Dance movies usually follow a standard, cookie-cutter formula:
1. the protagonist experiences a big move, far away from home
2. He/she is a social pariah in his/her community
3. He/she finds love and friendship through some salsa, rhumba, ballet, hip-hop…you name it.
These movies usually twist their basic plot ankles and fall flat in terms of believable romance. But there are some movies out there that truly know how to steam up the rehearsal room (and our libidos) with authentic chemistry. Here are my top three picks for dance movies that swept me off my feet with their suave love moves:
1. Save the Last Dance: A Caucasian girl moves in with her estranged father in his hood apartment after her obsession with dance/spoiled brat tantrums causes her mom to die in a car crash. She vows never to pirouette again. Seriously? Literally, when the movie opened with this scenario, I wanted to scram from the theater. How annoyingly cliché, I thought to my teenaged self.
Nevertheless, I’m glad the cost of the movie ticket motivated me to remain seated because this dance movie proved to be anything but commonplace. Sara (Julia Styles) is your average sheltered protagonist and she’s one of the few white girls in her urban Chicago high school. But she is able to form tension-free friendships with some of her classmates and ultimately falls for a new friend’s brother—Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), an intelligent, young African-American man who is trapped by gang violence in his gritty neighborhood.
The thing about Save the Last Dance is that it’s more than a romance—it’s a story about the complex relationship between two teens from different walks in life, who struggle to maintain an interracial relationship that’s frowned upon by way too many people. Sure, Sara shows Derek her ballet skills and Derek in turn teaches her some of his urban dance flavor (which she later incorporates into her second-chance Juilliard performance and wows the judges) and it’s all good and fun. Nevertheless, Sara and Derek are practical teens who don’t allow the excitement of first love to manifest into something tawdry and unrealistic.
The reason I love this dance movie romance is that although the actors are talented on the dance floor, they work better during stretch breaks when they invest in meaningful conversation—they don’t yell at each other or grow irritated or hurl out various forms of frustrations. They are considerate and supportive of one another (Derek shows up at Sara’s Juilliard audition and they celebrate his Georgetown University acceptance). They listen carefully to each other’s hopes and aspirations. More surprisingly, they are not scared to reveal their flaws and their confusion in terms of where their relationship is headed. They feed off each other’s energy and intellect and their relationship grows as they get to know one another past some impressive “pop and lock” moves.
Save the Last Dance does focus on the thrills of first love, but it does so without building up anticipation and lust and over-the-top kisses. Those elements just wouldn’t work in this kind of dance movie. Dance by nature is a passionate form of expression but the leads manage to squeeze in a sincere friendship with all their smooth hip hop heat.
2. Strictly Ballroom: I’m a bit biased with this selection because of my secret crush on Baz Luhrmann. (Let’s face it—if there’s anyone who lights onscreen choreography chemistry on fire it’s this talented director.) The story follows Scott Hastings, a man who comes from a long lineage of dancers and is on track to win the amazing Pan Pacific Grand Prix. Scott doesn’t want, however, to follow in his family’s dance steps and wants to show off his own moves.
Unfortunately, Scott’s uptight partner Liz is so not into “experimenting” (with dance numbers) and dumps him for another competitive dancer. As luck would have it though, Scott needn’t look too far to find a replacement—Fran Morice, an unattractive studio worker, decides that she wants in. Scott at first is all like “Eww. No way, girl!” But Fran has something Scott seems to lack, and that is guts. (Oh yea! And a convenient zest for pasodoble dance, acquired from her Spanish culture). She’s eager to get this party started, and soon Scott finds himself devoting all his time to instructing Fran, who gradually improves (yes, the exponential system applies here) with each shake and twirl. Moreover, being in Scott’s strong arms on a daily basis makes her think it’s high time to get those bushy eyebrows waxed and that hair brushed and voila—awkward duckling transforms into a graceful young woman off of whom Scott cannot avert his eyes.
Sure, they have their moments (especially after Scott temporarily relieves her as his partner upon getting hoodwinked into entering with Liz), but the two forgive each other’s weaknesses just in time to prove you don’t need to be born with dancers’ feet to wow an audience. You can seriously feel the heat sizzling between them not only during the dazzling performance they put on at the actual competition, but in the most ordinary moments, like way up above ground next to a sparkling Coca Cola billboard. (Damn. This scene just tingles with guilty pleasure.)
The best part about this dance movie romance is that Fran is definitely not the best looking girl in the crowd and certainly not the best dancer. But because she’s full of passion and determination, which Scott recognizes because he has it himself. The sweet part about this movie is that there are no clear winners or losers because throughout its entirety it morphs into a beautiful love story instead—that’s the ultimate trophy. Strictly Ballroom is a totally flighty movie that could have easily been dismissed with a wave of a critic’s hand, but the honest connection that grows between Scott and Fran keeps fans pivoted to their spots and wanting more.
3. Dirty Dancing: The crème de la crème of all dance movies. I don’t think I have to explain this one other than recount all the highlights to show rather than tell why this romance worked. Let’s take it right to the beginning…a bright, independent teen (ironically nicknamed Baby) heads up to the Catskills with her classy parents and “slutty” older sister Lisa. She’s bored and her parents keep smothering her with lame camp activities (i.e. trying on wigs) and suggesting that she participate in senior citizen events (conga lines with the maracas). Sound like a jolly good time? Oh hell to the no! Baby’s certainly not having it because she’s smart enough to know that there’s more to the world and while helping a Kellerman employee carry a watermelon to the “Staff Only” lodge she discovers exactly what she’s been missing…knowing how to shake what her momma gave her.
Dance instructor Johnny is not at all thrilled by Baby, and the two butt heads right off the bat. But when Johnny’s partner Penny is scheduled for an abortion on a night of an important performance, Johnny needs a new dance partner to cover for Penny…and quick! Johnny dedicates long (painful) hours teaching Baby all the right moves (which seem difficult considering how many times she accidentally crunches on his toes.) Tempers flare, emotions run high, sweat really pours down their toned bods and a thumping track titled “Hungry Eyes” adds sex appeal to their rehearsal montage (all worthy ingredients to spark a believable romance between a dashing fella from the wrong sides of the track and an affluent, sheltered girl who likes playing superhero).
Baby steadily begins to learn all the numbers (minus the climatic lift due to nerves, aka Johnny’s manly hands roaming her nether-region and causing her to burst into fits of giggles). Still, their performance at the other resort goes off with a bang…and ends with one. See, Penny’s abortion is botched by an inexperienced doctor and Baby awakens her father in the middle of the night to tend to Penny’s pain. Dr. Houseman helps Penny out, but tells Johnny off thinking he’s the guy who knocked her up in the first place.
Baby is upset because she’s come to know Johnny better and can attest to the fact that he’s a swell fella. So she treks over to his cabin to let him know that she knows. (Sure, she could have waited until morning, but you can’t so no to hormones, just like you can’t say no to a late night snack of apple pie a la mode!) He opens the door, surprised to see her there but invites her in. Lo and behold, an apology and heart-wrenching monologue (in which she admits her affections towards him) later, Baby is stripping him down and pressing herself against his chiseled abs. (Who can blame the girl for becoming a total skank in Johnny’s masculine presence?) Naturally, they both shimmy their way over to Johnny’s bed and practically cause an explosion with their body heat. (A little bump and grind never hurt anyone!) After that electrifying moment, I knew that Dirty Dancing was going to rate high among not only my favorite dance movies but favorite movies of all time.
This dance movie works, even with so simple a plot, because of all the constant constraints placed between the two leads—the whole opposites attract thing seriously culminates into raw, sexual energy that they wisely tap into for some jaw-dropping moves and intense bedroom pleasure. Moreover, the coming of age aspect of the movie adds a layer of humanity to the relationship between Johnny and Baby because it shows that Baby is finally calling her own shots without the influence of her conservative parents getting in her way. Johnny is her first grown-up decision and Baby is the first woman to take him and his opinions seriously (i.e. not stuffing diamonds down his pants in exchange for a night of gigolo pleasure). Most importantly, they show each other mutual respect and support, which makes their love something to be valued rather than carelessly tossed away at the end of the summer.
And another reason why this dance movie ranks high on my list? Because it ends with a sort-of-sappy-but-too-happy-an-ending-to-give-a-rat’s-ass moment—when a banished Johnny returns to the Kellerman closing ceremony to spin Baby around one the dance floor one last time (appropriately to “Time of Your Life”) and Baby finally soars into his muscular arms and up into the perfect lift.