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Dance in Film: Once Again Center Stage

by Rachel Levin
March 28, 2001
New York, NY




Dance in Film: Once Again Center Stage


Rachel Levin


3/28/2001





If you haven't noticed yet, dance in film is back. It is once again "center stage" in Hollywood, with the dance films Billy Elliot, Center Stage, Save the Last Dance (all reviewed on ExploreDance.com), and a proliferation of images of dancing cheerleaders, most notably Bring It On, all released within the last year.

Dance movement and performance have long been integral parts of Hollywood film, since the first "talkie," Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer, to the lavish Busby Berkeley dance spectacles of the 1920s, to the "integrated" musical films of the 1940s and 50s. Yet, since the studio system stopped making major movie musicals in the 1960s, dance films have been fewer and farther between. Since that time, it seems that there is at least one important mainstream dance film every decade that captures the dance fad of the moment: Saturday Night Fever depicted the disco craze in the 1970s; Flashdance and Dirty Dancing were extremely popular in the 1980s; Strictly Ballroom was a clever 1990s take on the world of ballroom dancing, and spawned several other ballroom-inspired films. It should be noted that in all of these four examples, the subject of romance that crosses racial or class boundaries is portrayed "through the cushion of dance" (1). Indeed, Hollywood has a difficult time telling the story of love that crosses race and class without the dancing. Still, dance films (and films about interracial romance, no less) have long been the minority among mainstream box office hits since the "golden era" of the Hollywood musical.

So, why the comeback? What is the significance of movement in the current films? Who is dancing, why, and how? What kinds of stories about race, class, gender, and sexuality are being told through dance in these current Hollywood narratives?

Social relationships are enacted through the body when people dance. Tap dance and hip-hop are examples of bodily expression that originated as forms of resistance to social marginalization or oppression, while social dances such as salsa, waltz, and tango enact traditional social relationships between the genders. Some styles of dance are valued as "high art," like ballet, while others are relegated to the status of "crass street expression," like disco or hip-hop. These classifications often depend upon the categories of race and class.

In all four of the most recent films mentioned, the theme of transmission and appropriation of movement styles across cultural groups is prominent. The ballet students in Center Stage are influenced by forays into jazz classes and salsa clubs; Sarah in Save the Last Dance incorporates hip-hop into her ballet; Billy Elliot, whose only dance training includes ballet, spontaneously breaks into tap dance; the white cheerleaders in Bring It On express the choreography of the black cheerleaders through their own bodies. Certainly, the prevalence of the two particular dance styles of ballet and hip-hop is striking. "White" dance gets pitted against "black" or "latin" dance; "high art" gets pitted against more "real" bodily expression. Furthermore, when a member of the lower classes crosses over to ballet, a "high class" art form (as in Billy Elliot), the film itself is rendered as "high art," receiving nominations for the industryÌs top awards. However, when a member of the privileged classes crosses over to more culturally taboo movement styles like hip-hop (as in Save the Last Dance and Bring It On), the film is classified as a "teen flick."

Surely, the resurgence of dance in film is welcome for those of us who care about dance and are dancers ourselves. Furthermore, these films reinforce the fact that dance continues to be a considerably rich social "text," combining visual, musical, and bodily forms of expression. On the one hand, the transmission of movement styles across race and class in these films is a positive indication of increasing cross-cultural interaction and harmony. Yet, as I have suggested, it seems important to pay attention to the particular stories that are being told and power relationships that are being enacted through dance. It could be that these cross-cultural appropriations strip the more resistant movement styles of their powerful political meaning as they are enacted and re-fashioned by members of a more priviledged race or class.

End notes:

1) Munoz, Lorenza. "The Delicate Dance of an Interracial Love Story." The Los Angeles Times. 12 January 2001: F26, F32.

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