The Ultimate Underrated Dance Movie Guide
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
I met Nat Guevara during what I like to call my building year. It started professionally, both working in comms for music and culture organizations. But it was clear from that first coffee at the then novel The Wing in Manhattan that these waters would run deep. We both appreciate a good Broadway musical for far more than the soundtracks. That we loved and missed Miami but.... And ultimately, that good, talented people that you vibe with are a treasure. So when she reached out interested in contributing to TCY, it was a no brainer. Whip smart, a wealth of knowledge on all things pop culture (ask her anything about Mariah Carey, seriously), and kind-hearted to the point that you forget that she's one of the most talented comms/PR/big idea thinker in the game.
Meet Natalie, and her picks for dance-centered movies that take you beyond watching Save the Last Dance or Center Stage for the 300th time. Some camp, some foreign film, a whole lotta culture for your lifestyle week.
Ever since I was old enough to stick a toe in a ballet slipper, I’ve been in love with dance. My ballerina aspirations were cut short soon after my debut as a mouse in a Miami production of The Nutcracker—I simply didn’t have the focus, dahling—but my appreciation for the fullness of dance only blossomed. As a college student in New York, I studied dance criticism under the prolific journalist and critic Mindy Aloff, who opened up my whole world: besides Balanchine, I learned about game-changing choreographers like Alvin Ailey, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham, and saw their works in the wild, too.
As an adult, I’ve rediscovered the joy of setting foot in a studio and warming up at the barre again, honing in on Broadway dance: jazz and tap. During the pandemic, the joy of experiencing dance indoors is mostly on hold, though institutions like the New York City Ballet are offering entirely digital seasons and others, like the Miami City Ballet, have put together dance lover kits to encourage learning and moving under quarantine. I’ve kept up with my dance classes, my preferred form of exercise, through affordable virtual programming by AfterWork Theater and New York Bodies. There are very few artforms that take you inside the heads and bodies of their auteurs, but dance is one of them: you can learn iconic choreography and actually recreate the steps.
Another way to keep the flame alive? A dance movie marathon. Dance movies are a top three movie genre for me. There is nothing more aesthetically pleasing than a dance movie—I set up a whole Instagram account to prove this point—and we know all the tropes. A chorus girl rises through the ranks, and survives a demonic headmaster, to become the star. A boy from the wrong side of the tracks is able to command the dance floor, the only part of his life he has control over. Through grit and gnarly toes, an awkward duckling becomes a graceful swan and finally gets into Julliard.
There are so many movies with different configurations of one or all of these themes—Center Stage, Flashdance, The Turning Point, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, Step Up, Saturday Night Fever, Black Swan, Save the Last Dance, Magic Mike—but I want to spotlight five of the most underrated movies that celebrate dance in all its weirdness, poetry, and corporeal splendor.
1. All That Jazz, 1979, directed by Bob Fosse. Bob Fosse (the man who successfully fused Broadway with cinema, and the inspiration behind Michael Jackson’s hip thrusts—look it up) directs the story of his life, casting Roy Scheider as his proxy, a successful if tortured Broadway director-choreographer named Joe Gideon. We follow Joe as he (poorly) balances his latest musical, his latest film, and his obligations as a father, boyfriend, and ex-husband. There’s no real precedent for this kind of movie: it’s one part biopic, one part fever dream, one part classic showbiz film, with a sardonic edge. Watch for dancers at the peak of their craft–Ann Reinking, Leland Palmer, Ben Vereen–and for the New York vérité of grandiose Broadway theaters, dusty studios, and ‘70s mod apartments. All That Jazz is impossible to stream online, but it’s worth purchasing the Criterion Collection DVD from Amazon. Simply one of the most original movies you’ll ever see—and of course, the dancing is sublime.
2. Climax, directed by Gaspar Noé, 2018— Imagine the classic Broadway musical A Chorus Line—dancers auditioning for a show, baring their souls on stage—but suddenly someone spikes the rehearsal bowl of sangria and the dancing turns into all-out mutiny, sexual recklessness, and murder. That’s basically the premise of this movie by Gaspar Noé, the enfant terrible who brought us violent, graphic films like Irréversible and Love (to this day, the only movie I’ve seen with a 3-D penis sequence). Starring the magnetic Sofia Boutella, a real-life former backup dancer for Madonna—so you know she’s seen some things—Climax is harrowing and captivating. The music is sensational (all Italo disco and synth beats), and the dancing eclectic: there’s voguing, krumping, and ribbon-dancing. Given how disappointing the remake of Suspiria (2018) was, Climax brings justice to the dance movie-meets-body horror genre. Stream Climax on Amazon Prime Video.
3. FAME, directed by Alan Parker, 1980— We’ve heard the theme song by Irene Cara (who’d go on to deliver another classic dance anthem with “...What a Feeling” for Flashdance three years later), and we know an elegy to a leg warmer when we hear one. A year ago, I went to a mentee’s recital at LaGuardia High School—the school FAME is based on and, fun fact, the alma matter of both Jennifer Aniston and Nicki Minaj—and was blown away by how true it was to the atmosphere of the movie, which I now realize is essentially a documentary. FAME follows seasons in the lives of gifted performing arts students, managing to be naturalistic and romantic at the same time. There are some incredible shots of dancers doing pirouettes atop taxicabs in old Times Square, lots of teenage yearning, and some “scared straight” scenes involving abortion and pervy old men. This movie is a real masterpiece that doesn’t get the praise it deserves, overshadowed by the cheesy TV show and stage musical of the same name that came afterwards. Watch the OG. Rent FAME on YouTube.
4. Ema, directed by Pablo Larraín, 2019— A newer entry into the dance film canon, this Chilean movie is about the demons we face on and off the dance floor. Ema (talented newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo) is a reggaeton dancer who’s at odds with her partner, a modern dance director-choregrapher (Gael García Bernal). The couple is dealing with the implosion of their household, spurred by their decision to return their adopted son to an orphanage. What transpires involves a femme fatale plotline and fire—through magnificent reggaeton choreography, but also literal flames. Ema’s U.S. release was delayed due to the pandemic, but it’s slowly being made available through online film festivals and will no doubt be streamable soon.
5. The Company, directed by Robert Altman, 2003 — Did you know Neve Campbell, our first lady of Scream, is a world-class dancer? I love her in this quiet gem by Robert Altman, master of movies filled to the brim with incredible ensemble casts and overlapping dialogue. The Company follows a real-life ballet company, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, from bright rehearsal halls to the dancers’ understated, candle-lit studio apartments. James Franco plays the paramour of Neve’s character, Ry: he’s a master chef, she’s a dancing ingenue. Different interpretations of the song “My Funny Valentine” play when they’re onscreen together: a subtle pas de deux. This movie is not flashy—even the tyrannical company director (Malcolm McDowell) is somewhat normal—but its tone-poem quality is soothing. Rent The Company on YouTube.