When we think of dancing in a film, most of us immediately think of musicals. Entire films filled with choreographed numbers, singing, and beautiful costumes come to mind. However, there are numerous movies that revolve around the art of dancing as the heart of the storyline itself. From learning how to dance to making it as a professional dancer, the themes are wide-ranging, and the choreography keeps us glued to the screen. We have compiled a shortlist of dance films that are sure to get audiences on their feet and moving.
Released in 2000, Center Stage follows a class of young ballet dancers enrolled at the prestigious American Ballet Academy in New York. After grueling auditions nationwide, twelve dancers comprise the newest freshmen group that has been accepted. Although each was the “best” dancer where they came from, they quickly realize that the talent here is stellar and competition is fierce. An announcement is made that the end-of-year workshop will decide their fate. Only three men and three women will be invited to join the company after that performance.
Three ballets are set to be choreographed for the workshop. The dancers practice and fight their way to a leading role for their best chance to be noticed. The demand takes a toll throughout the year, and we learn more about each of the students. The main character, Jody, has poor footwork and an underdeveloped turn out, yet is determined to dance professionally. Maureen, whose mom is a failed dancer herself and works at ABA, has been forced into living out her mother’s dream. Endlessly talented Eva dances for her love of dance but has a bad attitude and disregard for rules and order. We are also given a front row seat to the physical toll ballet has on bodies, from bloodied feet and injuries to health and body image.
Jody falls for her rebellious choreographer, Cooper, who is at odds with ABA’s head, Jonathan. Cooper and Jonathan each choreograph a piece for the workshop, with Cooper’s featuring rock and roll music and Jody as his lead. The night of the workshop performances arrives, and each dancer gives it their all. Afterward, they are called in individually to learn their fate. We share in the joys of those that have been accepted and those who move on to other opportunities. The cutthroat world of dance is evident as some have finally made their dream a reality.
Dirty Dancing, a beloved and iconic dance film, was released in 1987. Frances “Baby” Houseman, her parents, and her sister arrive at an upscale resort in the Catskills where they will spend the summer. Shy and unamused by the resort’s organized activities, she runs into Billy, a staff member, who asks her to help him carry a watermelon. She follows him to an after-hours staff dancing party where she is transfixed by their moves. Billy introduces him to his cousin, Johnny, who happens to be the resort’s dance instructor alongside his partner, Penny. Baby and Johnny briefly dance together, and she is immediately taken with him.
When Baby learns that Penny is unable to perform at a nearby hotel, she volunteers to take her place. Johnny reluctantly decides to coach her to become his interim dance partner. Baby sneaks away for pockets of time day and night to practice. We see her evolution from complete novice to a near professional. Her footwork and technique excel through her fierce dedication to be Johnny’s equal on the dance floor. She steadily improves at the same rate, in fact, that Johnny starts to fall for her. They, of course, have to hide their relationship, as her parents would never approve of her dating a staff member.
When they perform at the neighboring hotel, they do exceedingly well except for the climactic lift Baby hesitates before and misses. When Johnny refuses the advances of another woman, she frames him for a theft as revenge. To defend his honor, Baby admits that she is his alibi and that they were together at that time, outing their relationship. Johnny is subsequently fired for mixing with guests, and Baby has a falling out with her father.
The Talent Show
Shortly thereafter, the much-anticipated end-of-summer talent show takes place where guests can show off their skills. Johnny interrupts the performances, takes Baby’s hand and walks onstage where he shares how she’s made him a better person. They proceed to perform their dance in front of everyone, with the other employees joining in as the grand finale, lift and all.
Footloose introduces us to Chicago-native teen, Ren, who moves to the small town of Bomont with his mother. He quickly learns that this town is unlike anything that he is used to. There’s a ban on rock n’ roll music and dancing, led and enforced by the uptight Reverend Shaw. Ren soon falls for the Reverend’s daughter, Ariel, and she is forbidden from seeing him. Despite this, Ren drives Ariel and other friends to a country bar 100 miles away to show them just how fun dancing can be. On the ride home, Ariel shares that her brother died in a car accident while under the influence of alcohol after night of dancing. This was the catalyst that made Reverend Shaw persuade the town council to enact the anti-dance law, among others.
After that night, Ren gives Willard private dancing lessons so that he can become a better dancer, inspired by what he saw. Ren decides that he wants to challenge that ordinance so the school to have a senior prom. The town is visibly upset and unsupportive of Ren’s actions and intentions. So much so, that his mother loses her job because of him, but she tells him to stand up for what he believes is right. With Ariel as support, Ren confronts the town council, even reading Bible verses that paint dancing in a positive light. Although they are moved, they vote again Ren’s proposal. The next morning, Reverend Shaw sees member of his congregation burning books, saying that books are dangerous, just like dancing. He stops them and realizes that everything has gotten out of hand.
The school is allowed to have a senior prom the following week. Ren is elated along with the rest of the students. They dance the night away with undeniable joy and happiness together. The prom even causes Reverend Shaw to see the light, as he dances with his wife for the first time in years. Ren and his dancing brought the town closer together and made a positive change for all its residents, young and old.
Save the Last Dance
We meet Sara while she is on the train to her estranged father’s home in Chicago. While on her way to Sara’s Julliard audition, her mother was killed in a car accident. Roy, her father, welcomes her to her new home, that is the opposite of her suburban lifestyle, as is her school. At her mostly Black school, she quickly befriends Chenille who invites her to a dance club. Sara accepts, and is surprised by the hip-hop music that is playing. As a ballet dancer, she has never danced to anything close to this style before. Chenille’s brother, Derek, teaches her how to move and dance with him, as she grows more comfortable and learns the rhythm.
Shortly after, Derek surprises Sara and takes her to the Joffrey Ballet. She opens up and shares her mom’s accident and her dreams of getting into Julliard with him. After that night, she decides to learn more about hip-hop and to further advance her dance skills. Derek teaches her different dance moves and even choreographs a piece to perform at the same dance club. Their performance goes off without a hitch; they wow everyone, even getting the crowd cheering. Georgetown accepts Derek into his dream school. Having achieved his own dream, he encourages Sara to go after hers again.
The Julliard Audition
They dedicate days and weeks to choreographing the perfect audition piece that incorporates both ballet and hip-hop. Eventually reaching a breaking point in their relationship due to racial tensions and misunderstandings, they part ways. Feeling unsure if she can go through with her audition on her own, her dad steps in to provide the support she needs. At the audition, she fumbles once her music begins. Derek surprises her when he walks in the door. He gives her the pep talk and motivation that she needs and performs her piece with her heart and soul. Visibly impressed, the panelists tell her off the record that she has been accepted to Julliard, cementing her dream, too.
Eleven-year-old Billy Elliot is a young boy who hopes to one day become a professional ballet dancer. He lives in England with his widowed father, older brother and grandmother who once also wanted to be a dancer. His father forces him to attend boxing lessons at the gym where he walks past a ballet lesson temporarily using the same space. The dance teacher, Sandra, notices him watching and invites him to join. His life is forever changed when he puts on a pair of ballet shoes. When his father finds out he has been taking dance lessons, he forbids him from ever taking another class. He refuses to stop and continues in secret with the help of Sandra.
Sandra sees incredible talent in Billy and believes he can study at the Royal Ballet School in London. Due to his older brother’s arrest for his role in a local miner’s strike, Billy misses his audition. Sandra tells Billy’s dad of the missed opportunity, and he is outraged at the thought of his son being a ballet dancer. Later over Christmas, he catches his son taking a ballet lesson at the gym. He immediately recognizes his standout talent, has a change of heart, and vows to support his son in attaining his dream. As a miner, he does not have the money to pay for his audition and considers crossing the picket line to cover it. His colleagues stop him, and the community raises the money to pay for them to travel to London for the audition.
The Royal Ballet School
During the audition he excels but ends up punching another boy out of frustration and believes that he has ruined his chances. The board surprises him by asking how he feels when he dances, to which he replies, “like electricity.” Billy and his father head home and assume that this is the end. One day he receives a letter in the mail that turns out to be his acceptance letter to the Royal Ballet School. We skip ahead a decade or so to see Billy as the lead in Swan Lake, his father in the audience, beaming with pride.
These films invite us to see the pure joy that dancing can bring to life. They show us how infectious this joy can be by bringing a smile to our face or persuading us to unknowingly tap our feet to the music. They also allow us to see the art of dance up close to better understand how this medium has the power to change perspectives and ultimately, change lives.