Publicity photo for "It's Always Fair Weather" (1955), showing Michael Kidd, Gene Kelly and Dan Dailey

BREAKIN' Down Dance Films with Phil and Janani: Part 1

August 1, 2017
– By Phil Leers (digital initiatives) & Janani Subramanian (public programs)

In honor of this month's Shake It Off dance movies series, two Hammer staff members decided to write a blog post (that very quickly turned into a three-parter) about their favorite dance movies, and some guilty pleasures.

Read part 2 here.

Janani Subramanian: Hi Phil

Phil Leers: Hi Janani! I’m excited to be writing about dance films with you today. Why don’t you start off by talking about why you love dance movies so much.

JS: I, too, am excited. Well, I don’t usually wave my PhD flag around, but I *do* have one in film studies and therefore have seen many, many motion pictures.

PL: I have but a masters in film studies…

JS: That’s ok, I don’t mind talking to you anyways. Note to readers, though, I have more years on Phil if that sways your judgement about my choices.

PL: So when did you get into dance movies?

JS: Probably when I saw Dirty Dancing (1987). I don’t even remember when I saw it, and I haven’t seen it in the past few years, but it’s imprinted onto my brain. I bet it was during a sleepover and we were all entranced by the fact that Baby could be SMART and get this SUPER HOT DUDE and EMBRACE HER BODY at the same damn time. That was revolutionary. And I guess for a preteen viewer the "dirty" dancing in that movie is not too dirty but dirty enough to raise some eyebrows—that was exciting! How about you?

PL: Well already I’m going to look like a poser, but I haven’t even seen Dirty Dancing OR Footloose (1984), which are probably the two defining dance movies from my early childhood. My obsession with dance movies evolved along with the more recent generation, starting in the early aughts. Like most people my age, I was super into the wave of teen movies that crested in the late 90s with She’s All That (1999), Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), Drive Me Crazy (1999), Cruel Intentions (1999)... that group of movies was so great, but I think they kind of ran out of interesting things to have teens do, and the whole genre kind of shifted into this generation of dance movies—which are really just teen movies where the teens dance. I got sucked in and have been inhaling them as soon as they come out ever since.  

JS: Those are really amazing films and were formative for me as well—particularly since I wasn’t that far apart in age from those characters, and their high school experiences seemed so EXCITING. And then add dance and voila, I’m in. I should also add that I can’t dance. At all. I’m REALLY bad at it. So I’m drawn to dance movies because I am fascinated by anyone’s ability to move their body to a rhythm (any rhythm).  

PL: Well, I’m convinced that, had I ever put any effort into learning how to dance, that I would have been amazing at it—like definitely professional level—so watching these films is sort of like an exercise in shattered dreams. Once, in college, I took a single hip hop class, and the instructor asked if I’d done it before; clearly it seemed like I had. I retired at that moment, but who knows what could have been…

JS: This is amazing information to find out about you, and I’m in awe. This cancels out my extra PhD years, so now we’re even. I can see a great plot unfolding here where you take MORE hip-hop classes and start a new career as a middle-aged (sorry) dancer who wants to break the stigmas of ageism and it ends with a battle with other middle-aged (sorry again) dance troupes.  

PL: I’m 34.

*Awkward silence*

ANYWAY, we’d been looking for an excuse to work on something together for the Hammer blog for a while, and when I learned about the MUST-SEE series you programmed and we got to talking, we realized that we had our topic. We should write a definitive guide to dance movies.

JS: And, while both of us could obviously write tomes on this topic (I started to, last year, with our former inimitable intern Jen Jurgens), we decided to make it easy by picking some categories and calling in our choices—much like Grantland (RIP) did in some of its best posts.

PL: Yes! Let’s start with some ground rules:

Rule No. 1: We’re only talking about dance movies from this millennium, so from Center Stage (2000) and Bring It On (2000)... on. As much as I’d like to wax nostalgic about the Lindy Hop scene from Hellzapoppin’ (1941), we’re going to keep it contemporary.

Rule No. 2: We will be employing the Justice Potter Stewart on pornography clause to define a dance movie: we know it when we see it. There are tropes that characterize the dance movie in ways that we won’t try to enumerate here, but just know that we are happy to consider non-dancing movies like Drumline (2002), which is about competitive drumlining, Pitch Perfect (2015), which is about competitive acapella-ing, and Joyful Noise (2015), which is about competitive gospel singing, while La La Land (2016) can go suck a lemon. We did make a special dispensation for Black Swan (2010) on Janani’s urging.

Rule No. 3: Just like there is no crying in baseball, there is no judgement when it comes to dance movies. You like what you like, and there is so much to enjoy in even the worst dance films (and, for the record, what is a "bad" movie anyways? Tastemakers and cultural critics be damned!). The films that we chose are the ones that you can watch over and over again and sometimes watch multiple times in the same week on basic cable, and then you try to practice the moves in your living room and sprain something. Not that that’s ever happened.  

Category 1: Best title

JS: Now I look like the poser, since I haven’t seen or don’t remember seeing Step Up 2: The Streets (2008)–but I love the title. Because a) they are stepping up in terms of both dancing and their personal journeys b) "the Streets" is both an underground dance competition and a way of alluding to the classical versus street divide that most dance movies have and c) I have deep respect for the trend of titles using numbers to mean both sequels and other words. See: Step Up 3D, 2 Fast 2 Furious, The F8te of the Furious, and so on. Clever iterative naming conventions are hard!

PL: That is an excellent choice (and an excellent film–go see it, like, now). However, I have to dock it points for one important reason: none of the characters say the title in the diegesis of the film. If someone at some point had said, “Hey! It’s time to STEP UP 2 THE STREETS!” This is number one with a bullet. So I’m going to have to go with probably my favorite dance movie, and definitely the movie that gets the most mileage out of its title in the script: You Got Served (2004). It’s got so much going for it: It’s a phrase that sounds like it was popular with the youth, but never really was. You’ve never heard anyone say that. It also implicates you, the viewer. You hear the title, and think "ME? I got served?? I wasn’t even doing anything!" And finally, characters in this movies say "You got served" at least a dozen times, and it literally ends with everyone chanting "Served! Served! Served!"

Category 2: Best Life Event Which Inspires Dancing

JS: I’ll start again since this category was my idea. As I was thinking through many of the films on our list, I realized that there is a turning point where our protagonist is cosmically pushed into the world of dancing and/or has to use dance to get out of a tough situation. Some common ones: Death (Save the Last Dance, Stomp the Yard); Money (Honey, You Got Served); Love/Lust (the Dirty Dancing franchise, Step Up) and, the purest of all, the Love of Dance (Drumline, How She Move, Magic Mike, Center Stage). I think my favorite—not to be repetitive—is Step Up (2006). Let’s review: Channing Tatum is a vandal sentenced to community service cleaning up at the Maryland School of the Arts. He sees Jenna Dewan (NOW DEWAN-TATUM BECAUSE OF THIS MOVIE) dancing ballet. He goes outside and starts combining her ballet with some sweet break dancing moves. She seems him doing this. Guys, it’s a double-gaze, he-sees-her-then-she-sees-him situation. Her partner CONVENIENTLY sprains his ankle. Hm, I wonder who a good replacement would be? The rest is history. It’s a meet-cute that’s so damn cute because the actors fell in love on set and are so cute together and none of us have ever been the same since.  

PL: That’s a good one. Any time your choice results in a real life marriage, you’re in pretty good shape. Speaking of pretty good shape, I’m going with another Channing Tatum vehicle, Magic Mike XXL (2015). You set out a lot of good events that inspire dance, but you left out an important one: getting dared to do it by a pack of stripper bros. When Richie (Joe Manganiello—like me, a Pittsburgher, and unlike me, ripped to shreds) lets on to his crew that he’s tired of his firefighter shtick, they challenge him to just be himself, stripping-wise, in order to elicit a smile from a straight-faced gas station attendant (who received a Nobel Prize for her performance, I believe). Then: "I Want It That Way," a bag of Cheetos, a bottle of water, and a well-earned smile. 

Category 3: Best training montage

PL: Oh man. The montage is the rapidly beating heart of every teen movie, and this is especially true for dance movies. The training montage is crucial for showing any number of developments: a crew coming together and finding their rhythm, a romance forming–via dance, a character working through some shit. It’s also a handy way of getting around the question "How’d they all learn those dance moves so fast?" For me, there’s a clear winner here, and that (again!) is You Got Served. The montage takes place after the two main characters, best friends David and Elgin (Omarion and Marques Houston), have had a falling out and broken up their legendary crew. The montage shows each of them working through routines with their new crews, the joy clearly sapped out of dancing, while the song "Anxiety" by Black Eyed Peas featuring (oh god oh god oh god) Papa Roach plays in the background. Reading this, it sounds horrible. But the montage ends with David and Elgin dancing solo in two different alleys (I assume. They could be dancing like 30 feet from each other, but that seems unlikely) SHIRTLESS, IN A LIGHTNING STORM, AND IT’S SO INTENSE. It culminates with both of them spinning—raindrops spinning off the ends of Omarion’s shoulder-length braids with centrifugal eroticism, and landing on their knees, raging at the heavens above. I’m fanning myself vigorously with one of those folding paper fans right now.

JS: I just watched the training montage because Phil told me to. He’s correct—it is truly fantastic. And there’s texting in the middle! That’s probably a really important part of training that we never see. My choice breaks the rules in two ways: it’s pre-2000, and it’s not exactly a dance movie. I watched the ice-dancing movie The Cutting Edge (1992) SO MANY TIMES when I was young and impressionable, and the scene when Moira Kelly (bless her) trains with the dopey hockey player male protagonist (ugh, fine, I looked up his name and it’s D.B. Sweeney) is just swell. It’s almost the opposite of a classic dance/sports training sequence because Mr. Hockey has to let go of his brute strength and learn how to use it in completely new, graceful, delicate ways. Moira Kelly is so so so so mean to him but also clearly falling in love with him at the same time because what’s more appealing than a brutish athlete who is hiding a sensitive soul? Answer: Nothing. 

PL: Such a cheat! But I’ll allow it because that movie is fantastic and full of great montages where they both eat shit a bunch of times, and because I’m keeping Rule 3 sacred and not passing judgement, but watch yourself, counselor. Toe pick!

End of Part I. Stay tuned for Part II, wherein we’ll litigate such categories as Best Villain, Most Unrealistic Scenario, and Best "Let's Remember What It's Like to Dance For Fun and Not For Competition" Scene.