Best Dance Movies: The Evolution Of The Genre, From ‘Dirty Dancing’

Some say dance movies are silly and formulaic, filled with generic dialogue and unimaginative plot lines. Well, so what? Even fans of the genre will admit dance flicks can be cheesy, but that doesn’t mean they lack the emotion, heart and moves that keep audiences coming back for more.

This Friday, “Step Up: Revolution,” the fourth film in the “Step Up” series, continues that trend, with a movie that — like its predecessors — focuses on a conflict based on race, class or age.

The “Step Up” franchise is just the latest in a long line of dance films — a line that stretches all the way back to “Saturday Night Fever” (and when we say “dance films” we mean films about dance, not films that only include memorable dance scenes, like “Singin’ in the Rain” or “Grease”).

In tribute to dance movies both old and new, let’s take a look back at the history of the genre, with 13 famous dance scenes.

  • ‘Saturday Night Fever’ (1977)

    John Travolta was swagger before there was swagger. Watch as he struts around the gaily illuminated dance floor and how he plays with the audience. He’s obviously never heard the phrase “Dance like no one’s watching.”

  • ‘Flashdance’ (1983)

    In “Flashdance,” Jennifer Beals plays Alex, a woman caught between two worlds. The only refuge Alex has is in dancing (and for good reason). As you can see in this iconic scene, she knows how to put her talents to good use.

  • ‘Footloose’ (1984)

    Kevin Bacon may very well be the pioneer of the “fish out of water ” dance story. Bacon’s freakout in the warehouse in 1984’s “Footloose” stems from his character’s unwillingness to succumb to a community that won’t allow dance.

  • ‘Dirty Dancing’ (1987)

    Here we have a romance between two different classes: the prospective college student/world changer and the resort’s dance instructor who gets fired. What makes their final dance so successful is the surprise: he shouldn’t be there, but he can’t break free of his bond with Baby!

  • ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (1992)

    In this movie about ballroom dancing, foregoing the time-honored steps for your personal style is an act of rebellion. (It’s dancing rebelling against dancing!) So while it’s only natural that the final scene would include … yes, more dancing, it’s still charming and funny and speaks to the outsiderness of dance: that it should be a personal expression, not a set of rules.

  • ‘Billy Elliot’ (2000)

    In this movie, dancing isn’t for boys, especially ones from working class families. However, that doesn’t stop Billy Elliot, whose conviction for ballet convinces his father, and the town he lives in, to support his dreams of being a professional dancer. The scene here features Billy auditioning for the Royal Ballet.

  • ‘Save the Last Dance’ (2001)

    This movie mixes races and dance styles, as a classically trained midwestern white girl gets involved with a black teen from Chicago’s south side. The final scene is a culmination of the story’s many conflicts, expressed in a triumphant flair of dancing style, musical selection, and choreography.

  • ‘Honey’ (2003)

    “Honey” has a similar premise to “Flashdance”: a modern woman stuck between two jobs, but with a darker twist as Jessica Alba’s character is threatened to be blacklisted from choreography if she doesn’t sleep her way to the top. The stakes are raised, and as you’ll see, the results are just as sweaty.

  • ‘Shall We Dance’ (2004)

    Here, dancing steals the heart of Richard Gere’s character, John Clark, who is taught how to tango by Jennifer Lopez’s Paulina. However, a plot that seems to be heading toward adultery instead does the opposite: the dancing rejuvenates Gere’s marriage and Lopez’s career.

  • ‘Step Up’ (2006)

    The beginning of the “Fast and Furious” of dance movies followed a simple formula: disadvantaged youth and privileged dancer are forced to work together. After initial conflict, they join forces, mash-up their styles, and succeed.

  • ‘Stomp the Yard’ (2007)

    Originally called ‘Steppin’,” this is a dance movie set on college turf in Atlanta. Here, you get a fish-out-of-water story about a student named DJ, a man with his own style, who dances through the pain of his brother’s death to help his fraternity triumph.

  • ‘Step Up 2: the Streets’ (2008)

    Dancing is about getting respect for being an individual, which is why this dramatic final showdown at “The Street,s” between the book-smart dancers from MSA and the street-smart dancers from the 4-1-0, is so moving. After the new kids try a new style (in a crazy, rain-soaked scene), they are welcomed into the underground dancing society.

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