Many motion pictures have great dance scenes, even if they aren’t dance movies. Sometimes a dance movie, like “Saturday Night Fever,” just comes along at the right moment in time to build huge levels of interest in the world of dance.
Being influential doesn’t mean it has to be a great motion picture. For example, “Easy Rider” was a terrible movie but it galvanized millions in a way that had a lasting impact across North American culture and even around the world. I wondered which motion picture ballroom dance scenes might have had this same kind of impact. Which scenes in particular touched people emotionally? Which ones changed societal attitudes about ballroom dancing, or had a long-term effect on dance styles or even specific dances?
With literally hundreds of dance scenes to choose from, we looked through a lot of stuff trying to decide what would be worthy of being called influential.
I wanted to focus exclusively on ballroom dancing, not ballet or jazz or hip hop or solo dances. Gene Kelly’s rain scene in “Singin’ in the Rain” is, in my view, the greatest and probably the most influential dance scene in the history of movies, but it’s a solo dance and not connected to ballroom dancing, so I didn’t include it in this list. There has to be at least a semblance of one of the recognized ballroom dances for acceptance into a list related to ballroom dancing.
It doesn’t matter how old the movie is, either. “Napoleon,” a ground-breaking silent film by Abel Gance, influenced the world of movie making more than hundreds of other films before or since, but I’ll bet most people have never even heard of it, never mind seen it. So if you were compiling a list of most influential movie making films ever made it would naturally need to be included. I decided the same rules apply here. So the age of the movie didn’t matter. How it impacted culture did.
Here are my top 10 most influential ballroom dance scenes in movies. They are shown in chronological order because that made the most sense. You might have other choices. If so, share your thoughts using the comments area below.
Vernon and Irene Castle in “Whirl of Life” (1915)
You probably never heard of this film. But millions did. The Castles were a worldwide sensation. They drew attention that exceeded even the likes of Brad and Angelina. They were the most famous dance couple in the world, influencing not just ballroom dancing but everything from fashions to hairstyles to racial relations. Everything Irene did was copied by ladies around the world. Everything they said and did as a couple set new standards. Their dancing was the catalyst for all this attention. You might look at the brief clip shown above and wonder why this was so ground-breaking. Compared to today’s dancing, it may seem a bit tame. But in those days it was unheard of for a man and lady to dance so closely together. Partner dancing had been around for hundreds of years, but even when couples were in “closed” hold there was generally still a lot of space between their bodies. The Castles changed that. They connected the man’s right side to the lady’s right side, allowing them to move together in harmony never before seen. Because they were married, it became acceptable, even fashionable for this kind of connection. The silent film “Whirl of Life,” now lost to history except for the short clip shown here, captured the story of how this American couple was discovered and influenced Parisian culture prior to World War 1. It featured the Castles themselves and was made before Vernon went off to serve in the war. He was tragically killed in an aircraft accident shortly after the war ended. Read more about this couple in my blog post here.
Rudolph Valentino’s Tango in “The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921)
Rudolph Valentino’s Tango in this silent picture not only launched him to international stardom, but created a Tango craze that swept the entire world. Valentino’s aggressive masculinity gave Tango a character it continues to exhibit to this day. Ladies were enthralled by the sheer sensuality of the Tango shown in this movie and wanted to experience this kind of passionate dancing for themselves. Men flocked to dance schools to become teachers so that they could dance this closely to young women. And of course preachers across North America, and parents everywhere, made desperate pleas to avoid this dance. This controversy about the “scandalous” Tango is said to be a main reason why ballroom dance has been slow to receive the kind of acceptance on this continent that it has in Europe.
Cheek to Cheek number from “Top Hat” (1935)
There are many great dance scenes from the Astaire and Rogers films. It was hard to pick just one that could be called the most influential, but I believe this scene from the motion picture “Top Hat,” in which Astaire sings gently to Rogers while sweeping her off her feet, did more for ballroom dance popularity than any other single scene in this motion picture series. The way she looks at him, the effortless way they move together, the song itself and the storyline all contributed to not only elevate this couple to international fame but created a cultural environment where every woman wanted to be sung to like that while dancing the way Ginger Rogers did. Dance schools were flooded with interest after the release of Top Hat. The dancing in this scene begins rather light but becomes sensational. The dramatic Oversway at the end is spectacular. Ginger Rogers designed this gown together with her mom, but Fred Astaire hated it. The feathers flew everywhere, getting all over his tail suit and driving him nuts. The clip shown above is not of the best quality, but it’s the only one I could find that includes the ending of the dance.
Drunk dancing scene in “Holiday Inn” (1942)
This is a terrific dance film and the first time that the world heard Irving Berlin’s now-iconic song “White Christmas.” This classic dance scene, in which a drunk Fred Astaire dances with Marjorie Reynolds after hearing that his dance partner has run off with another man, was fresh and delightful and must have been incredibly hard to choreograph. Astaire pulls it off as only he could, looking completely believable as a drunk while still dancing with the uncompromising quality he was known for. This scene became one of the central themes of the film, and influenced a great deal of choreography in the years that followed, pushing dancers to try new things that combined great storytelling within a dance number. Thousands of dancers attempted “drunk” scenes in their shows, but for many the scene acted as a catalyst for being creative. Even today, show dances incorporate the fresh energy of exploration expressed in this simple scene.
You Should Be Dancing from “Saturday Night Fever” (1977)
This scene, though not itself one that involves a partner, was certainly the most influential ballroom dancing scene of its time, ushering in a wide ranging fascination of all things “Disco.” John Travolta’s arrogant confidence sprung to life thousands of disco clubs around the world and creating millions of new fans. Wendy and I, already on the disco scene when this movie came out, were both enthralled by this picture. It gave presence and credibility to an activity we were already pretty good at. We, and millions of others, gained insights from this movie covering everything from fashion to dance moves to club behavior. We glued ourselves to TV programs like “Solid Gold Dancers” to learn new dance moves and then try them out in the clubs on the weekend. Even today, Travolta’s iconic moves remain popular in show dances and television performances like those on Dancing With the Stars.
Final dance number from “Grease” (1978)
This scene was truly electrifying when audiences first saw the film only a year after the release of Saturday Night Fever. John Travolta and Olivia Newton John’s energy and chemistry created a huge impact that eventually led to dance-related movies like the High School Musical series and the television show Glee.
Final dance from “Dirty Dancing” (1987)
As a movie, this has a rather dreary backstory of age of consent and unwanted pregnancy and abortion, but the dance scene in the finale created a Mambo craze that swept the western world and renewed interest in a dance that had been almost forgotten culturally. The Mambo originated in Cuba and was very popular in the 1950’s. After the Cuban revolution, travel to Cuba was banned by the USA and the dance largely faded from public consciousness. Until Dirty Dancing. The raw sensual energy of this dance re-ignited interest in learning the Mambo. Rumors were that Jennifer Grey did not like Patrick Swayze, but their on-screen chemistry is terrific, and especially in this inspiring number. The music, the dance and the message that dance is a celebration of freedom and artistic expression gave this scene an impact that still touches people today.
Paso Doble demo and lesson in “Strictly Ballroom” (1992)
Baz Luhrmann’s style is controversial. I find his over-the-top visual style fresh and entertaining. Baz grew up in a ballroom dance family. His goal with this film was to expose the absurdity of some of the politics and opportunism found in the ballroom dance world. In this story, you see the head of the governing body of ballroom dancing ruthlessly using his position of power to make money and build influence. You see people compromising artistic values just to win. And while it could have been done in a negative way, Baz makes it all fun and silly. There are some great dance scenes, but perhaps the most influential is the lesson on Paso Doble, that continues to be referred to by dance teachers more than 20 years after the movie was released. The grizzled father of the female lead challenges her dance partner to prove that he knows the Paso Doble. This leads to a hilarious scene where his modern interpretation of this Spanish dance is laughed at because he doesn’t understand the foundation of the dance, that it has to be felt in the heart before it can be expressed through the feet. It’s one of the best ballroom dance scenes in any movie and truly delightful to watch. I couldn’t find the entire clip online, but watch both clips shown above to see this complete scene.
Tango scene in “Take the Lead” (2006)
Take the Lead is based on the true story of dance teacher Pierre Dulaine, who launched the ballroom dance educational program in New York City inner schools that was illustrated in the excellent documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. In this Argentine Tango scene with Canadian dancer Katya Virshillis, Antonio Banderas demonstrates to a group of teenagers how modern, athletic and sexy ballroom dancing can be. The scene woke up a lot of people to the power of ballroom dancing at a time when it seemed to lose influence to Hip Hop and Break Dancing, and certainly helped to renew interest in the Argentine Tango.
Final practice scene in “Ballroom Dancer” (2011)
The movie was not a mainstream film, but for the ballroom dance world it was a fascinating look at the emotional drama of two of the finest Latin dancers in the world. A documentary covering the new partnership of Slavik Kryklyvyy and Anna Melnikova, it started out hoping to cover their rise to world championship status. Instead, it ends up covering the end of their partnership. This scene of the final practice session of their Rumba to the song “Always on My Mind” is absolutely heart breaking and at the same time illustrates the power of the International style Rumba as a dance of pure passion and emotion. Normally the Rumba represents the woman trying to seduce the man, but in this case it is a genuine effort by Slavik to win back the affections of the woman he loves. It’s beautiful and moving and as an example of Rumba in its most raw, unpretentious form has brought new meaning and power to the dancing of couples around the world.
What about you? Do you have favorite scenes in mind that you think should have been included? Let me know your thoughts using the comment field below.