The release of the deliriously cheesy Step Up 3D has put me in mind of dance sequences in the cinema. A topic never terribly far from mind, but it seemed like a good reason for this list.
The Ten Best Dance Sequences in Movie History (except for #10, which I just shoehorned onto the list because I damn well could, but aren’t you glad I did?) (and by the way, finding decent videos for some of these was flat-out impossible)
10. Stan and Ollie commence to dancin’ in Way Out West (1937)
There’s a plot that got us to this point. But it’s mostly immaterial: as with most vaudeville-derived comedy, the point is just to let two brilliant comedians live up to their personae and leave us hysterical. Case in point is the best moment in Laurel & Hardy’s best comedy (best sound comedy, at least; I’m totally unfamiliar with their silent work) finds them listening appreciatively to the Avalon Boys’ performance of “At the Ball, That’s All”, and turning it into one of the funniest moments in screen comedy, a delicately prim bit of slapstick that has absolutely no reason at all to work one-tenth as well as it does. Proof of the number’s continued longevity: in June, 2010, Tilda Swinton used as the centerpiece of a promotional event for her 8½ Foundation, a charity dedicated to teaching children film literacy.
9. “Barn Raising” from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Generally speaking, Stanley Donen’s CinemaScope epic about a family of rednecks who abduct innocent women with an eye towards rape is not one of MGM’s better musicals from the 1950s. In fact, there’s only one particularly good moment in the whole thing; but the jaw-dropping excellence of that one moment makes up for the whole. Michael Kidd’s detailed and remarkably gymnastic choreography is danced to perfection by a huge cast,and the ingenious use of color makes the whole affair a glorious splash of widescreen eye candy.
8. “Air-otica” from All That Jazz (1979)
Fosse in a nutshell: take something as simple and bouncy as a stupid jingle for an airline, and find a way to drag the sexy out of it. Not just the most successful translation of his characteristic style to the language of film, but also a slightly abashed admission that, deep down, he was aware that the “Fosse style” had ossified into something of a punchline. Funny, jazzy, sexy – can we ask for anything else of our musicals?
7. “Shanghai Lil” from Footlight Parade (1933)
Man, I wish I could have found this one online. History prefers Busby Berkeley’s “42nd Street” – and it’s definitely the more revolutionary number – but as a storytelling object, as a dance sequence, and as a capsule version of how the Warner Bros. house style adopted the language of the musical, the climax of Footlight Parade appeals to me a great deal more. James Cagney as a sailor and Ruby Keeler in yellowface, telling the tragic tale of love lost in the ports of the East, in that weird period between the World Wars, executed with a verve and physical energy as only Berkeley could have done it. The movie’s already pretty great; but this number alone is readily worth the price of a rental.
6. The “American in Paris” ballet from An American in Paris
The whole glory of the piece is nowhere on the internet that I could track down, but a mere scrap of it at least gives some of the flavor here.
In place of an actual denouement to the drama (which pretty much just stops when this massive, 20-minute exemplar of Gene Kelly’s geniusbegins, and never resumes), we have a work of staggering, audience-defying ambition, an experimental narrative plopped right into a Best Picture-winning crowedpleaser. It shouldn’t exist at all; but the combination of jazz, ballet, tap, and whatever otherwordly style existed only in Kelly’s mind results in one of the most justifiably iconic sequences from 1950s American cinema.
5. “Never Gonna Dance” from Swing Time
A video of such low quality, and incomplete content, I’d almost rather have skipped it entirely
You know that story about the number that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers rehearsed and shot and rehearsed so many times that when it was over, Rogers’s feet were little more than bloody stumps? That was this one. And, all respect to Ginger Rogers’s physical well being, but it was absolutely worth whatever amount of pain and suffering it took to execute: the best of all Astaire & Rogers duets, a beautiful waltz flawlessly danced in two extraordinarily long takes, whose simple narrative, effortlessly revealed by the subtlest gestures of the dancers, recaps the entire plot of the film, and breaks your heart at the same time.
4. “Make ‘Em Laugh”, from Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
3. “Singin’ in the Rain” from Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Two numbers from one movie? Sure, especially since Singin’ in the Rain is the best musical ever filmed. The bigger cheat is probably that I didn’t put a third one in here. Most movies would count as their absolute highlight Donald O’Connor’s magnificent physical dance-comedy in “Make ‘Em Laugh”, a triumph of self-abuse in the name of art that still can take your breath away for its sheer slapstick audacity; but here, it can’t hope to compete with Gene Kelly’s woozy, lovely performance of the title song, a tribute to love and bliss that’s all the more impressive for knowing that the actor was terribly ill when it was filmed. When he shouts, “Come on with the rain / I’ve a smile on my face” – the most transcendentally happy moment in cinema.
2. “The Red Shoes Ballet” from The Red Shoes (1948)
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, one of the most important filmmaking teams in history, were arguably the perfect people to make a fictionalised film about Diaghilev and the Ballets Russe: for they, like the famed impresario, were focused on creating total art that combined design (Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson), lighting and camera movement (Jack Cardiff), music (Brian Easdale), and actors (Moira Shearer and Léonide Massine in this particular instance) into a euphonious whole. And how euphonious! the greatest filmed ballet that has been and will be, thrilling both as dance, as pure cinema, and as the psychologically dense centerpiece of a grand melodrama of the soapiest, richest sort.
1. “Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon (1953)
Two of the most gifted dancers ever filmed, doing what they do. It doesn’t take too much squinting to fit the number smoothly into the narrative of the film – it’s the point at which Fred Astaire’s Tony Hunter and Cyd Charisse’s Gabrielle Gerard have put aside their mutual antagonisms and agreed to work together, combining his Broadway hoofing with her ballet training, and falling in love at the same time. But even devoid of context, it’s art at its purest, a combination of color, movement, sound, and the human body to create a kind of mad, woozy bliss. I’ve said to a number of people, but never officially before this, but movies exist so that moments like this one can be put into them.