Since day one, Hollywood has had an obsession with dance that has translated into a long and enduring filmography. From big blockbuster productions from the golden age of Tinseltown to irreverent comedies, coming of age movies, and trend-setting spectacles, dance films have always been hot. There are far too many out there to mention without a catalog of names, so we’ve compiled a quick list of some of the real winners, in no particular order, for your consideration.
This funny and touching coming-of-age tale that was adapted from a play was so popular upon its release in 2000 that it inspired a novelization and spawned a hit Broadway musical. Set in a dreary working class coaltown in Northern England during the miner’s strikes of the mid-1980’s, Billy Elliot tells the story of a young boy from humble means who becomes obsessed with ballet. Forced to hide his passion from his gruff, widowed father, young Billy sets off on a personal journey of discovery, learning firsthand about the transformative beauty of dance. Featuring a thumping soundtrack of period-correct punk and glam rock songs, full of exuberant dance scenes, comedic moments, and a thrillingly dramatic finale, Billy Elliot is a must-see movie about an outcast who finds a home in dance.
This coming-of-age drama is about a group of young dancers in New York going through the rigors of dance instruction in a prestigious ballet school, the fictional American Ballet Academy. The usual teenage tensions and renegade free spirits weave through a story about performance and rebellion, with a soundtrack that gave us Mandy Moore’s smash hit ‘I Wanna Be With You.’ This is an excellent film for the troubled young dancer inside who just wants to break out on their own terms.
Set in Venice Beach during the early days of hip hop culture, this 1984 musical captures the essence of breakdancing as an art of the people. An unlikely group of friends emerges from a chance encounter, and decide to form a street dance troupe to showcase their love of breakdancing. More than anything else, Breakin’ captures the upstart, underdog energy of early 1980’s b-boy culture, as the protagonists navigate the stuffy world of professional dance competitions to breakthrough with the fresh moves of the street. It is a true dance classic.
Another great flick from the early 80’s, Footloose is about a young newcomer into a small dusty town who makes it his mission to take on the local prohibition against dancing. Loosely based on real events in a town in Oklahoma in the late 1970’s, and propelled by a Kenny Loggins-heavy rock and roll soundtrack and exceptional performances from young virtual unknowns Kevin Bacon, Chris Penn, and Sarah Jessica Parker; Footloose is a movie that showcases the youthful rebellion and innovation of dancing.
Are you in the mood for a dance musical from the halcyon days of lavish Hollywood sets and mega-productions? Long considered to be the gold standard of classic dance musicals, Swing Time is a dream and motion, with its stars Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire at the peak of their careers. With music and lyrics by another timeless combo, Broadway masters Jerome Kerns and Dorothy Fields, Swing Time tells the story of a chance meeting between a down-on-his-luck gambler and a pretty young dance instructor, and leads the audience through love triangles and twists of fate every bit as exhilarating as the lush dance numbers that propel the story to a wonderful Hollywood conclusion. If you want to experience the heart of what Hollywood dance productions were like in their heyday, Swing Time is the place to start.
Before he broke through internationally with his milestone theatrical films like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, director Baz Luhrmann made his film debut with this little gem. Set in the world of competitive ballroom dancing, this Australian romantic comedy tells the story of Scott Hastings, a talented and innovative dancer from an underclass background with an incredible competitive will. From start to finish, this movie shows the difference between a go-by-the-books team player and an electrifying audience favorite, forcing the viewer into rooting for a pair of dancers whose moves are not, strictly ballroom.
An American in Paris
Singin’ In The Rain is arguably a more popular movie from the Gene Kelly canon, but nothing in his filmography is quite as stunning as An American In Paris. Inspired by and set to the music of George Gershwin, An American In Paris finds Gene Kelly at the height of his powers, with the genre of musical comedy at its absolute zenith in the film’s release year of 1951. The movie tells the story of a bohemian American painter trying to make his way into the high society world of the Paris art scene. Full of delightful music, song and dance numbers, the background scenic beauty of the City of Lights, and a dramatic penultimate scene set in masked ball, An American In Paris is a stunning work of art in the highest degree.
Like its fellow decade hit Footloose, this teenage sleepover classic tells the story of youngsters overcoming odds to find love through dance. Set in the culturally conservative world of the Catskill resorts in 1963, the anachronistic soundtrack full of a mix of hits from the early 60’s and the 1980’s (most notably the prom dance mainstay (I’ve had) The Time Of My Life), powered a fiery chemistry between stars Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. The plot may occasionally be cheesy and predictable, but the fierce dancing and chemistry is wild and abundant in this cinematic romp.
Singin’ In The Rain
An iconic film and an excellent companion piece to ‘An American In Paris,’ this production has the feel of a monumental piece of art, where all of the stars were aligned perfectly during its creation. From Gene Kelly’s effortless virtuosity to the unearthly hitmaking song magic of Arthur Freed and Nacio Brown, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is quite simply a stellar event; One of those rare classics that will be watched by future generations for ages to come. Even the story is enjoyable, with a little tongue-in-cheek commentary on how the sausage is made in Hollywood. A must-see film for any dancer.
Saturday Night Fever
Possibly no decade in recent history had such a distinct relationship with an all out dance craze like the 1970’s did with disco dancing. And the defining movie from that era of excess is unquestionably Saturday Night Fever. Everything about this movie is iconic, from star John Travolta’s white suit and liberal use of “the point” on the bright dance floor to the Bee Gees-filled platinum soundtrack whose song “Stayin’ Alive” is inescapable even today. Beyond the many dance scenes though, the plot is actually quite good, telling the story of a frustrated young Brooklynite who escapes the dullness of his upbringing in the flashiest way possible. Enough time has passed for Saturday Fever to have eclipsed its dated fashions and hairstyles to enter the realm of the timeless.
You Got Served
Although occasionally parodied in popular culture at the time of its release due to its overt seriousness, You Got Served has remained an excellent snapshot into streetdance and hip hop culture from the early 2000’s, which in retrospect was a golden era for those forms of expression. From high stakes dance competitions to fresh boy band stylings, the movie serves up a gripping story with a ton of great scenes showcasing the stunning moves of the film’s stars. It is impossible to overstate how huge this movie was at the time of its release, with an entire franchise built on its breakaway success. Its cultural impact will be felt worldwide for a long time.
Another true-blue classic, everything about ‘White Christmas’ is so ingrained into popular culture that even if you are seeing it for the first time it feels like a familiar old friend. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are two titans of song and dance and both are at their creative and collaborative peak in this story about wartime buddies finding romance and camaraderie in (not so) snowy Vermont. From the lush sets, huge and talented cast, to the timeless songbook by Irving Berlin and co., ‘White Christmas’ is a gift that you can enjoy any time of year.