Save the Last Dance

BREAKIN' Down Dance Films with Phil and Janani: Part 2

August 15, 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 1 here.

Phil Leers: Welcome back, Janani! When last we spoke, you were flouting the rules of this exercise so that you could talk about a figure skating movie from the 90s in the middle of a discussion about dance movies from the 2000s.

Janani Subramanian: Yeah, so what, bring it… on.

PL: And you totally redeemed yourself with that organic segue! Lets jump right into it.

If you missed the first installment of this series, catch up here.

Category 4: Best Villain

PL: The dance movie canon features many a fine villain, their evil plans disguised beneath layers of exquisite (but always slightly less exquisite than the hero’s) dance. There are a few different types of dance movie villains, but generally speaking their job is to give the heroes a hard time—challenging them to dance-offs, snitching to school or competition administrators, stuff like that—and then either lose a final dance battle, get their girl taken, or begrudgingly join forces with the good guys. For my entrant in this category, I’m focusing on what to me is the cardinal sin of dance movies: biting moves. My first instinct (as always) was to go with You Got Served’s Wade and Max, the spoiled rich white kids who are super evil to David and Elgin’s crew, at one point going so low as to poach one of their dancers and steal an entire routine, which they use to beat David and Elgin’s crew at a battle. Like I said, evil.

But I’m going with someone much more insidious than Wade and Max, who, for all their faults, at least have the decency to be clearly, Snidely Whiplashly villainous. I’m going with Bring It On’s Big Red (Lindsay Sloane), the dictatorial, win-obsessed outgoing captain of the Rancho Carne High School Toros cheerleading team. Her successor, Torrance (Kirsten Dunst), finds out that the moves that propelled Big Red’s (majority white) squads to consecutive National Cheerleading Championships were stolen from the (majority black) East Compton Clovers (led by pure beam of light in human form Gabrielle Union), in what would be a meaningful metaphor for white appropriation of black culture if it wasn’t just literally that. Even worse, Big Red doubles down on her dirty deeds when Torrance confronts her about it, basically telling her that being a true leader means doing whatever you have to to win Nationals. She’s a cheering example of absolute power corrupting absolutely, and a ginger at that. And it’s true, “Brr, it’s cold in here, I said there must be some Toros in the atmosphere”...

JS: I have to disagree slightly with my friend about dance movie villains—I don’t think there are that many "Snidely Whiplashly" bad guys/girls as, say, in horror movies. (Who else is excited about the upcoming IT adaptation, btw? No? Just me? That clown fella is DEFINITELY the villain.) That said, Big Red is a good one because she takes the "villain role" heat off the East Compton Clovers who, despite being the Toros's rivals, are actually a good cheer crew who have to put up with their richer, whiter counterparts' bullshit. We screen Bring it On on August 23, by the way, so please come and engage in this important debate in person.  

The best heroes need good villainous foils, but how much more interesting is it when the line between hero and villain is blurred? VERY MUCH MORE INTERESTING. With that in mind, I chose EvilNataliePortman from Black Swan as my favorite villainess because she is LITERALLY her own worst enemy. I love Black Swan for many reasons—maybe most of all for an unhinged Winona Ryder—but also because it truly captures the dark underbelly of most dance films, which is that the mental and physical anguish of dance is as torturous as that of any other sport. Weeeeeeeeeeeee! Nina’s got plenty o’issues in the film—a very uncool momma, bleedy feet, creepy boss, almost zero caloric intake—but her number one problem seems to be hallucinating weird, violent and very R-rated things, including a very frowny-scary (but probably more fun?) version of herself. Instead of turning that frown upside down, Nina fatally succumbs to delusion. EvilNataliePortman is the winning villain since she defeats our heroine SadNataliePortman and teaches us a life lesson that we are all our own worst enemies and should all be in psychotherapy even if we aren’t professional dancers.  

Honorable mention: Maureen’s scary mom from Center Stage who is pretty much defeated by a slice of pizza—the pizza is probably Best Hero even though we don’t have that category. That moment should also go on this amazing blog about Best Movie Pizza Moments that I just found. I think Phil and I just found our next Hammer blog topic!

Category 5: Most Unrealistic Scenario

JS: Man oh man oh man, this is not an easy category due to the fact that, as my coworker Karol said, "Most unrealistic scenario? Isn’t that all dance films?" Karol, by the way, is devoted to Air Bud so maybe Phil and I can do a blog post with her about the joys of the Air Bud franchise? 

I digress! Dance films are chock-full of unbelievable scenarios and even more unbelievable choreography (aided by the magic of editing and cinematography, of course), and that is part of their charm. While I’d love to devote this entry to delving deep into why I don’t think Sean Patrick Thomas would be into Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance, that may be more of a personal issue with no place in an objective analysis like this one. I think my choice is Honey (2003), an early Jessica Alba vehicle where she trades her Dark Angel midriff-baring leather suit for some other midriff-baring outfits and teaches kids to dance to save the neighborhood. I have a complicated relationship to Honey since I did own the DVD and did try out the DVD Extra "Make Your Move: Dance Like Honey!" (turns out I couldn’t dance like Honey). But I do not feel like Jessica Alba/Honey’s plan in the film is a good one. First, she wants to save her mother’s community center but to do so she decides to OPEN ANOTHER STUDIO to teach local kids how to dance. Honey, honey, that doesn’t seem like the most cash-efficient proposition considering New York real estate! Second, she then takes out a LOAN to finance the studio! Honey, where is your business plan!? Third, she holds a dance-off to raise money for the studio—but why not just raise money for the community center directly?? Honeyyyyyyyyyyyy you’re weaving a tangled web of dance-based investments. Fourth, she tells her bank manager her problems and he calls some wealthy donors (??) who attend the benefit and save the day, which seems far beyond the purview of his position. HONEY, don’t ask middle management to do your work. All in all, I find this to be very irresponsible and fantastical financial planning. To add insult to injury, Honey’s rival Katrina is actually a famous dancer/choreographer named Laurieann Gibson whose life inspired the film so we are tasked with believing that Katrina’s dancing is not as good as Honey’s dancing. False! We are also asked to suspend our disbelief and buy into the fact that the majestic dancer/performer/singer Missy Elliott would pick Honey’s choreography over Katrina’s. Not a chance! 

Some ok points about the movie: awesomely cute kid dancers, Mekhi Phifer as Honey’s love interest, Lil’ Romeo as one of the neighborhood kids, cool cameos from Missy Elliott, Jadakiss, and Ginuwine—who is supposed to play a "hip-hop Pied Piper" in a music video that was Honey’s idea which continues to make me feel bad about her choices.

PL: Wow, when you put it that way, the plot of Honey isn’t as airtight as I thought.

For Most Unrealistic Scenario, my first thought was to challenge the fact that an entire town makes dancing illegal in Footloose (the 2011 one! I’m following the rules, unlike some people), but then I remembered that very important plot point was based on a true story. So it can’t be that unrealistic. Instead, I’m going with Sara (Julia Stiles) getting into Juilliard in Save the Last Dance (I know, we’re being hard on poor Julia). I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about Juilliard’s admission policies, but I just can’t fathom that THAT audition got her in. I swear, I want to like her performance—I mean, we know that her earlier Juilliard audition ended in rejection, and that her mom was killed in a car accident on her way to the audition. That is a very bad day. And I am very much here for the "we need to breathe new life into this tired art form by incorporating elements from contemporary culture" trope—it worked for Nick Cannon in Drumline and Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect. A ballet/hip-hop hybrid is, on paper, a really appealing idea; I guess the thing is, don’t let Julia Stiles do it. Again, we have a white performer borrowing from a black performer (in this case, the totally-not-stalked-by-Janani Sean Patrick Thomas), and, as in Bring It On, turning in a performance so uncoordinated as to be offensive both culturally and aesthetically. Her dancing is wooden and mechanical, and she has the look on her face of someone trying with all their might not to fuck up the choreography. And the choreography! So much pointing and extraneous clapping! Why? And it certainly doesn’t help that the ballet scenes are all done by a body double who can actually dance while Julia Stiles is left to fumble through the hip-hop steps. They should have shot everything from way back in the audience, like behind the judges, and just had a double do the whole thing. Instead, they try to convince us the audition is going well by cutting to the judges bobbing their heads to the music (shout out "All or Nothing (In Your Dreams)" by Athena Cage—you deserved better). Sorry, this movie, but I’m not buying that she’s going to Juilliard behind that performance, when it’s clear there’s somewhere else she needs to go: to jail.

6. Best "Let's Remember What It's Like to Dance For Fun and Not For Competition" Scene

PL: Every dance movie worth its salt needs a scene where the main character(s) are reminded why they loved dancing in the first place. It’s an important release valve for the audience, too: the dancing in these movies tends to get really fraught, as the plot folds in high stakes and personal feuds and dead and negligent parents and asks the characters to express it all through movement. It can get a little heavy for all involved, which is why it’s so important to show dancing as purely joyful at some point—otherwise, why would any of these people put themselves through it? My favorite example, I think, is from Center Stage, the movie from this genre that best illustrates the demanding and painful aspects of dancing (well, aside from Black Swan). You’ve got girls dealing with crippling pressure, backstabbing frenemies, horrible stage moms, body image issues, and a super skeezy choreographer (Cooper, you’re an amazing dancer, and a great choreographer, but as a boyfriend you kinda suck)—they’re pretty miserable for most of the film. That’s why the first scene that comes to mind when I think of this movie is the "Higher Ground" scene. It’s completely inconsequential to the film, aside from showing that ballet can be, you know, not devastatingly sad all the time. All the balleters from the American Ballet Company are in their ballet class, practicing their balleting, and the ballet teacher tells them, "Look, forget about the steps—just dance the shiiiit out of it!" Everyone is immediately loose and smiling, and we hear the opening bass line to… oh dear God no, it’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers covering Stevie Wonder’s "Higher Ground!" Heretical song choice aside, it is genuinely exciting to watch these dancers throw themselves into the number, and the sound of their feet slamming on the floors and their fellow dancers clapping and cheering in the background gives it an unpolished, viscerally satisfying feel. And it’s just cute: the guys all do their little routine, and then the girls come in and try to one-up them, and then they each one gets to do their own little signature move in a Soul Train Line-style scenario, and then they all twirl around or whatever the ballet term is until they fall down! They really dance the shit out of it!

JS: Let’s take a step back—I can’t believe you sent Julia Stiles to jail!!!!! She does redeem herself retroactively in Ten Things I Hate About You when she gets drunk and krunk to Biggie Smalls and dances on a table. 

This category was actually my idea, and I thought of it while reminiscing about Friday Night Lights, the Texas football show that features Kyle Chandler’s forehead and Connie Britton’s hair. There’s a scene where Coach (Chandler) takes the team to a rainy football field and asks them to play WITHOUT thinking about competition and just for the LOVE of the sport. It’s a glorious scene where lots of young, good-looking men get muddy and rediscover that it’s not about winning or losing! The game is beautiful, y’all!  

Similarly, dance movies, as Phil points out astutely above, often feature a "dance like no one is watching" scene. And this scene for me is the most wonderful, magical scene in movie history—the Club. Domina. Scene. In. Magic. Mike. XXL. Let’s go on a journey:

Magic Mike and his team are headed to Myrtle Beach for a final competition at a stripper convention (natch). They stop at Club Domina in Savannah on their way to ask for help from Domina’s owner, Rome, who is an old friend and ex-boo of Mike. Club Domina is not only a strip club, but also a black-female-owned strip club that devotes itself to providing women with imaginative, female-focused male adult entertainment. It’s basically the immersive theater/Sleep No More version of a strip club as there are no stages, but just rooms with different male dancers surrounded by very, very happy ladies. Rome is played by Jada Pinkett Smith in a white pantsuit who is on FIRE and is the queen of this pleasure palace and basically steals the movie and our hearts from that point on. As the boys tour the palace, they see different kinds of exotic dancing (including Michael Strahan in tiny gold panties) totally focused on women and learn that stripping can be a SELFLESS act—as explained eloquently by Donald Glover, merely asking women what they want is a minor revolution in a world where women aren’t really heard. Our trusty team of muscles takes this advice to heart and uses it as inspiration for their final routine, which I can’t describe here because words don’t do it justice (just watch it here on the big screen on August 31). The Club Domina scene focuses on joyful women of all races and sizes and men devoted to them, and, on a more meta-level, is a reminder to Hollywood that women are an incredibly important audience base that deserves attention.  Who knew that a movie about male strippers could be WOKE? I did. I knew.  

Also, FYI, the Magic Mike XXL Las Vegas live show is called Club Domina, so I’m sure at some point the museum will sponsor a research trip to attend. For research.

PL: That’s beautiful, and I greatly look forward to our all-expenses-paid research trip. Honestly, I’m just glad you didn’t pull a Janani and pick a scene from Cool Runnings or something.

Come back next time for the stunning conclusion to the dance film breakdown, including categories like Best Non-Dance Scene, Best Celebrity Cameo, Best Overall Character, Best Dance Sequence!

And don’t miss the Shake It Off film series all month at the Hammer!