10 Movies Every Dancer Must Watch

This week is National Dance Week: around the country, dancers are holding flash mobs, kicklines, danceathons, and performances to celebrate the power of dancing, and to try to infect the general public with the love that has made us do crazy things, like voluntarily wearing leotards and learning French just to better understand the language of ballet. But you don’t have to be a dancer to celebrate National Dance Week. And while the point is to get up and dance, that’s not for everyone. Luckily, there are enough dance movies out there to watch a different dance movie every day of the year — hell, there are almost enough movies in the Step Up franchise alone to keep you going for months. But not all dance movies are created equal. In honor of National Dance Week, and in the spirit of making every week National Dance Week, here are the best ten dance movies — most of which are available on Netflix — with which to celebrate NDW, without even leaving your couch.

1. Strictly Ballroom

Among American dancers, this movie is a cult classic. Among Australian dancers — among Australians, generally — it’s just a part of national mythology. Before Romeo + Juliet, before Moulin Rouge, before Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann made this movie about the sparkly and insular world of ballroom dancing, providing a perfect opportunity for costume designer to go for broke on the sequins, the illusion netting, and the feathers. Like a lot of dance movies, it comes complete with an unlikely pair who break the rules of dancing and fall in love along the way, but unlike a lot of dance movies, it has Australian six three inches — uh, fifteen centimeters — thick.

2. First Position

Position follows a handful of young dancers — like, prepubescent young — as they prepare for and compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, the world’s most prestigious dance competition for young ballet dancers. It raises interesting questions about a host of issues that ought to get more attention when outsiders consider ballet: how much parental involvement is too much? What is it about American ballet that keeps it so racially homogeneous? Can, or should, you turn an art form into a sport-like competition?

3. Step Up

This is not a very good movie. It is a cliché-ridden, utterly predictable story about a snotty white ballerina who thinks of an Ivy League education a backup plan, and an “urban” (but not actually Black, because that wouldn’t sell movie tickets) youth who is softened and civilized by ballet. Despite having been a classical dancer her whole life, she magically becomes proficient in hip hop, and he learns a valuable lesson about life when his Black plot device — I mean friend — is shot at a narratively opportune moment. But you should bear this in mind: without this movie, there would be no Channing Tatum Dancing to Pony in Magic Mike. You just remember that.

4. Center Stage

Obviously. The actors in this movie cannot really dance, and the dancers in this movie cannot really act. But hey, tickets to the American Ballet Theater at Lincoln Center are expensive, and this is one way to watch a few of their soloist dance some serious ballet. The producers of this movie also somehow convinced Christopher Wheeldon, at the time a hot shot young choreographer who was working with the New York City Ballet and other top notch companies, to choreograph one of the performances in this movie. Other highlights include: Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows, the notion that Mandy Moore music is tough and edgy, and the ballet mean girl asking the not-rhetorical question: “I am the best goddamn ballet dancer at the American Ballet Academy: who the hell are you?”

5. Fame (the original one, from 1980)

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Which is to say, they don’t make a lot of teen ballet movies that feature abortion, the sexual exploitation of dancers. They also have a flashmob on top of a car at one point. Car dancing aside, it’s hard to say if this movie looks grittier than most dance movies because it’s 35 years old, or because it really is grimmer than a lot of other films in the genres. Regardless, I saw it was I was a teenager, and the scene in which Lisa sits alone in the waiting room of the abortion clinic, explaining how teen motherhood and a ballet career are totally incompatible has stuck with me ever since. And speaking of dance movies that feature abortion…

6. Dirty Dancing

OBVIOUSLY. I’d be hounded out of the dance community, the feminist community, and the chick flick consuming community if I didn’t mention this one. But there’s a reason it’s a contemporary classic and a cultural touchstone that is referenced in and influences many other movies: it’s a damn good movie. Also, Patrick Swayze’s upper body. Seriously, though, Dirty Dancing is about so many things you rarely see in dance movies: growing up Jewish in America; the importance of safe, legal abortion; class distinctions and divides (it doesn’t always handle this well, but it often gets it right). And it doesn’t have a “happy ending” — it ends happily, but not in the way most dance movies do. Also, Patrick Swayze’s upper body.

7. A Chorus Line

Speaking of 80s hair and high-cut leotards, this one probably has the most dancing of any of the movies on this list, or at least, the most dancing done by actual dancers. It’s visually great — if you can get past the 80s hair — and because the cast is mostly triple threats (with the exception of Michael Douglas, who is not forced to dance), you don’t have to endure bad acting from dancers or bad dancing from actors. For a double feature, what it with Every Little Step, the documentary about the making of the original Broadway show and the casting of the 2008 revival.


8. Mao’s Last Dancer

Another Australian dance movie, based on the (far superior) memoir by Li Cunxin, for whom ballet was an escape route from crushing poverty and political oppression. The movie covers less of the politics of 1960s and 1970s China than the book does, and it provides a pat, happy ending that is surprising even by dance movie standards, but if you loved Center Stage and wondered what happened to Jodie Sawyer, you’ll be happy to see her show up in this movie.


9. Daddy Long Legs

No list of dance movies is complete without an appearance from Fred Astaire. In this movie, he’s not past his prime, exactly, but he’s not young (though his dancing is still superb), and the movie functions as an interesting comment on the tendency for not young men like Astaire and Gene Kelly to be cast with very young women like Audrey Hepburn or, in this case, Leslie Caron, who was just 19 when she made this movie. Given their age difference, their romance doesn’t sit entirely right, and that age gap is central to the plot. But age gap aside, this movie has some truly gorgeous dancing from both of them.

There’s never been anyone better than Astaire. Except perhaps…

10. Singin’ in the Rain

Except perhaps Gene Kelly. You guys. Look at him. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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