Top Ten: Dance Scenes in Non-Dance Films


In this celebration of aesthetic impurity, I present some scenes of either motivated or inexplicable dance in films with little or no dancing otherwise. A well-chosen dance sequence can deliver a burst of adrenaline to a film in dire need, or else reveal elements of character impossible without the aid of spontaneous physical movement. Full-fledged musicals sometimes give the illusion that choreography can spring from characters who don’t seem talented enough to pull it off, but these scenes frequently revel in either the unprofessionalism of untrained dancers or the sheer incongruity of the spectacle. Let me know what you think of my list or if I missed any of your favorites in the comments below. Note: The usual IMDb links here have been replaced by links to a relevant youTube clip.

10. Mother (2009) opening credits
An enigmatic scene to be sure, one that Kim Hye-ja pulls off with unpredictable grace and fluidity. Although defying initial explanation, it cleverly pulls the viewer in, hungry to find out more about this weary but willowy heroine.

9. Lil the Dancer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Leave it to David Lynch to put the details of a criminal investigation into the dance movements of an incidental character, the red-clad, fright-wigged Lil. Her routine leads to a Sherlock Holmes-like scene where Special Agent Desmond and his partner discuss its particulars, except for the ultimately unexplained blue rose.

8. Quartet dance in Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000)
François Ozon adapts an unproduced play by Fassbinder into this wacky chamber piece about desire in all of its messy forms. The four leads perform a line dance to a Europop hit and cleanly display their emotional distinctions in a fun and subtly meaningful display of rhythm and confidence.

7. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in Young Frankenstein (1974)
Some of Mel Brooks’s finest moments as a filmmaker are his gleefully unconventional musical numbers, and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is a song-and-dance that is as essential as it is inexplicable. That Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein (Frohn-ken-steen) would use a dance performance to show off his monster is as whimsical and random as Brooks gets.

6. “Under the Bamboo Tree” in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
The only clear musical on my list includes a sweetly-staged and seemingly only moderately rehearsed duet by Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien as sisters Esther and Tootie. Their good-natured rapport makes the scene what it is, an adorable showcase for an overconfident younger sister and a gallant older one.

5. Pulp Fiction (1994) dance contest
Already legendary and endlessly referenced and parodied, Pulp Fiction‘s twist contest at nostalgia palace Jack Rabbit Slim’s is chock full of pop culture resonances, ranging from the 50s retro style of the diner itself to the audience’s savvy recognition of John Travolta’s prowess from Saturday Night Fever in the 1970s.

4. Zatōichi (2003) ending sequence
A burst of color and energy that collects so many of the film’s characters into a kind of chambara curtain call, Takeshi Kitano’s tap dance ending seems unmotivated but is really an ingenious culmination of his film’s preoccupations with history, art, and performance.

3. Dinner rolls in The Gold Rush (1925)
One of Chaplin’s most iconic moments, his dance of the dinner rolls is an equal triumph of both character and cinematic performance. The Little Tramp is trying to impress the girls around him just as Chaplin is trying to impress us the audience, a mirroring of creator and creation that emphasizes Chaplin’s willingness to entertain with whatever is at his disposal.

2. Do the Right Thing (1989) opening credits
Rosie Perez bursts into nonstop motion while Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blares through the frame. Few films announce themselves with the fierceness of Spike Lee’s masterpiece of urban expressionism, where sound and image and sex and rebellion ably coalesce.

1. The Madison in Band of Outsiders (1964)
After having silenced the soundtrack for about thirty seconds, the trio of Arthur, Franz, and Odile get up for a playful routine to some Michel Legrand R&B. Dubbed “the Madison dance” by the actors, it exemplifies Godard’s willingness to sacrifice narrative and conventionality for mere delightful caprice.

Adam Kuntavanish

Cinema transcends boundaries of time and space and thought and emotion; at its best it communicates the experience of being truly alive. I've been transfixed by the material ghosts of the movies since an early age, and I can't seem to shake them. Since reading and writing and talking about films are the next best things to watching them, criticism became a natural fit. Whether new or old, foreign or domestic, mainstream or cult, all movies are grist for my mill. Be forewarned, I'm an inveterate list-maker, so look out for rankings, topics, and opinions of all kinds. The AFI's got nothing on me.
  • Anonymous

    Really good list.  Interesting fact about #7, that whole moment was Gene Wilder’s idea.  Mel thought it would completely ruin the film, but Gene stuck to his guns at told him at least to try it out.

  • Rob Trench

    Can’t believe this scene didn’t make the cut.

  • Anonymous

    That’s pretty funny, that the writer of “Springtime for Hitler” and later “The Inquisition” would object to a tasteless musical number!

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think he objected to it being out of taste.  It was more a “this joke won’t work” type of objection.  He just had to see it in the context of the film in order to see it work.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a totally fun scene, but I’m not particularly a fan of the movie itself. I don’t doubt that if readers made a list, it would have placed.