Movies On The Radio Is Having A Ball With Dance Films

Feb 26, 2020

George Chakiris as Bernardo in the 1961 classic 'West Side Story.'
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Dance has been a part of film since the early days of the visual medium. As the dance trends came and went, so did the movies portraying them on the silver screen.

Classics like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “White Christmas” laid the groundwork for more modern dance films, like “La La Land” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” Many movies explore contemporary styles, like “Saturday Night Fever” and “You Got Served,” while others tackle the world of classical dance, like “Black Swan” and “Center Stage.”

Host Frank Stasio and film experts Laura Boyes and Marsha Gordon discuss the genre and our many listener picks. Boyes is the film curator for the North Carolina Museum of Art and the curator of the Moviediva Series at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. Gordon is a film professor at North Carolina State University and a National Humanities Center Fellow.

Boyes is screening a silent version of “Chicago” on Wednesday, March 4 at 7 p.m. at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. She has two upcoming screenings at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh: “The Great Buster” on Sunday, March 8 and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” with live music by David Drazin on Sunday, March 15. Both of those showings are at 2 p.m.

Top Hat (1935)

Boyes:

Fred Astaire made everything that he did look so completely effortless, but yet somehow still accessible, because he was coming out of more of a social dance ballroom dance tradition. You don't look at a ballet dancer and say: Well, I could do that. But Fred Astaire gives the illusion that you, too, could be a part of the magic that he's creating.

Gordon:

It is hard not to be moved by this particular number. It's so elegant. It's so well executed. And of course, another aspect is the music, which Irving Berlin wrote the music for this film. And it has great wit and great beauty.

Gordon on how dance has pushed filmmakers to innovate:

In the case of Busby Berkeley and Astaire and Rogers — and then we can see this later with Gene Kelly — the camera work has to be incredibly responsive. If you want to capture dance, you can't just do it from a really wide shot from far away. So you have to have a mobile camera if you want to really give people that experience of performance.

West Side Story (1961)

Gordon:

The Jerome Robbins choreography is incredible. The way it mixes some conventional dancing with these much more realist and stylized [moves] … There are so many memorable numbers. This is something I watched over and over again as a kid. I can conjure up probably more dance scenes from this film than any other one. It was just a remarkable film.

Boyes:

This is a time when a lot of Broadway musicals were transposed relatively faithfully to film. But the Jerome Robbins choreography is so distinctive. And when you think of the film you do think of the snapping fingers and all of that. It's unusual in that I think most people would have an image of the choreography from this movie. 

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Gordon:

It’s a very memorable scene. And part of it is it interrupts this pretty complicated structure of a plot that's, by and large, very violent and has a lot of dark moments in it. And it's this moment of relief and release. And so in many ways, that's what the musical numbers have historically done. It's just transporting it to this other context. And there is a kind of lineage — I think you could probably trace it back to “A Clockwork Orange,” to this very perverse version of “Singin’ in the Rain” to the recent “Joker” film that has the really interesting dancing on the stairs sequence — of directors using choreography and the dance genre in a dark context. 

Boyes:

Pulp Fiction isn't a musical. But music is really important to Quentin Tarantino. So even the violence scenes have a score to them.