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The Top 21 Must-See Dance Sequences in Classic Film

FredandGingerAfter the success of my Top 20 Most Seductive Scenes in Film I decided to give the top twenty (plus one!) another try. I’m a big fan of musicals, more specifically musicals with dance. Maybe because I couldn’t be a choreographer in life, I’ve taken to appreciating it in film. In putting together this list I gave myself a couple rules: 1) I had to have seen the movie so as to be able to judge how the dance is integrated and works with the narrative. 2) The scenes had to have an emphasis on choreography. For example, as much as I love Jane Russell’s “Is There Anyone Here for Love” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), there isn’t much choreography from her. I also used this as a means of eliminating movies where the songs are great, but the characters don’t actually dance while singing. 3) This list is in no way essential. I wanted to highlight dances that, no matter how many movies I’ve watched since, I can still envision the dance sequences clearly. I also cut myself off at 1979 so you won’t see a slew of other dance scenes I’d have picked from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. I welcome everyone’s suggestions on scenes/movies worthy of a list like this!

21. “The Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

What better way to start off this list with a dance as simple to do as the “Hokey Pokey?” The Time Warp may be “just a jump to the left,” but it sets up the macabre world that Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) find themselves in. An average night out for two All-Americans transforms into entering a world of sex and depravity, where everyone seems to know the local dance. While not technically proficient or astounding, it’s a dance you’ll want to get up and join in on.

20. “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Much like the Time Warp, Ray Bolger’s dancing isn’t overly meritorious in The Wizard of Oz, but it sets the tone and goals for the entire group. We receive all the exposition we need about the Scarecrow, and much of it is conveyed through Bolger’s limber performance. This is meant to be a scarecrow who’s been nailed up for years, so not only is his ability to stand a bit wobbly, but his dancing reflects his ebullience and a need to relearn human behavior. The fact that the rest of the group from here on out – the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion – perform the same tune, albeit with different words, and their own unique dance patterns, transforms the Scarecrow into a catalyst for change.

19. “I’m Old Fashioned” from You Were Never Lovelier (1942)

It wouldn’t be a list about dances without Fred Astaire’s name, and he’s one who I could have ranked on his own. You Were Never Lovelier is a cute romance pairing Astaire opposite someone new, that being Rita Hayworth. I almost put their “Shorty George” dance scene here, but went with “I’m Old Fashioned,” a slower, elegant dance in the moonlight (something Astaire did a few times in his career, which you’ll see further down). Hayworth capably dances opposite Astaire, and the Latin influences at the end hearken back to Hayworth’s early career as part of the Dancing Cansinos.

18. “Heather on the Hill from Brigadoon (1954)

You’re gonna see the name Cyd Charisse a lot on this list; she’s easily one of the best dancers to ever grace the silver screen, and I could have easily crafted a list of just her dance sequences. Brigadoon has several great sequences, but “Heather on a Hill” establishes and situates the romance between lost traveler Tommy Albright (Gene Kelly) and Brigadoon resident Fiona Campbell (Charisse). This is a yearning dance, with each character leaning or pushing away, as a means of showing their mutual adoration for each other while knowing their love is fleeting – especially in Fiona’s case. Unlike other movies Charisse danced in, her scenes with Kelly usually relied on her ballet training, and her graceful poise comes through as she leans over Kelly, leg extended. The two gather heather throughout, blending the dance back into the narrative, and the final bittersweet note leaves Fiona sitting on the ground, gathering heather….like she’ll do for eternity.

17. “Denizens of the Docks” from On an Island With You (1948)

 On an Island With You is actually an Esther Williams romance, but Charisse’s actress character finds herself in a movie within a movie opposite Ricardo Montalban, also a capable dancer in his own right. This moment from the film within the film doesn’t fit the narrative – it comes rather abruptly into the third act – but it showcases just how amazing Charisse was with the right partner. Her athleticism is astounding as she jumps over men’s backs, cartwheels, and does in the splits. Montalban is right on par with her, lifting and stretching her like putty. The scene culminates with the two sliding on top of a bar for a moment that doesn’t fit the film, but boy does it make it.

16. “Why Can’t You Behave?” from Kiss Me Kate (1953)

This was a last minute addition I refused to give up. Ann Miller is another name you’ll see spring up here a few times, and while her furious taps are fun, she’s actually upstaged in this number by Tommy Rall as Bill, the boy can’t behave. Frustrated Lois (Miller) wants Bill to marry her, but the lure of the dice is just too good as evidenced by the cards and dice thrown at the camera. In fact, part of this moment’s fun comes from the attempts to utilize the 1950s love of 3D, thus Rall throws himself at the camera by the end. Miller and Rall’s characters enact a boxing match in pantomime, mimicking their internal feelings about their relationship – with Lois/Miller winning – before Rall goes into a playful and incredibly athletic combination of pirouettes leading into splits, all culminating with him jumping on hidden trampolines. It’s a fun, literally bouncy, dance that showcases the relationship of the two lovers, before they have to put it all out on-stage.

15. “Prologue” from West Side Story (1961)

This isn’t the last time you’ll see West Side Story on this list.  The opening number gives us an introduction to the two competing gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, and I’m all about dances that deliver exposition through heel touches and leaps. Jerome Robbins’ choreography doesn’t emasculate the men, and thus gives us very aggressive dance styles. Bernardo (George Chakiris) hits the wall before seguing into heel stretches, blending arabesques with closed fists and boxing stances. The dancing never condescends to be “flowery.” This one takes a fair bit of time to get flowing – clocking in at about nine minutes – and isn’t as motivated by forward momentum as other dances later on, but it’s a hell of a good start.

14. “Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon (1953)

I’m not big on The Band Wagon. It’s one of those 1950s musicals that’s a bit too bloated to sustain its runtime. But the dancing is certainly sublime as evidenced by the above moment. Charisse is again paired with a master dancer in Astaire. The two are mirror images throughout, slowly morphing into one. Much like the “Denizens on the Docks” sequence, Charisse gets a chance to be acrobatic while still retaining the balletic poise of “Heather on a Hill.” Great dance moments aren’t always about momentum, but pausing and both Astaire and Charisse have the ability to stop on a dime. The climb up the steps is another excellent combination of proceeding and pausing, so that by the time they get into the waiting carriage (hopefully the guy hasn’t been waiting all this time), they’re both exhausted from dancing and utterly enamored with each other.

13. “Under the Bamboo Tree” from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

I’m allowed one placement purely on bias and that goes to the “Under the Bamboo Tree” number from Meet Me in St. Louis. It’s another dance that’s technically perfect, but it’s all about the sentiment with this one. It’s just so damn adorable that I smile everytime I watch it. It’s one of those clips that I’ll find on YouTube when I’m having a bad day, it instantly lifts my spirits. Much of this is because of how Judy Garland and little Margaret O’Brien dance together. O’Brien’s Tootie has convinced Garland’s Esther to dance with her, and Esther has warned “if we’re gonna do this you better be good!” O’Brien’s no Fred Astaire, but for being only six years old she has some great kicks and keeps up with Garland. Watch Garland gently “guide” O’Brien, whether it’s turning her another word or feeding her a line. I’m unsure if this was improvised or not, but it lends such a great moment between a mentor and her protegee.

12. “Got a Lot of Living to Do” from Bye Bye Birdie (1963)

Bye Bye Birdie’s dance sequences are highly dated, but they’re spunky, colorful, and a mess of fun. The above sequences comes once Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret) has lost her boyfriend, so she attempts to drown her sorrows at a local nightspot. A song about different perspectives, rock star Conrad Birdie’s (Jesse Pearson) “living” involves women, whereas Kim and ex-boyfriend Hugo (Bobby Rydell) differ on what living means to them; for Kim it’s about growing up and not being treated like a child, while Hugo wants to look impressive with the ladies and make Kim jealous. All of this culminates with a dance of competition, with Kim and Hugo taking up different partners and strutting their stuff to irritate the other. The flapping arms, kicking legs, and hip bumps are total 1960s cool, but who can complain when it’s Ann-Margret doing all of that? Many of the dances are frolicsome tales of youthful, and innocent, rebellion, best exemplified with these characters’ brand of “livin’.”

12. “Jerry and Gene” from Anchors Aweigh (1945)

Gene Kelly’s iconic dance with Jerry the Mouse may not do anything to the actual narrative of Anchors Aweigh, but it marks a big leap into blending animation with live action before 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit perfected it. Kelly’s essentially dancing by himself, but he sells the fact that there’s another creature there, a talking mouse no less! Kelly and the Jerry animation are completely in sync and Kelly’s moves are flawless. Kelly’s tendency to dance on bended knee remains unrivaled, in my opinion. This is a performance that can get anyone dancing, even Jerry the Mouse!

10. “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat (1935)

You can’t have an exploration of must-see dance sequences without something from the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers canon, and none of them are as memorable and iconic as “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat. The two dancers are simpatico, embraced in a beautiful waltz that turns into a tap in the middle. These two can anticipate each other’s move, for sure. The song and the set direction stands out a bit more than the dancing, and the dancing isn’t as outrageous as some of their other performances, but it’s a legend and should be revered.

9. “Dream Ballet” from Oklahoma! (1955)

Is the dream ballet really necessary? No. It’s a lot like the Jerry and Gene number; it’s great to watch, but does nothing for the narrative. Oklahoma’s! dream ballet tells about Curley and Laurey’s (Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones) romance, and it’s threat from Rod Steiger’s Judd in a hazy, balletic world which transforms from dream to nightmare. But much like Oklahoma! itself, the world is lush, beautiful, and has a hint of movie magic aided by its obvious film sets Singin’ in the Rain (1952) would ultimately ruin the illusion of. While not nearly as majestic as another ballet on this list, Oklahoma’s dream ballet encompasses such beautiful Hollywood staging, and the dancing aids in that illustrious quality.

8. “Everything Old Is New Again” from All That Jazz (1979)

One of my favorite movies of all time, All That Jazz is also one of the best stories about the perils of fame with Roy Scheider at his best. (Have I mentioned the confused thoughts I got watching this as a teenager and knowing he was Sheriff Brody from Jaws?) Scheider’s director character, Joe Gideon, is on a downward spiral – based on elements from director Bob Fosse’s own life – and comes home to his girlfriend (Ann Reinking) and daughter (Erzsebet Foldi) have choreographed the dance to cheer him up. While not as technically proficient as some of the dances leading up to it, the actresses play this up as a dance they came up with in a few hours. Its raw qualities are convincing and authentic. It’s believable that these two love Joe so much that they make him remember how much he loves dance and the power it can bring to inspire happiness. The fact that Ann Reinking has legs for days helps, and her interactions with Foldi, particularly a tender kiss on the head, shows the audience that these are two females that care about each other as much as Gideon.

7. “Pick Yourself Up [Reprise]” from Swing Time (1936)

An extension of the film’s preceding “Pick Yourself Up” number, the second performance sees Astaire’s Lucky Garnett attempt to save dance instructor Penny’s (Rogers) job by proving she’s taught him to dance. (The joke’s in the sentence alone.) The same synchronized performance Rogers and Astaire illustrated in Top Hat remains, but with an additional bit of flair. Rogers’ Penny shouldn’t know Lucky’s moves, but improvises as if it’s choreographed – as with All That Jazz, I’m a fan of dancing that appears made up in the moment. The two tap, waltz, and even throw in some acrobatics with leaping over a tiny dance floor fence. The whole routine culminates with a flourish as the duo dance/walk right out of the rehearsal room!

6. “Mambo” from West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story returns with one of the most fantastic school dances I only wished I could attend. Okay, it’s not sanctioned by the school, but it’s utilized as a means of getting the Sharks and the Jets to “play nice.” A dance involving swapping partners leads to each group going their respective ways with shouts of “Mambo! Go!” It’s similar in asserting competition to “Got a Lot of Living,” but it allows each member of the group to pay tribute to their respective heritages, whether it be Puerto Rican or American. I was always drawn more to the Sharks, if only because their dancing is graceful and florid with flamenco influences, as seen here. The Jets dancing remains hyper-masculine, complete with Russ Tamblyn flipping through the air. Boy, if only school dances were this well-done!

5. “Too Darn Hot” from Kiss Me Kate (1953)

Ann Miller’s one of the best female tap dancers I’ve ever seen, proven in her legendary performance of Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” in Kiss Me Kate. Much like Betty Grable, Ann Miller’s not shy about showing off her gams during this number – although she’s a showgirl so there’s a reason why she’s dressed so scantily. Even with the lyric “according to the Kinsey report” being changed, the song and dance are sexy as can be. Miller may mug for the camera, and her scarves and flying bracelets are meant to give the fledgling 3D market a boost, but the gimmicks pay off with Miller’s insane taps. Fred Astaire may have danced on the ceiling, but Miller taps all over the apartment before jumping up on the dining room table to beat out a tap. Miller “coos” in one of the sexiest dance sequences captured.

4. “Broadway Rhythm” from Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

The entire “Broadway Rhythm” aka “Gotta Dance” number from Singin’ in the Rain is brilliant, but most people remember it as the dance between Kelly and Cyd Charisse, teaming up before tackling Brigadoon two years later. This is a dream ballet not unlike Oklahoma’s (the 1950s loved its dream ballets), but this one actually furthers Singin’s plotline as actor Don Lockwood (Kelly) tells us his idea for a movie, opening up the ballet and its tale of a young hoofer who’s just “gotta dance!” Doors slam in his face until he ends up at a nightclub where he meets a gangster’s moll (Charisse) and then the rest of the narrative gets fuzzy from there. Kelly’s dancing is excellent, and he never found a worthier partner than Charisse, but this dance is all about her. Has there ever been a sexier entrance than Charisse’s extended leg holding Kelly’s hat? Once Charisse extends the leg, hat hanging from her shoe, over her head, the audience is breathless and entranced. It’s easy to see why this woman’s bad news, but also utterly irresistible. Her dancing with Kelly is teasing and intimidating. Her hip pop accompanied by a drum beat, causing Kelly to lose his hat, reminds me an awful lot of Lucy and Desi’s “Cuban Pete” number from I Love Lucy.

3. “Make ‘Em Laugh” Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Oftentimes dancing makes you, well, want to get up and dance. But great dancing can also make you cry or, in the case of Donald O’Connor and this performance, laugh. “Make ‘Em Laugh” has been on countless lists; it’s not only a great dance sequence, it’s a great scene, period. O’Connor’s physicality sells this. His slaps against walls, and his flying leap at the climax, looks terrifying because there was no stunt person. There’s also a dancer’s flexibility and grace to everything. This is meant to be a spontaneous moment, but nothing ever seems out-of-place and highly choreographed. The song itself reminds you of humor’s power, but also how movement, in all its forms, can bring a visceral response. This is a dance sequence that moves beyond that, tapping into human emotion and just making you bust up in laughter.

2. “America” from West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story’s been discussed so much on this list there’s little I can say about “America” that I haven’t touched on in the previous entries. Much like the “Mambo” scene, this shows off the Sharks’ and their Latin influences, shades of the flamenco coming out. Unlike the previous moments this is a great scene to examine how costuming aids in dance. Rita Moreno in the purple dress with it’s full skirt gives the eye something to follow; it’s flowering enhances the idea of America as a way of allowing new identities to blossom. It’s also another competition song between gender’s with the women poking fun as well as taking the lead in the dancing (they’re dancing is funner than the men’s).

1. “The Dance of the Red Shoes” from The Red Shoes (1948)

Maybe it’s a bit of a cheat to put the entire reason for a film’s existence as my number one. I mean, if we didn’t see the Dance of the Red Shoes than the title wouldn’t make any sense, right? The Red Shoes and it’s ballet number took my breath away when I first saw it. The magical story about a woman so enchanted by red shoes that she dances herself into death, in a movie about pretty much the same thing, was spectacular. Add the luminous Moira Shearer in the lead role and the fantastic color photography that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made into an art form. You just can’t lose with this movie. The ballet is elegant, haunting, terrifying, and beautiful at various points. You get wrapped up in Vicky Page’s story, as well as the young girl she’s portraying in the number. This a perfect dance sequence!

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

24 thoughts on “The Top 21 Must-See Dance Sequences in Classic Film Leave a comment

  1. Certainly not their best routine, but ‘Bouncing the Blues’ from “Barkleys of Broadway” is exactly how I like imagine Ginger and Fred as rehearsal partners and friends. Always makes me grin real wide.

    • You didn’t include a single dance by the Nicholas Brothers “the princes of Harlem” at least what about the dance they did with Gene Kelly from The Pirate

      • The Nicholas Brothers were suggested constantly but I wanted to limit myself to films I’d personally seen, and I haven’t gotten to the Nicholas brothers canon of work. I will definitely be putting them on the list of films to watch whenever I tackle volume 2 of this list.

  2. Strong list. So happy to see I’m Old-Fashioned and mention of The Shorty George–two of my faves. BUT what about “Night and Day” from THE GAY DIVORCE.

  3. Love your list but what about the barn raising scene in 7 brides for 7 brothers? Tommy Rall sensational again in this brilliant dance sequence
    jan UK

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