Five Life Lessons We Can Learn from Dance Movies

You learn more than just the running man when you watch All The Dance Movies.

Sarah Ward
Published on September 29, 2014

"Does it always have to end up in a big giant dance battle?" asks the latest Step Up film, Step Up All In. Yes, that's an actual line of dialogue in a movie about trading fancy footwork for supremacy. The feature's Moose (Adam G. Sevani) poses the question to his ragtag gang of friends when yet another squabble sees them settling things on the dance floor. In doing so, he becomes the series' most self-aware expression, as well as the clearest enunciation of its purpose.

Dance battles — plus contests, trials, tryouts, auditions, and any other competitive outlets — remain prominent not only to showcase performers' skills and add drama but to allow something to be dreamed about and aspired to, then achieved, attained and overcome. So if you've seen even one dance movie, whether from the Step Up franchise or any other (or even just Zoolander or Guardians of the Galaxy), then you know that yes, it does always have to end up in a big giant dance battle.

Of course, there's more to be learned from the many efforts that have shuffled across screens since the days of Busby Berkley, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. What other important knowledge do dance films impart? We trawled through the best and worst to find out.

Nobody should stay in the corner

If there's one lesson the Step Up franchise preaches again and again, it's that playing by the rules doesn't offer a path to glory. If the first film's hero, played by Channing Tatum, hadn't vandalised a prestigious performing arts school and been burdened with helping clean up as punishment, the entire course of the series may have changed — and Tatum may not have become the cinema superstar he now is today. Indeed, he peddled the same message in the semi-autobiographical Magic Mike, where working a stripping job frowned upon by most offers the titular character his only hope of earning enough money to finance his dream business.

Tatum is following in formidable footsteps, with ignoring instructions a dance movie staple across all possible extremes of the subgenre. In family-oriented effort Girls Just Want to Have Fun, a young Sarah Jessica Parker constantly falls afoul of her dad in her efforts to dance, while in Dario Argento's horror film Suspiria, an American ballet student in Munich finds out the truth about her new school when she flouts the rules and sneaks around.

Perhaps the best-known instance comes from that perennial favourite, Dirty Dancing. Everyone remembers when Baby (Jennifer Grey) disregarded her father's decree that she stay away from bad boy dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), and when she wouldn't stay in the corner. (No one remembers when Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights unsuccessfully tried to recreate the same scenario.)

Stick it (or step up) to the man

In the fourth Step Up film (known as Step Up Revolution and Step Up: Miami Heat in differing parts of the world) it's not just a competition the dance crew seeks to win, though that's obviously part of the equation. In an oft-used scenario, they also square off in an against-the-odds battle with a heartless property developer threatening to gentrify their neighbourhood. Filmed flashmob-style performances help them wage both wars, providing contest entries and disrupting their nemeses efforts, but it is the challenge to authority that resonates as the feature's strongest statement.

Dancers just don't know how to lie down for the man, so it seems, with putting bodies on the line their favourite form of fight. Step Up 3D, Honey and Centre Stage: Turn It Up also offer variations on rallying against authority, while an attempt to stop a corporation destroying a Brazilian rainforest drives The Forbidden Dance (a barely recalled effort attempting to cash in on the lambada craze, but the one that isn't called Lambada). And if there's one thing Footloose cemented in the consciousness of multiple generations, first in 1984 and again in the 2011 remake, it's that anyone who dares bans dancing must be defied, confronted and trounced.

Stop, collaborate and listen

Part of the fun of the Step Up series as it has continued is its unashamed amalgam of styles and genres. Never afraid to try something new and different when it comes to the dance scenes, if nothing else, the films themselves offer an inventive array of settings and show a wide range of sources of inspiration. Step Up All In's first breakout sequence ramps up the horror in a striking mad professor's laboratory number, while its climax sees its characters see past their rivalries to embody the same maxim in the story as well as the aesthetic. The movie is in good company, with seminal 1980s feature Breakin' teaming breakdancing with jazz ballet, Save the Last Dance's entire conceit based around the pairing of classical and ballet, and even Australia's own Strictly Ballroom introducing a Spanish influence into the titular type of dancing.

Other features have interpreted the concept a little differently, but still with the same result. In Black Swan, a shy but ambitious ballerina must channel her dark side and break free from her prim and proper facade to get the lead in a production. The Full Monty saw middle-aged men get their gear off to make money after becoming casualties of Sheffield's declining steel industry. Mad About Mambo found football skills in samba. Recent release Cuban Fury tasked Nick Frost's uncharacteristic romantic lead with overcoming a childhood fear of salsa dancing to earn respect and pursue love.

There'll never be a crisis you can't dance your way out of

The catharsis of getting your groove on has become so embedded in the dance film genre that almost every movie has its own example. Diving into your passion as an escape from your problems is sound advice; if movies have taught us anything, you'll emerge with a clearer head at the very least. The quintessential angry dancing scene from Footloose has become so iconic that Kevin Bacon once again kicked off his Sunday shoes to recreate it — well, with the help of a double — on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to celebrate the film's 30th anniversary earlier this year. The High School Musical movies gave Zac Efron not one but two opportunities to express his ire, the third film's moving feast of fury far superior to the second film's weak wander around a golf course. Andrea Arnold's excellent social realist effort Fish Tank shows a more serious side as its teen protagonist copes with her ills — including a liaison with Michael Fassbender — through hip-hop dancing.

The trope has also been parodied in Hot Rod, where Andy Samberg's wannabe daredevil punch-dances out some anger in the forest, as well as TV's Flight of the Conchords in a number called Bret's Angry Dance. Cult comedy hit The FP took dancing through a crisis to the other extreme, with its characters forced onto their feet — duelling in an arcade game called Beat-Beat Revelation — to survive.

Just do it

Working as a welder by day and an exotic dancer by night, but dreaming of a more traditional way to tap your toes? Moved to the big city with stars in your eyes, but not sure if you have what it takes to give it a go? Flashdance, Burlesque and the aptly titled Make it Happen each offer a fictional testament to trying instead of wondering, as does almost every film in the subgenre that culminates in a competition: think Battle of the Year, Streetdance, Stomp the Yard, How She Move and even Take the Lead's Antonio Banderas-led ballroom dancing-focused effort, all of which address self-doubt and champion taking a chance. Billy Elliott shows just what can eventuate if, struggling valiantly through all obstacles in your way, you make it to the top of your chosen field. In Silver Linings Playbook, the stakes and the outcome are much more modest, but even securing a sense of achievement is worth the effort.

Published on September 29, 2014 by Sarah Ward
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