Once again we find ourselves on the doorstep of that great celebration of romance and love: Valentine’s Day. And while there are as many ways to express love as there are to express devotion to and thankfulness for your loved ones, dance remains a universally popular choice. And why not? What other medium gets the heart-pounding and the hips swaying with as much ease? The popularity of dance as an expression of romantic intention is steeped in our popular culture, and countless films portray lovers dancing it out when words fail them. In the spirit of celebrating the intersection of love and motion, here are some of the most famous and romantic dances from Hollywood productions and a bit of background and exploration of the styles that went into the creation of these iconic scenes. Maybe these vignettes will even inspire you to step into the romantic side of choreography.
West Side Story (1961) – The Dance at the Gym
One of the aspects of West Side Story that makes the film timeless is its brilliant use of choreography and the way it propels the emotional narrative through movement. Nowhere in the movie is this awe-inspiring group performance more on display than in the scene at the gym dance. With the use of a kaleidoscope of quickly changing dance styles, Jerome Robbins perfectly shows the extreme range of emotions within the chaotic experience of young love. The dance number opens with a classic game of “pick your partner” as the tension builds into a wild mambo-influenced dance party—complete with dazzling flips and spins. This display heightens and underscores both the cultural tensions between the two groups of dancers and the competitive, almost dangerous side, of teenage love. Just when the action reaches a fever pitch, everything freezes and slows down into the background as Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) see each other across the dance floor. Suddenly the room is all lowlights and dreamy colors, with couples performing a ballet-inspired circular dance as the two leads slowly draw towards each other for a forbidden kiss. Beyond being a perfect example of Robbins’ groundbreaking choreography, this might be the most romantic dance scene in Hollywood history. Robbins’ ability to marry emerging styles of dance to the technical excellence of his formal ballet training was and still is utterly genius.
Dirty Dancing – Time of My Life
Worlds collide, and tensions come to a head in the final scene of this film when working-class hero Johnny Castle takes Baby out of the corner and onto the stage to win over the hearts and minds of The Catskills’ resort attendees, Baby’s disapproving father, and movie audiences worldwide. From the anachronistic but irresistible smash hit title song to the instantly iconic “Lift,” this passionate dance is one for the ages.
Choreographer Kenny Ortega drew inspiration from various Latin dances from his childhood, particularly the mambo, referring to much of the movement performed by stars Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey as a “dirty mambo.” Like the theme song itself, these risqué “dirty” maneuvers were teased throughout the film, as the dance instructor Castle and other employees ditch the foxtrots and waltzes of their day jobs for a less formal style during their secret dance party sessions. To achieve his vision for the intense final dance, Ortega combined aspects of mambo, salsa, and traditional ballroom dancing to create an iconic and deeply romantic scene that has been referenced countless times in movies, pop culture, and any wedding venue near you.
La La Land – A Lovely Night
When La La Land was released in 2016, it was acclaimed by movie fans worldwide as a welcome homage to the heyday of big production Hollywood dance musicals. With its brilliant period-invoking lighting and lush cinematography creating a distinct aesthetic backdrop, choreographer Mandy Moore (no, not that Mandy Moore) put an incredible amount of work and detail into her sequences to match the overall mood. In a film full of large-scale, dazzling ensemble dance numbers–including the famous “freeway” opening– this scene sticks out for its wry and furtive celebration of the back-and-forth beauty of first date flirting. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Amelia (Emma Stone) tease each other while walking to their cars after a party in the Hollywood Hills with little dismissals and put-downs until the majestic vision of the city lights and their feelings overcome them. The music swells up-tempo and they break into a streetlight-lit dance to express their romantic frustrations and nearly meet with a kiss until they are interrupted by that mundane modern prop: The cell phone. This delightful piece is, as much of the film’s choreography, influenced by jazz dance, and Moore draws particularly from the foxtrot to create a street sweeping couple’s dance that works with the concept of space to push the dancers closer and closer until they resolve face to face in the glow of this nearly perfect evening’s sky.
The Sound of Music – The Ländler
This scene is the beginning of the romance between the stiff and old-fashioned Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and the free-spirited young nanny Maria (Julie Andrews). Set during an elegant grand society party, complete with ballroom waltzes and formal attire, this dance is more than just a sea-change of romantic tension in the narrative of the story: It’s also an excellent and subtle portrayal of the softening of von Trapp’s haughty, high-class demeanor, done in by the subtle and graceful powers of love and the more common charms of Maria. Seeing Maria teaching his son dance, the Captain asks her to teach him. At once we are invited into a brilliant examination of their respective worlds as he leaves the ballroom waltz formality of the party to dance the Ländler. The Ländler is an Austrian/Germanic folk dance whose roots and time signature are intertwined with that of the waltz, yet it maintains a lowlier position in the eyes of high society. Meeting Maria at her level, and learning from her, changes their relationship dynamic further and brings new energy into this budding romance. And beyond all of that, the scene is simple, sweet, and beautiful.
Grease – You’re the One I Want
The natural tension between partners from two wildly different backgrounds is often the catalyst for the chemistry that is so essential for a good romantic dance scene to work. And while this scene is certainly a bit more raucous than some of the other selections on this list, there is no shortage of the kind of red-hot emotional charge that takes our breath away. Danny (John Travolta) and Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) are opposites, like water and pomade at the beginning of the film, with Danny the greaser outclassed by Sandy’s foreign allure at every turn. However, by the time the film reaches this sequence, they have each switched their look, adopting affectations from the other one’s set. Realizing that exchanging fits was just a ploy to draw them closer, they celebrate their love with a rock ‘n roll and doo-wop song and dance duet that scorches the school fairgrounds. Choreographer Patricia Birch started her career as a discovery of Merce Cunningham and a protege of Martha Graham but found herself drawn to the bright lights of Broadway when her work as a dancer began to feel confining. By the time she choreographed Grease, she had a two-decade career in Broadway musicals under her belt, making her the perfect choice to fuse the music of throwback rock ‘n roll and cutting edge disco with the bright sock hop-inspired dance routines that make this production a classic.
Scent of a Woman – The Tango
There are certainly many films that feature the tango as either a major scene-stealer or a narrative centerpiece. Movies like Moulin Rouge, Frida, and Tango all feature classic performances of this sensual and occasionally explosive dance style with varying degrees of romance and fervor. However, the true draw of the dance itself is showcased extremely well in this film in a vignette that does not itself contain the elements of traditional romantic love. During a scene when Charlie (Chris O’Donnell) is caretaking for and guiding the blind Frank (Al Pacino) around New York, they encounter Donna (Gabrielle Anwar) who is patiently waiting for her absent date. Frank introduces himself, and despite his physical handicap, teaches Donna the captivating beauty and power of the tango as a group of restaurant musicians accompany them and the dining room crowd looks on. Although there isn’t the familiar theme of pursuing love or the epiphany of mutual attraction on the dance floor, the action melts the viewer with the glorious and universal sensuality of this exquisite dance that inspires people of all walks of life to get up and move. It’s a very compelling attraction, because as Frank says, “No mistakes in the tango, not like life…that’s what makes the tango so great if you make a mistake…just tango on.”