Dance seems to be having a moment right now. It could be in part due to the ever-growing popularity of reality dance competitions like So You Think You Can Dance; an entry point for a layman to understand more of the complexities of the art form. But it could also just be a natural extension for creatives to understand and experience emotions in a less linear, cinematically new way. When the only way to express yourself is through the movements of the body, visual storytellers can boldly explore and approach themes and ideas in ways that we haven’t seen on screen before. But still, sometimes dance is just dance, a moment for the screen to explode in a kinetic way that captures an audience’s attention more than any line of dialogue could.
Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s classic witch film Suspiria and provocateur Gaspar Noe’s new vision Climax are bold new expressions of dance dripping with dread and horror while still feeling spirited and alive in ways film audiences may be unaccustomed to. From Pina Bausch to Pieces, prestige classics to schlocky giallos, dance in film has long been used to embellish and relate to our greatest joys and deepest fears.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s seminal film adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson tale isn’t famous for its plot, dripping with romantic melodrama. What it’s best remembered for is its impeccable art and production design and the grand 15-minute presentation of the ballet-within-the-movie The Red Shoes.
In garish, quasi-Brechtian make-up the ballet is impeccably danced by Moira Shearer, but it’s the core story that is so reminiscent of horror films. An evil shoemaker constructs a pair of red ballet slippers that once worn you will become a virtuoso ballerina. The only catch? You’ll never be able to take them off, or ever stop dancing. The haunting story is only matched by the haunting visuals, its influence evident across cinema.
What makes Juan Piquer Simone’s Pieces so alluring is how inexplicable it is. It’s so over the top, so violent, and wears its weirdness proudly on its sleeve but things just sort of happen in Pieces, which is what makes the dance scenes stand out.
Is it a dance class? An aerobics work out? It doesn’t really matter with that disco beat driving the unison chants of the dancers. But it’s the second moment of dance that’s the most memorable. Clearly meant to be sensuous with its sultry saxophones, despite being utterly vanilla, the killer’s lingering presence and the striking use of shadow build the tension of the film’s third kill quite beautifully. Beautiful, you know, for Pieces.
Black Swan (2010)
Black Swan is a body horror movie in more than one way. While there is the psychological deterioration of Nina (Natalie Portman), resulting in mind-bending hallucinations that result in grotesque bodily transformations, there is also the very real body trauma that all ballet dancers put themselves through. From broken toes and ankles to the limitations they put on their bodies to create the exquisite shapes they make on stage.
The transformation of the male dancer into the monstrous Rothbart at the beginning of the film though is a perfect example of the hypnotic nature of dance and how it can reflect a psychological state. The flourishing pirouettes, partnered with another figure controlling the principal dancer in a swirling chaotic duet of bodies. It’s the perfect prelude to the slowly crumbling reality around Nina, as her world slowly unravels.
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
How do you make a sequel to “the scariest movie of all time”? Well, in the case of Exorcist II: The Heretic, clumsily. While Richard Burton taking up Father Merrin’s rosary beads to fight the demon Pazuzu deserves considerable praise for its Casting Director, Linda Blair understandably didn’t want to wear the possession make-up again. And to distance Regan even further from the iconic original, they re-introduce her in a very unexpected way: through tap dance. Seen rehearsing at the beginning of the film, and through her possession hysteria breakdown later, the tapping just feels incongruous. You could almost say it feels tap-shoehorned in.
The Battery (2012)
Not every dance scene needs to be perfectly trained and have inspired (or cheesy) choreography to be remembered. Some of the most effective dance scenes come from performers who aren’t exactly light of foot but rather can imbue the moment with a pitch-perfect emotion that can make the expression of dance full of yearning and anguish, while still being blithely exuberant. And zombies aside, we’ve all danced the dance of Jeremy Gardner in The Battery.
Inebriated, free, and intentionally trying to push away the low-hanging dread and doom at the core of this micro-budget zombie opus, Gardner moves his body elegantly through space, a bottle of whiskey clasped in his hand as he relishes in a moment to feel normal again.
Wim Wenders’ film is possibly the most undefinable movie on this list. It’s part documentary, part 3D dance film, but it feels shallow to call it just that. Because the heart and the soul of the film lie in the breathtaking artistry and choreography of Pina Bausch. Her dance storytelling is unparalleled; imaginative and daring in ways that attracted visual filmmakers like Wenders and Pedro Almodovar for his film Talk To Her.
But what I find most enticing is the unapologetic violence in her choreography. Bodies crash into each other in illusionary ways, each dancer’s elbows pounding into their sides leaving bruises the size of fists. The opening dance The Rite of Spring is unequivocally one of Bausch’s most influential works, made up of bodies in a blank space filled with earthy red dirt. In this rustic setting, it’s impossible not to feel the elements of folk horror as an unnamed man drags off a woman clad in a mysterious red dress away to the shadows. From the ominous dead drops in The Falling Dance to the seething manic rage of Café Müller, Pina Bausch painted nightmares with movement.
The Greasy Strangler (2016)
It’s an understatement to say that Jim Hosking’s debut feature The Greasy Strangler is a love-it-or-hate-it film. It’s really more of a love-it-or-utterly-despite-it film. But for those who can see past the scatological humor and aggressive grossness of the movie, you’ll find a film that is at an Andy Kaufman-level of anti-comedy. Sure it’s grotesque, but it’s blisteringly funny with a lingering wisp of sentimentality, enough to make Hosking an exciting new genre voice.
The movie’s absurdity coalesces with Big Ronnie’s big dance number, an utterly hypnotic moment where he joyously swings his faux phallus back and forth down a sidewalk. There is nothing technically astounding with the actual steps, but the out-of-time heightened theatricality of a spotlight on a city street ever so slightly evoking Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain makes it an instant cult classic.
Ex Machina (2014)
While it’s been evoked recently, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina has a perfect fusion of what makes these out-of-the-blue dance scenes work. Behind Nathan’s (Oscar Isaacs) swirling elbows and in sync disco steps (provided by Arthur Pita, seemingly channeling Michael Bennet’s Turkey Lurkey Time) is a seething drunken paranoia that is on the cusp of snapping.
There is a tension palatable between Domnhall Gleeson and Isaacs that is eerily glossed away behind the exuberant dance. But the exuberance can’t be denied, and Isaacs and Sonoya Mizuno dancing is a sight beholden to be instantly GIF’d.
Strange Behavior (1981)
Also known as Dead Kids, this New Zealand exploitation (Nzploitation?) lost classic is a personal favorite of mine thanks to my introduction to the film at a midnight screening with a packed house jiving on the nutty slasher about mind control and shadowy experiments. More surprisingly though is that it’s written by Bill Condon (Chicago), who would later win an Academy Award for Gods and Monsters.
But it’s the inclusion of this flash in the pan synchronized dance moment as a masked killer stalks some horny teens outside that is truly inspired. The dance itself is nothing more than glorified jumping, but as the camera pans back and we see the entire party joining — it truly is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of cinema magic.
Stage Fright (1987)
Stage Fright, a giallo film directed by Dario Argento protege Michele Soavi, is best remembered by the mask of its principal killer: a giant demented owl head. It’s striking, original, but mostly unnerving as attached to the lanky body of a dancer. We’re introduced to this figure as it comes leaping through a street scene as part of a musical based on the fictional killer “The Night Owl”. The dancing feels like the demented spawn of Jerome Robbins and Michael Kidd, with strong, masculine leaps and lifts, but lacking any clear dance storytelling which may be due to the lack of choreographer credited on the film. But it doesn’t matter, because nothing is more delightfully surreal than the image of a giant owl masked dancer jetéing across the stage.
Murder Rock (1984)
Not to give too much credit to Lucio Fulci, but Murder Rock’s opening song does feature breakdancing, relatively new to the early 80s that would gain further popularity with the cult classic Breakin’ and Beat Street, both released after Murder Rock. This means that there was a time when, to see breakdancing on film, you could either watch Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style or Lucio Fulci’s Murder Rock!
The dancing in this New York-set giallo is inspired by Michael Bennet’s seminal choreography in A Chorus Line. From the explosive energy to the strong lines of the dancer’s legs, the choreography is perfectly matched by Doreen Charter and Keith Emerson’s (of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) whirlwind synthesizer score. But the creatives don’t try to hide the Flashdance parallels (a European alternate title for the film is Slashdance) especially in the one solo dance moment that feels directly lifted from the most iconic scene of Adrian Lyne’s film, just with an extra dash of Fulci’s signature sleaze.
Killer Workout (1987)
I have a theory about the more aptly named Aerobicide. Released straight to VHS in 1987, the film plays more like a soft-erotic exercise tape than a giallo-lite late 80’s slasher. Edit out the cookie-cutter plot of a disfigured beauty model and her identical twin and their fitness club, and I could see people conceivably being able to follow the dance aerobics steps from the leisure of their own living room. Unsurprisingly, the male gaze is gratuitous in these dance scenes, but they do feel directly inspired by the endlessly gif-able 1985 film Perfect.
Dead & Breakfast (2004)
Released in 2004 on the heels of the resurgence, and reappreciation, of Sam Raimi’s filmography (due to the global success of Spider-Man), Dead & Breakfast attempts to make a musical pastiche towards Raimi and his Kiwi cousin Peter Jackson’s early works. The film is about a group of friends road-tripping to a wedding who stop off at a bed and breakfast only to accidentally summon the ancient evil “Kuman Thong” which possesses future horror director Oz Perkins and causes zombie mayhem around the tiny country town.
The film is scored by a country-western greek chorus, sung by Zach Selwyn, which provides musical commentary on the story. As our survivors barricade themselves inside the B&B, rather than sieging the house, the undead performs a shuffling line dance with just the right amount of Thriller thrown in without becoming completely derivative. And if you can forgive the rap-country motif, it’ll hook you with its catchy chorus and earworm of an intro.