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Dancing in the Movies

Dancing in the Movies

With the birth of film and the introduction of the motion picture, dance was introduced to wide and varied audiences around the globe. Silent movies were among the first films instrumental in bringing information about the various types of dances to the masses. Social dancing scenes were interjected in movies to depict a particular time period or social class. The talents of great dance teams such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were presented to many for the first time on the silver screen.

The first film studio and the first major motion picture studios were launched not in Hollywood or New York City, as many believe, but in the Garden State of New Jersey.

"Technically, New Jersey became first because Thomas Edison had the first studio, Black Maria, in 1893. He created the American film industry in West Orange, N.J., and the first films were shot in New Jersey," says Tom Meyers, Executive Director, Fort Lee Film Commission. Some of Edison's earliest film work showed social, musical and comedic dance performances. In Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894), dancer Annabelle Whitford (later Moore) performed her well-known butterfly dance wearing a pair of prop butterfly wings.

The concentration of studios and the actual first studio town was Fort Lee, N.J. Great elements of dance were filmed in Fort Lee.

"Flo Ziegfeld, who was known for his theatrical revues, The Ziegfeld Follies, came to Fort Lee between 1915-1916 to film the dance elements that often drew people from the vaudeville stages of New York. He wanted to open up the follies to more people by showing them on film," says Meyers.

With the advent of silent movies, large audiences saw for the first time great dancers like Vernon and Irene Castle perform. In the early part of the last century, Vernon and Irene Castle made ballroom dancing a cultural phenomenon, and thanks to the movie industry, the dance images and techniques have been preserved in films. They introduced the public to many dances, such as the castle polka, tango, bunny hug, Castle walk, hesitation waltz, turkey trot, and the maxine.

They appeared and danced in many films, including The Sunshine Girl (1913), and went on the following year to star in Irving Berlin's ragtime production, Watch Your Step. Their techniques were featured in the newsreel, Social and Theatrical Dancing. In the movie, The Whirl of Life (1915), they assumed the leading roles in a production based upon their lives. One of their specialty dances, the Castle walk, was made a part of the plot. By all accounts, the film was a critical success.

The movies of the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s provided the public with a reason to escape fromthe daily realities of life. Dancing was prominent in many of the films. Well-known movie moguls such as Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn deliberately placed music and dancing throughout their films to attract a wide audience.

"They wanted to have a film that appealed to all, not just one group. We look to the 1930s because of the sound in movies. During this period, people didn't want to see films that were about what was happening to them. They wanted lighthearted fair; they wanted to get away for a time," explains Meyers.

Musicals were the rage in the 1930s. "Even studios like MGM put musicals out because they were successful," says Meyers. "It made economic sense to appeal to the largest audience. Today, this would not be the case…you won't see these types of films that would incorporate dance, drama, romance, comedy."

The studio executives recognized the tremendous economic benefits gained by showing musicals that often included great dance numbers. The musical-dance combination worked for the studio executives, and they wanted this to continue. No excuses were accepted. If a studio executive wanted a star to appear in a motion picture and dance, they danced. And if the actors and actresses didn't know how to dance, the studios trained them.

Before "Singin' in the Rain", Debbie Reynolds had no dance experience. Co-star and choreographer Gene Kelly said, 'How can we use this girl who doesn't have dance skills?' He went to studio executive Mr. Mayer, who told him 'You'll learn,'" said Meyers.

Dance scenes appeared out of nowhere in many movies in the period often called the Golden Age of Hollywood. Movie studio executives like Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer or even Darryl Zanuck, who was known for creating serious themed films, wanted to attract a range of people, not just an isolated group, and included dance scenes in their movies.

"There was no such thing as a 'chick' film back then. They made a film that appealed to everybody," says Meyers. Even motion pictures with sports themes managed to insert a great dance scene. Dancers, who have seen the film, Pride of the Yankees, will remember the memorable nightclub scene performed by the dance team, Velez and Yolanda.

"In Pride of the Yankees with Gary Cooper, you had a scene appear out of left field in the night club that used the Irving Berlin score, Always. The studio heads wanted a dance number in the movie. It wasn't a straight sports film. It's really a film about two people in love. These were movies that showed relationships about people," Meyers explains.

Thanks to the movies, great dance teams like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were paired up for the very first time on the silver screen. The dance duo appeared together in ten films. These films generally included a new social dance, a tap dance number, and a romantic duet, along with a tap solo featuring Astaire.In 1939, a motion picture starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, was released. They reunited for one last dance film together in the musical, The Barkley's of Broadway (1949).

Both actors continued to appear separately in other films, but Astaire performed with new partners using various dance techniques. He performed a tap routine with Eleanor Powell to "Begin the Beguine" in Broadway Melody of 1940. Lengthy ballroom dance scenes were done with Rita Hayworth in "You'll Never Get Rich" (1941) and "You Were Never Lovelier" (1942) and Cyd Charisse in "The Band Wagon" (1953) and "Silk Stockings" (1957). Astaire performed in musical comedies with Judy Garland, in "Easter Parade" (1948), Jane Powell in "Royal Wedding" (1951) and Leslie Caron in "Daddy Long Legs" (1955).

No list would be complete without mentioning the contributions of the great actor, dancer, singer, choreographer and director Gene Kelly. Throughout his lengthy and notable career, he appeared with several leading actors, actresses and even an animated figure. In 1942, he made his film debut with Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal. His appearance with Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944) helped establish both Hayworth and Kelly among the top stars of the day. His creativity and innovative style were evident in Anchors Aweigh (1945), when he danced with an animated-cartoon mouse.

One of Kelly's greatest accomplishments was the Academy Award-winning film An American in Paris (1951), co-starring Leslie Caron. With Kelly's choreography and music composed by George and Ira Gershwin, the highlight is a lengthy dance number featuring Kelly and Caron set to Gershwin's An American in Paris. He received his only Oscar, an honorary Academy Award that year, for his vast talents, skills and contributions to film.

The great era of the musicals and dancing faded by the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"MGM, which emphasized dance the most out of all the studios, suffered tremendous losses. Louis B. Mayer was very heavy into musical productions musicals until the late '50s…They had been so heavily invested in these types of movies that a specific unit within the studios made these films. In the end, it probably hurt them. With the social changes in the late '50s and '60s, they were the last ones to get involved in making more serious films," says Meyers.

While the public's tastes and lifestyles had changed, the movies have preserved on film some of the greatest dancers and dance numbers ever produced. With many of them available on video or DVD and appearing in various classic film series, new audiences will be able to appreciate them for a very long time.

Entertainment has changed over time. We remember the romance of the great musical films popular in the 1940's through the 1960's. And we certainly enjoy the spunk of today's hit films introducing new aspects of dance. Have films changed through the decades? Let's find out and reminisce together.


In 1977 Saturday Night Fever brought disco to dance clubs around the globe. And with it came partner dancing yet again. Actor John Travolta played the part of Tony Manero who entered disco competitions to forget his everyday travails on the job and at home. The disco scene was replete with accompanying music, dance moves, and clothes.


Flamenco dancing gained worldwide recognition in the 1980's in Spanish director Carlos Saura's trilogy of flamenco dance films: Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding) (1981), Carmen (1984), and El Amor Brujo (Love, the Magician) (1986). Saura worked with the flamenco choreographer Antonio Gades to create these memorable movies that attracted audiences in the United States.

Dirty Dancing (1987), a romantic film, was a success thanks to audiences' word of mouth. Written by Eleanor Bergstein, the film tells the story of a teenage girl (Jennifer Grey) entering womanhood through a relationship with a dance instructor (Patrick Swayze), while on a family summer vacation. Dance scenes are prominent throughout the movie and a must-see for all ballroom and social dancers.


Strictly Ballroom (1992), a romantic comedy, tells the story of Australian ballroom dancer, Scott Hastings, played by Paul Mercurio, presented as a docudrama, poking fun at the competitive world of ballroom dancing. The characters in the movie view ballroom dancing so seriously, they forget that dance is meant tobe fun The lead character, Scott, is a maverick who creates change by developing new dance steps fusing ballroom dance movements with those of flamenco. For the ballroom dance purists, this enters the world of "does not compute", and he is viewed as a ballroom dance heretic.

Four years later, another international ballroom dance themed movie, Shall We Dance? (1996) introduced audiences to Japanese culture and its views of dance. The film shows accountant Shohei Sugiyama, played by Kôji Yakusho, depressed and bored with life and his family, acknowledging that he wants more. While on a train, he sees Mai Kishikawa (Tamiyo Kusakari) staring wistfully out the balcony of a dance school. He later goes to the school and assumes a double life signing up secretly for weekly ballroom dance lessons. A new life and story begins through the world of ballroom dancing.


The Miramax remake of Shall We Dance (2004) starred Jennifer Lopez, Richard Gere, and Susan Sarandon. The plotline followed the Japanese version very closely. While the film is enjoyable to watch, it is not as compelling as the Japanese original. Documentaries featuring ballroom dancing were favorably received in the new millennium. Mad Hot Ballroom offered a feel-good movie for entire families to watch. Released in 2005, documentarian Marilyn Agrelo followed students in several New York City elementary schools, as they learned ballroom dance steps and protocol and entered the annual dance competition organized by the American Ballroom Theatre.

Success and disappointment are all a part of life's learning curve, some win and some lose in the competition, but we are drawn to their enthusiasm, dedication, and willingness to discover. Don't forget Dance With Me (1998), with Vanessa Williams in the role of Ruby and singer Cheyenne playing Cuban born Rafael in a movie that spotlights several Latin dances and beats. Even Joan Plowright makes an appearance which shows that you're never too young or too old to learn the joys of dancing. Out to Sea (1997) features Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, who play dance hosts on a cruise ship. It's worth the time to watch Matthau's hysterical antics on the floor, as he attempts a tango. Hint: He's not a dancer. No dance movie list is complete without 1992's Scent of a Woman. Tango lovers will want to see Al Pacino, who plays a visually challenged man, in his choreographed tango scene.

Looking for a little drama, comedy, music, and a ballroom dance theme all in one? Add Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School (2005) to the movie list. Robert Carlyle, Marisa Tormei, Sean Astin, John Goodman and Mary Steenburgen were cast in this delightful movie that revolves around a charm school reunion and the power of dance to heal and forget about one's troubles.

Other films to watch are Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004), the prequel of Dirty Dancing; Swing Kids (1993) set in Nazi Germany during World War II; and Mambo Kings (1992), based upon Oscar Hijuelo's novel; Tango Lesson (1997) and Danzon (1991). It is encouraging to see a comeback for ballroom and social dancing. So sit back, rest your sore feet (from your own feverish dancing) and check out some great films.