By Sarah L. Kaufman
What do dance scenes add to a movie? Unspeakable bliss, for starters. Dancing starts when dialogue fails. When lovers need to move beyond conversation, when conflicts boil past negotiation, when joy can’t be expressed in any other way than by leaping into the air on a trumpeter’s high note.
With the rise of movie musicals in the early part of the 20th century, dancing moved easily from stage to screen, becoming bigger, more potent, ever more spectacular — and a lasting love affair with the moviegoing public was born. It’s still going on: Witness the mainstream success of “La La Land,” a film in the golden age mold.
Taking stock of film’s dance treasury to pick the paragons was an irresistible challenge. In making my choices for the best dance scenes, I looked at several factors: mastery of technique, imaginative choreography, quality of the music — this is very important — and design and storytelling. I value authentic expression more than dance doubles and tricky editing. But, in the final analysis, transcendence won out. Does the dancing carry me away, give me chills, distill some truth about the human experience? Whether it’s a masterpiece of steps and skill, or an intentionally funny, hot mess, or a dreamscape that’s intriguingly weird — dancing that moves you is great dancing.
I also had to set some rules for this list: I considered specific dance scenes, not the quality of entire movies. I didn’t include documentaries or foreign films; no “Pina,” no “Mad Hot Ballroom.” With matchless artists in movement, music and choreography, the 1940s and ’50s dominate my choices, but even those aren’t exhaustive. I settled on the era’s best and moved on. I handicapped Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, limiting them to just one dance (it’s my No. 1, the best of the best) from all the jewels in their 10 films together, because if I didn’t, they’d eat the list. Our vast cinematic history is studded with marvelous dancing, and one has to draw the line somewhere.
‘West Side Story’ (1961) ‘America’
Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are a combustible couple, taunting and teasing each other through Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s music. But once they start dancing, their sexual energy could light up the city. Great dance fills this entire movie, but this scene stands out for the neat layering of Latin motifs — bullfighting, flamenco, mambo — and the exuberant staging of a gender war. There's also well-earned furry: in lyrics and physical expression, the characters directly engage with the clash of cultures and racism that will undo them all.