All the Right Moves: Dance Movie Types and Tropes


Kitsch-appreciation and guilty pleasures aside, dance movie scripts are formulaic at best. But, really, we all know that the plot is just a vehicle, a secondary excuse, for the choreographed routines themselves. As our previous posts on essential movie dance sequences have illustrated, dance routines run the gamut of styles and, in most cases, aren’t just there for theatrical flair. They have a particular significance to story and scene, communicating essential information about the characters, plot, and narrative tension — especially given the genre’s established conventions in recent years. So whether you’re someone who’s foolishly dismissed the dance movie category, or someone who already mentally choreographs routines for your own life, here’s a guide to understanding the different types of dance sequences and what they each convey.

THE GENRE-DEFYING ADMISSIONS TEST In the apparently snooty world of dance, there’s nothing quite so offensive — and then, of course, ultimately inspiring — as a performer who incorporates elements of modern movement into their classical routine. This sequence makes for a handy climax to any movie about fractured identities (and, really, aren’t they all about fractured identities healed through the art of dance?) because it combines accepted, high-brow norms with novel, low-brow brashness — assuming for a moment that any kind of non-classical dance is still a novelty. It’s also a symbolic act of uniting the boundary-breaking romance, professional zeal, or social transgression that the protagonist must struggle with throughout the movie. Noteworthy Examples: Flashdance (1983), Save the Last Dance (2001), Step Up (2006)

THE BIG COMPETITION Dance isn’t always just an act of personal artistic ambitions, it can also be a representative expression of social tensions and deep-seated rivalry. And what better way to act out a given battle royale than through a non-violent, West Side Story-inspired dance-off? The Big Competition has some overlap with The Genre-Defying Admissions Test in its narrative implications (i.e. breaking down barriers by challenging artistic/social conventions), but the distinction here tends toward a larger social expression of opposing groups. Sometimes this takes the form of an organized school or community competition, other times it’s just a showdown regulated by a set of social credos that exist only within the universe of the movie. Whatever the case, it’s always a way to illustrate the protagonist’s physical and psychological growth from the movie’s outset. Noteworthy Examples: You Got Served (2004), Stomp the Yard (2007), Step Up: 2 The Streets (2008)

THE DANCE TO SALVATION Social desires on a larger scale also serve as a central point of dramatic tension. Whether it’s money that needs to be raised for a community center, a redemptive opportunity for problem students (“All these kids need is a little guidance!” insists the requisite optimistic instructor), or a liberating expression that defies oppressive social rules, there’s widespread cinematic evidence that a well-placed dance sequence is all you need to heal the wounds of a society or community. The Dance to Salvation often combines elements of personal ambition with social commentary, but is best categorized as a kind of modern day Fisher King mythos whereby healing from within will in turn heal the world around. Noteworthy Examples: Footloose (1984), Honey (2003), Take the Lead (2006)

THE THREE-WAY FIGHT Most dance movies operate on the founding premise of an individual or group straddling two worlds, a psychological three-way that begs — nay, requires — a romantic component to underscore its emotional tension. As such, there are often two romantic interests, each of which is oh-so-subtly an opposing foil to the other, who try to pull the protagonist to their “side.” (Remember: In the world of dance, there can only be diametrically opposed extremes — anything less would just undermine the Manichean drama at its core.) The Three-Way Fight is a carefully handled sequence that sees the lead being physically torn between two worlds as each symbolic love interest attempts to woo her (and occasionally him) through competing moves. It’s kind of like watching animals compete to impress a potential mate, except in this case it usually involves a sweaty dancefloor, existential symbolism, and lots of awkward body grinding. Noteworthy Examples: Center Stage (2000), Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004)

THE PSEUDO DANCE SPORTS COMPETITION As we have learned, dance is a state of mind more than a circumscribed form of expression. Movies about cheerleading, ice-skating, gymnastics, and marching bands — among many others — also succeed in capturing the emotional sensibilities, personal struggles, and narrative tropes of the dance movie genre. It’s not about the way you move, but rather how you do and why. Noteworthy Examples: Cutting Edge (1992), Bring it On (2000), Drumline (2002), Stick It (2006)


The Agonizing Learning Montage That is Also About Falling In Love: Dirty Dancing (1987)

The Irreverent Rain Dance (That Somehow That Just Makes Everyone Look Better): Step Up 2: The Streets (2008)

The Prom Showdown: She’s All That (1999)

The Tribute to Deceased Parent(s): Save the Last Dance (2001)

We’re all ears for other categories and tropes! Please share in the comments section…