imagined.
When Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) reunite at last in the second film of Richard Linklater‘s Before Trilogy, nine years after they met for the first time in Before Sunrise, you never want their time together to end. The film takes place in real time as Jesse and Celine, perhaps the two greatest conversationalists of our time, walk around Paris. As Jesse keeps making excuses to delay his cab ride to the airport a little longer, we hope and pray that he never leaves. When they finally go back to Celine’s apartment and he puts on some Nina Simone, inspiring Celine to do her best impression, we can finally sit back comfortably, just as Jesse does. He’s gonna miss that plane.
A Bigger Splash
Ralph Fiennes dancing to “Emotional Rescue” by The Rolling Stones is the number one thing you didn’t know was missing from your life. This scene will completely transport you to the state of mind of a carefree summer day. While Fiennes’ character, Harry Hawks, is no angel, who cares when he can command such attention with dance moves like those. Henry is a disruptive force in Marianne’s (Tilda Swinton) life, and nothing better encapsulates his chaotic joie de vivre than this scene. This moment is an endlessly rewatchable reminder that you should be thanking whatever god you believe in every day for giving us Ralph Fiennes.
Call Me By Your Name
A Bigger Splash and Call Me By Your Name are both directed by Luca Guadagnino. He has a knack for perfecting dance scenes. This moment from Call Me By Your Name is able to capture so much in such a simple way. Oliver’s (Armie Hammer) moves might seem silly to some, but how can you not admire someone dancing with such joyful abandon. This confidence and seeming nonchalance are essential to his character. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) sidling into the frame is also a perfect addition. He wants to be close to Oliver, the object of his affection, but not so close as to raise suspicion, while simultaneously pretending not to pay him any attention. The scene is a perfect visualization of Elio’s constant overthinking. If this moment, with its perfect song choice (“Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs) and lush color palette, doesn’t make you wish that you could somehow wake up tomorrow morning and find yourself in Italy in the summer of 1983, you’re lying.
Tom Cruise dancing to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” in his underwear is probably one of the most iconic movie scenes of all time. The scene epitomizes the euphoria of finally getting the house to yourself as a teenager. Though, this moment really only scratches the surface of what Cruise’s Joel will get into while his parents are away.
If you didn’t already think Greta Gerwig was the most charming person on earth, just watch this clip. The scene magically provides the perfect visual for David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” It’s also a lovely reminder that sometimes when you’re fighting with your best friend, can barely afford your rent, and aren’t sure you’ll ever make it in your career, all you need to do to feel better is get out there and dance like nobody’s watching. The scene is also a nice little nod to this equally great moment in Leo Carax‘s Mauvais Sang.
Does anyone out there love music as much as Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) loves Huey Lewis and News’ “Hip To Be Square”? Actually, does anyone really love anything that much? Hard to say. Maybe I’m using the term liberally to call this a dance scene, but Patrick does indeed dance in it, and boy is it memorable. I think I speak for everyone when I say that if you had to get murdered, this would be the ideal way to go out.
20th Century Women
William (Billy Crudup) and Dorothea (Annette Bening) dancing to “The Big Country” by Talking Heads is like a breath of fresh air. At first, they give Black Flag a shot but decide that they’re really more the “art fag” type. Watching these two decidedly un-hip people enjoying Dorothea’s son’s music is a nice reminder that any distance we may feel between ourselves and our loved ones due to a generational gap can easily be closed with the right record.
Do The Right Thing
Spike Lee‘s film has some of the most memorable opening credits of all time. They feature Rosie Perez, in her film debut, dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” Lee has said that this scene was inspired by the opening of the 1963 film Bye Bye Birdie. Perez makes the moment truly iconic with her almost cathartic dance moves and a ton of great outfits. This opening sets the mood for the tensions that will arise throughout the film’s scorching hot day in Brooklyn.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
When Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) dances, the whole world dances. That includes the construction workers near the parade as well as the window washers suspended from the surrounding skyscrapers. Even Ferris’ own father, who—believing that his son is at school—hears the music from his office and does his own little twist and shout. You’ve got to love the way that Ferris Bueller truly seems invincible and admire his dedication to showing the perpetually stressed Cameron (Alan Ruck) a good time.
Little Miss Sunshine
The Hoover family goes through a lot on their road trip from Albuquerque to California. They cover all the bases, from failing at business ventures and seeing lifelong dreams crushed, to a death in the family that leads to some lawbreaking when they leave the hospital with the corpse. But even when their car has been rendered almost undrivable, they carry on for the sake of the youngest Hoover, Olive (Abigail Breslin), who needs to be in California for a beauty pageant. When they finally arrive and realize how underqualified she is compared to the other hypersexualized, professional pageant kids, they worry. In the end, the family decides to sit back and get ready to cheer her on. When, to everyone’s surprise, it is revealed that the dance routine Olive’s grandfather (Alan Arkin) taught her was to Rick James’ “Super Freak,” her dancing is met with shock and disgust from the audience. In a show of support that will bring a tear to your eye, one by one, her family joins her on stage in an effort to spare her any humiliation. As the saying goes, nothing brings a family together like publicly dancing to “Super Freak.”
Honorable mention: Hot Rod
Sometimes, you just need to go to your quiet place.