The many faces of dance: The best dance scenes in modern films

..or the faces of many dances.

What is it about dance?

Good music can easily accomplish what all other art works harder to achieve: the total bypassing of our analytic side for the direct and seamless infiltration into the emotional and instinctual part of us, resulting in the sometimes uncontrollable physical response. Music moves us, quite literally. This response it inspires in us is unlike any other. “Life without music is a mistake” our famous Nietzsche has said. Not dancing to that music makes it doubly so.

One of the most revelatory films - for me, personally - about dance has been the documentary about Pina Bausch's life as a modern dance choreographer by Wim Wenders. Even the trailer is inspiring which says so much about the entire documentary, about Pina herself and, mostly, about dance.

Dance as freedom. In that pure, untainted pleasure it releases, lies one of the rare places where complete freedom can be found, a kind of freedom that can be contagious. In Deus Ex Musica, Alex Ross writes that Beethoven’s “’Eroica’ finale—whose theme is based on the popular dance known as the Englische— [is connected] with a passage in Schiller’s correspondence that sees the Englische as a symbol of an ideal society in which ‘each seems only to be following his own inclination, yet without ever getting in the way of anybody else . . . the assertion of one’s own freedom and regard for the freedom of others.’

What I find especially worthy of love and admiration in dancing is also its total disregard of talk. While I clearly fully appreciate the beauty of words and language, I must say that I equally enjoy a refuge from them. This is precisely the reason why the ending of the film "The Artist" is one of the best and deserves to be at the top of this list, though it is randomly-ordered. In a moment where silent movies were losing their appeal to be replaced by “talkies”, a couple of actors, each belonging to their own distinct generation, find their mutual language through dancing. In the end nothing they say, or don’t say, can compare to the power of dance. Dancing symbolizes freedom in its purest form. Timeless and universal, it offers the sole way in which these strikingly different actors can continue their lives together, as partners and as performers. Also a lesson that, to find freedom, we need not look beyond our own bodies.

Of course, in order to fully appreciate the performances in this list, one must watch the films as well. But, this is not to say that the short clips that follow cannot be understood on their own. After all, dance is the universal language and, as such, it can stand on its own.

Dance as love. Dancing is the silent protagonist of “Silver Linings Playbook.” It is  the only thing that first brings together the problematic characters in the film and the only thing that keeps them together regardless of their problems with themselves and with each other. Dancing becomes a method of naturally building their relationship until they can know and understand one another, the only thing that silents the loud quarrels in which the characters find themselves in when not dancing.

In Only Lovers Left Alive, the beautiful, intimate dance scene is prefaced by one of the most clear and sweet messages from Eve to her vampire lover, Adam: “How can you live so long and still not get it? This obsession is a waste of living. It could be spent on surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness, friendship, and dancing.” Eve hits the play button and the blood returns to Adam's veins.

In this scene of Blue Valentine, the whole love “song and dance” is personified. These two people fall in love exactly like they fall in this improvised and hopeful song and dance. They think – one could argue, wrongly so, though not I - that this performance is a sign they are made for each other.  The scene is beautiful in its tragic silliness - the dancing that is almost great and the song, tragedy inside a goofy guise.

In 500 Days of Summer, the dance-while-falling-in-love routine is given a sort of sarcastic twist in this fairy taley, cartoonish rendition of a person so in love, he feels like dancing, running, jumping, flying. It seems like any other happy musical love song, except this is not a musical and the ending is not predictable. So, I'm afraid that to understand the sarcasm, the rest of the film must  be watched.

And, since the characters in this film are so cute here is a bonus short dance video made specifically for the film. The dance perfectly illustrates the course of their love story in the film.

Dance as love…and death. In Anna Karenina’s dance scene, which I find to be one of the most beautifully done in film, the dance is a metaphor of the dizzying and - only in Anna’s case - fatal love between the two characters. The intricately complex movements are tiring, literally breath-taking and angst-ridden yet so beautiful in their naturalness, irresistible in their seamlessness. The metaphor is clear in this case: Only those who truly fall in love can make such complex movements seem so natural. Another beautiful detail in the scene is the people surrounding the couple. Their hurt, desperate, envious or jealous reactions are ignored by the couple. At one point in the scene, their total disappearance signifies other people’s and society’s, albeit only momentary, utter irrelevance.

Dance as death. The clear reference to the swan’s last song is beautifully done in the ending of "Black Swan". In order to entirely fulfill herself and her role, the ballet dancer must become the black swan, the light must let the dark in, the controlled that which is uncontrollable.In the end, she faces what this descent/ascent entails.

Dance as life. This scene from La Grande Bellezza is one of the best illustrations of the modern version of a Dionysian lifestyle. The metaphor of modern life, where people are brought together in a collective aimless and empty loss of control, all the lonelier for its massive scale where each person is too busy performing his own exhibition, too busy checking who is checking it out, is all in this opening scene from the film. In this life, the film seems to say, there are only protagonists and no audience. In fact, in the film there is only one protagonist...he truly enjoys the party, until he truly doesn’t.

A small note: The song in the scene is one of those nostalgic, classic Italian pop songs, turned into a nondescript electro-trance hit.

Dance as remedy. In this scene from A Single Man, this dance seems to be all that these two friends have left. The way in which they cling to it may seem even a bit pathetic and, if it were anything else, perhaps it would be. But dance, even as a desperate attempt to hold on to a relationship, or even life, is silly enough to work beautifully.

Dance as fun...or not taking oneself too seriously

An honorable mention goes to the weirdly intense and darkly funny dance scenes in "Pulp Fiction" (of course!), "Napoleon Dynamite," and "Little Miss Sunshine." The intensity that accompanies the overly dramatic yet comical twist in "Pulp Fiction" will remain in history as a dance with the most strangely effective dynamics.

The way in which "Napoleon Dynamite" suddenly emerges as a unique free spirit - as well as a great friend - in the final scene of this film is memorable in that it makes him look so cool. This scene alone makes Napoleon suddenly so attractive despite him being far from it in the entire rest of the film. This scene is also a chance to listen to one of the best dance songs - Jamiroquai's "Just Dance."

Finally, "Little Miss Sunshine" has turned one of the most seemingly perverse activities – namely a grandfather teaching his granddaughter how to dance very provocatively – into one of the funniest and sweetest gestures in the world. There is no video available of this particular scene as it is the culminating end of the film, which I recommend watching in its entirety.


A final dance triggered by nostalgia is Kevin Costner’s dance of connection to himself and to the natives in one of the most memorable scenes from my childhood years.

In defense of probably leaving out an endless list of beautiful dance scenes in other films, I can only say that these are the ones that have stayed with me.

Check out another one of my favorite lists here.