Best Dance Movies: watermelons, hot Bacon, and fookin’ ballet

What is it about dance movies that draw us in time after time? The moves? The music? The hot young things? Today I’m talking my top five dancing movies, linking up with The Lounge… Because explorers need to know how to dance.

Let’s face it, if Captain Cook had known the hula, the Hawaiians may have been more welcoming. Put simply, a rain dance would have saved Burke and Wills, and had Scott seen Happy Feet prior to his fateful final voyage to the Antarctic, he could have been saved by the penguins. I blame it on the (lack of) boogie.

Explorers. Need. Moves.

Before I begin, I think it appropriate to provide you with a brief list of my credentials, which clearly qualify me provide expert dance film commentary:

  1. 1983-1986 – Miss Karen’s School of Dancing – local scout hall – Jazz Ballet, Ballet Ballet and something called “Character” dancing. Miss Karen’s favourite bands were Boney M and ABBA. Miss Karen didn’t realise that the 70s were over. And what the heck is “Character” dancing?
  2. 1987-1989 – caravan park tours, performing with the Fellow Campers Dance Troupe. Various public, self-choreographed performances during school holiday camping trips.
  3. 1992 – high school performance of Greased Lightning. I was a T-Bird.
  4. 1993-1994 – part-time dancer at Coyotes, Carmens and Bananas nightclubs (weekends). Note: these were volunteer positions.
  5. 1995 – 1996 – member of the Dave’s Place Dance Ensemble. The ensemble were known for our infrequent, but highly energetic, performances on the bar. Note: this was allowed because DJ Daz had the hots for my sister. Also, everyone else had gone home. Performances were remunerated with vodka fire engines.
  6. 1996 – joined the Dave’s Place Duo – the beginning of the end. Met a man with two left feet, fell over on the dance floor, and ended my semi-professional career.
  7. 1997-2008 – intermittent appearances on dance floors across Sydney, and at messy netball presentation nights
  8. 2009 – late night waltzes with newborn twins
  9. 2010-2013 – lounge room performances and preschool dance instruction. Bad dancing, sober, at high school formals.

Impressed? I know, right?

As you can see, I was inspired by dance from an early age. That's me in the front row in the dark. Check my face. No wonder the spotlight was on the others!

As you can see, I was inspired by dance from an early age. That’s me in the dark. Happy, aren’t I? The bloke with the spotlight had the right idea.

I also want you to know that this review has been shabbily researched. By that I mean I haven’t done any research. I’m working from memory here, so if I forget characters’ names, the setting, the actors, or any other crucial details, like the plot, it can’t be that important, can it? I would remember the important things.

Also, I am unable to comment on the technical terms for any actual dance moves, due to lack of knowledge. Despite my impressive resume, I am self-taught (apart from Miss Karen – and I have the sneaky suspicion that Miss Karen was self-taught, too). I mean, I’ve picked up some classic moves here and there: the sprinkler, the shopping trolley, the Elaine, but I’m otherwise all about getting into the groove, and less about the actual steps.

What I’m trying to get at, I think, is that to appreciate dance movies, it doesn’t matter if you can’t dance. Dance movies are about the underdog, the outsider, about rebellion, about self-expression, and about creativity. They are about being courageous, about being individual, and standing up to authority, no matter the cost, because what matters comes from within. Totally me, I reckon.

Dance films go like this (I will argue that every dance movie contains at least four of the following six narrative features).

Lisa’s six-step-guide to dance movies:
1. Outsider has dance talent (most often untapped)
2. Outsider gains trust of insider. The two work together to develop dance skills
3. Outsider and insider become more creative, courageous and progressive in their dance
4. Outsider and insider experience social ostracism due to their inability to conform
5. The inability of the protagonists to conform is demonstrated publicly in a high-impact performance
6. Society can’t hold back the wave of change, and dance is revolutionised

Basically, dance films are about revolution, and revolution is big. Clearly, the import of dance movies to our culture is significantly under-appreciated, for dance can change the world.

Of course, I’m not forgetting bad perms, cheesy montage sequences, carrying watermelons, mirror balls, bad makeup, and leg warmers. Oh yes, there will be leg warmers.

Here are my top five, in reverse order, because I want to keep you in suspense:

5. Flashdance

Look, to be honest, I haven’t seen Flashdance in a very, very long time, if ever. I can’t actually remember if I have ever watched the whole thing. I like how the main character (let’s call her Wendy) was a welder. That was different; undermining gender stereotypes and all that. Then there’s the classic scene where Welder Wendy auditions for the panel of judges, rocking her furry leg warmers off to the theme song. Sadly, I can’t actually remember if she succeeds or not. What I do remember, however, is this parody, featuring Kevin, who desperately wants a job at Carlton United Breweries, and who achieves his goals through the power of dance:

Flashdance scrapes into my top five because of the title song. It is freaking awesome! My kids have no idea what it’s actually called, but when it comes on, they shout, “Mummy’s song!” Welder Wendy look out! It’s Locksmith Lisa on the lounge room floor. Plus, “Maniac” montage. I have also been known to sing “Flashdance” as a bedtime song. “Twinkle twinkle”? Pffft!

4. Billy Elliot

Billy-Elliot-billy-elliot-13624629-1048-786This is a more serious one, but it has to make my top five. I couldn’t leave it out just for the sake of a humorous blog post. I’ve sandwiched it in between a couple of funny ones, though, for effect. Also, I have taught this film, which means I can even remember (some of) the characters’ names!

It’s the mid-eighties in the north of England, and eleven-year-old Billy enjoys ballet more than boxing. He hides it from his tough dad, Jackie, and his brother, Tony, both coal miners on long-term strike, who spend their days picketing the mine, hurling abuse at scabs. It’s cold. Billy’s mum has passed away. They’re running out of money. His dad is grieving, and his brother is angry and intolerant. The one outlet that Billy finds in this world of hardship is in dance. As Billy’s ballet skills develop in secret under the motherly tutelage of Mrs Wilkinson, the local dance teacher, he hides his newfound passion from his family, because “Lads do football… or boxing… not fookin’ ballet!” Yet, despite this initial reaction from Jackie, when Billy dances for him, impassioned and resolute, his dad sees past his prejudices to recognise his Billy’s talent and deep desire to dance.

When Jackie crosses the picket line, returning to work for the bosses he loathes, against his entire moral being, so that he can pay for Billy to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London, I shed tears of simultaneous sadness and joy. I’m choking up now as I write. It’s about a father’s love. And when Billy tells the judge at his audition about how he feels when he dances, like he has fire in his body, like a bird, like electricity, well, it’s melt-worthy.

This is a beautiful story, from a dark, hard time and place, about the power of the individual to rise above his lot. It’s not just a dance movie (although it does fit my dance movie criteria – check it) – it’s about love, and loss, and friendship, and courage, and transformation, and, despite the setting, it’s radiant.

3. Footloose

It’s Kevin Bacon, people! Young Kevin Bacon. He is the messiah, who arrives in a country town to deliver them from a life without rock ‘n’ roll. Ultra-conservative church minister John Lithgow has a creepy control over the townspeople, and has somehow banned rock music and dancing. Of course, his daughter is a rebel. (Aren’t they always?) In rides KBac in his yellow VW beetle, and proceeds to revolutionise the town, and get the girl. There is a pretty cool dance sequence in a warehouse (was he a gymnast too? I seem to remember some high bar action) and some dangerous driving. Plus, there is a big, goofy galoot character who can’t dance (kinda reminds me of my husband – the not dancing bit, not being a goofy galoot) and a very cheesy montage to “Let’s hear it for the boy”, involving dirt kicking in cowboy boots.

The final dance sequence contains more cheese than a cheese exhibition in Cheeseville. There are mirrorballs, glitter, blow waves and puffy sleeved taffeta. Did I mention skinny ties? I think it might be the prom. I think there’s some kind of conflict. And a corsage? I can’t really remember. They play Kenny Loggins. Everybody cuts loose. The town is saved from its rock-less hell. Thank you, Kevin. Thank you.

Oh, there was a remake? No comment.

2. Strictly Ballroom

Look, I think that Baz may have had access to my six-step-guide to dance movies when making Strictly Ballroom.

  1. Young señorita outsider (Fran) wants to learn ballroom
  2. She sees young Aussie insider fella (Scott) just about bursting to break free of the shackles of the rules of ballroom dance sport. Together they develop new moves. Cue montage sequence – “Time After Time”
  3. After an initial culture-clash, señorita’s Spanish father and grandmother assist the young couple to bring true Latin passion to their dance, the paso doble. The mantra, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived” pervades their dance, and they become more courageous
  4. Fran and Scott are ridiculed by the ballroom dancing world, as they reject the glitz to which they are supposed to aspire. They are forced apart
  5. The show-stopping final performance involves a golden matador’s jacket, a glittering red dress, a serious knee-slide, the music being cut, solo clapping, internal monologue in Spanish, slow motion, a father’s tears, and the loss of the arch nemesis’ toupee
  6. “Love is in the air” as dance is the only winner. The crowd join Scott and Fran on the dance floor. It’s a revolution in dance sport.

Here’s the closing sequence. Want to entertain three-year-olds for hours? Play this. They watch it over and over!

Love ya Baz!

1. Dirty Dancing

I-carried-a-watermelonAlright, this is more than kind of obvious. Let’s call me predictable. Shallow? Oh, don’t be ridiculous! What self-respecting thirty-something year old woman wouldn’t put this at number one?

It’s January 1988. We’re on a family caravan trip. Lighthouse Beach, Port Macquarie. I’m eleven. My sister is almost ten. It’s movie night. There are a bunch of families with us, and we’re all headed to the flicks. The other girls are older than us. They’re teenagers, and they’re talking Dirty Dancing. We get dressed up. Fluoro socks. Side pony tails. As we arrive at the cinemas, the other girls and their parents disappear into a cinema. Mum and dad buy our tickets. I’m excited. Dirty Dancing. Wow!

We walk into a cinema, and I’m pretty sure it’s not the one that the others went into. I look at my ticket. It says La Bamba.

La Bamba, Mum?!

Now don’t get me wrong, Richie Valens was a cool guy. Lou Diamond Phillips was hot. And Los Lobos had a hit on their hands in 1988, but when we got back to the caravan park and the girls were giggling and gossiping about DD, Richie Valens just didn’t seem as cool.

(Note to Mum and Dad: good call – I wouldn’t take a nine and eleven year old to a movie called Dirty Dancing either. Plus, there was sex. And watching sex scenes with parents equals not cool.)

I think I first watched Dirty Dancing in 1990. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it every year since. Sometimes every week.

My top three favourite things from DD:

  1. “I carried a watermelon.” – I mean, who doesn’t do something stupid and then say, “I carried a watermelon!?” Oh, that’s just me? Ok
  2. Montage! – “Hungry Eyes”
  3. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!” and final sequence – Yeah, take that, Dr Houseman!

So there you have it. My top five dance movies.

Predictable? Perhaps. Freakin’ awesome? Absolutely! I can’t look away.

Now pop over to Musings of the Misguided to check out some more Top Fives.

What are your favourite dance movies? Can’t believe I left out Magic Mike? Tell me what else I’ve missed.

34 thoughts on “Best Dance Movies: watermelons, hot Bacon, and fookin’ ballet

  1. Oh God! Love love love Billy Elliott. It is such a beautiful film, and so toe-tappingly good. And that final freeze cut of Billy leaping in the air.

    And you’ve just got to love Dirty Dancing. When I watch it now, I really appreciate that for a cheesy kind of story, they actually have gone all out at building good characters with really good dialogue. My fave bit is when they are dancing to “Time of My Life” and Patrick Swayze mouths along to the song. That is so real, I mean who hasn’t done that.

    PS I’m an awesome dancer. We have Friday nights rocking out to Youtube at our house, and I totally freak out at the Primary School annual disco. Very soon my children will be embarrassed, but not yet baby.

    • Aren’t we lucky to have Youtube? Every film, song, music video ever at our fingertips! Tonight we watched bits of Singing in the Rain, Grease, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well as Dirty Dancing and Footloose. These kids are spoilt for choice! Oooh I can’t wait to embarrass my kids at discos! Enjoy!

  2. With two daughters who dance, we have watched our fair share of dance flicks. Centre stage is definately one of my fav’s, and I do remember after watching Dirty Dancing for the first time, I actually danced down the aisle on the way out! Keep on dancing! xx Nikki @ Wonderfully Women

  3. My fav post to date. Hilarious! The bar dancing at Dave’s Place! What a flashback – even if a blurry one. Dancing in our house happens frequently, spontaneously and always ridiculously. Well, except when Daddy and big sis go out. We did start out with The Wiggles but these days Baby Nat and I could give Kylie a run for her Locomotion money. 😉 Stay groovy!

    • Thank goodness for dancing! Dave’s Place on the bar seems like a lifetime ago. We ripped up that dance floor, Rachie!! Hee hee! Glad you’re prolonging the magic. Hey let’s FaceTime a dance sesh! Only nine months til you visit! We’ll have to schedule a girls’ night out!!! I’m booking it in.

  4. Flashdance comes on? I’m all about my SPESHAL INTERPRETIVE DANCE MOVES. I’m glad you have your ‘I carried a watermelon’. Cos I have my ‘I’m right on top of that Rose’. Except VERY FEW people have actually seen ‘Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead’. I had a much better chance of getting away with that line in the early 90s. Should probably retire it.

    • Yeah, you kinda need other people to get your SPESHAL quotes, otherwise you just seem a bit strange. Are you, by any chance, a Stand By Me fan? Hubby and I are Stand By Me nuts. There is a Stand By Me quote for everything… I think I’ll have to do a post on that. I will also have to look up ‘Don’t tell mom the babysitter’s dead’ to see what all the fuss is about.

  5. ‘I carried a watermelon’ is an all time classic! That was a quotable quote for my friends and I at the time, every time we didn’t know what else to say. I love the way you’ve contextualised your expertise in this area 😉

    • Yep, What A Feeling is right up there with Total Eclipse of the Heart for providing the opportunity for dodgy dance moves. I love those ones that start slow and let you build up to the big crescendo. The eighties rock!

  6. OMG – we are from the same stomping ground. Dadabs and I were both born and raised in the Shire and had been known to frequent those salubrious establishments that you mentioned. What High school did you go to?

    • Wow Mumabs! And they say the Shire is a cultural wasteland… Well, we showed ’em! Speaking of salubrious, we may have bumped into each other at Coyts for Thursday dollar drinks… I enjoyed the triple vodka fire engine for three bucks. I’m a Caringbah High girl. 😉

  7. Love it Lis! I’ve been lucky enough to witness steps 1 through 5 at some classy establishments within our locale over the years. You’re top 5 dance flicks certainly warrant a place up & around the top, definitely DD is by far the best <3, I think I can recite nearly every word verbatim. Another movie I believe deserves a mention would be "Grease", there's nothing like a bit of a young Travolta dancing up a Grease Lightning storm.

    • I was youtubing with the kids tonight (one of our favourite after dinner past times) and we totally rocked Greased Lightning! We also watched Summer Lovin’. Phoebs was totally into their skirts. I reckon she’ll be rockin’ with you in Parkes in a few years, Jen. Hehe.

  8. Thanks for the giggle Lisa, FUNNY! I’m not much of a dancer, despite having certs to prove I did Modern Jazz for 6 years! I’m as unco as they come!Footloose is my pick of those, all those ‘naughty’ people dancing – LOVE IT! Em

  9. Awesome post! I LOVE Billy Elliott, such a great movie. And seeing as I didn’t actually watch Dirty Dancing till I was in to my 20s (my mum was pretty strict with the stuff we watched) I have to say that Footloose would be my fave dancing movie. Unless you are willing to include Grease, which I suppose isn’t strictly a dancing movie but its still fantastically super-awesome!

    • Grease is definitely super awesome, but I would classify it as a musical, due to the singing. I could do a whole other post about musicals. I used to love them, but went off them for a while after a bad experience with the Pirates of Penzance. Now with the kids, I’m getting reacquainted with the classic musicals. Thank goodness for Mary Poppins!

  10. Lisa this is one of the BEST posts ever! I’m totally with you on every level – from the self taught dance teacher (mine was Miss Dannielle) to an enduring love of Kevin Bacon and leg-warmers. But your deconstruction of the elements of dance movie storylines? GOLD. You nailed it!

    • Oh you had Miss Danielle? I reckon there was a whole hippy commune who thought they’d get into the whole dance teacher gig and set out to conquer the country, one Boney M song at a time. 😉

  11. Pingback: The top five reasons why Peppa Pig rocks | Raising Explorers

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