In which the Midnight Data Squad systematically ranks hundreds of dance films: a nerdy, data analysis version of dancing out our feelings.
I’m not sure when I became a dance film devotee, but despite the prestige cinema and sci-fi and arthouse pics and period romances and all the other kinds of cinema I enjoy, dance movies have always been my comfort food. And so, during the last few months – perhaps the most tense time in our public consciousness in my 39 years – I turned my leisure time energy back to my spiritual cinema home, and put that nervous energy to good use. Because this pandemic will truly have been for nothing if we don’t use it to figure out: what is the best dance movie?
Deciding what to include and what not to include in the broad category of “dance films” is tricky, but here’s what I figured out along the way:
- Dance has to play a major role in the film. A good clue is if the film ends in some sort of big dance finale and has what could be described as “dance sequences.” Films with one dance scene (i.e. Napoleon Dynamite, Mauvais Sang) aren’t dance movies – UNLESS that one scene is so iconic that it caused a massive surge of dance energy in popular culture.
- If the film is about dancers, it’s probably a dance movie. Unless the film doesn’t have any actual dancing in it – these exceptions are rare, but they exist. For example, Hustlers is about exotic dancers but the film really only has one dance scene, and even though J.Lo looks GOOD in it, that doesn’t make it a dance movie.
- Musicals are tough; not every musical is a dance movie – in fact in my opinion, most aren’t. My decisions about whether to include a musical were based on whether a significant amount of the storytelling happened through dance, whether/not the film had multiple extended dance sequences without singing, whether the film’s reputation is based on the work of a groundbreaking choreographer, and generally if dance was just as or more important than singing to the overall piece. For example, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has one truly phenomenal dance number, but singing is much more important to the storytelling in the film overall.
Using this as my guide, I assembled a list of 285 qualifying dance films. I scored and ranked* the 171 films with at least 500 IMDB ratings in 10 data dimensions organized into three scoring areas:
- Popularity – 1) Box Office: The amount of money the film made in its theatrical run (adjusted for inflation), 2) Internet ratings: the number of ratings the film received on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, and 3) Nerd Attention: the number of ratings the film received on Letterboxd (a social platform for film buffs)
- Quality – 1) Critics: The film’s Metascore , 2) Fanatics: the percentage of Letterboxd nerds who rated the film 4 stars or higher, and 3) People (in general): the aggregate audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
- Influence – 1) Moneymaker: the amount of money a film made in profit relative to its budget, 2) Cultural Infiltration: the extent to which a film has permeated film/media culture (i.e. how often it is referenced in other works, whether it inspired sequels/remakes, etc.), 3) Cinematic Significance: a film’s prestige and/or lasting legacy (awards won, prestigious filmmaker, canonized by Criterion, etc.), and 4) Iconic: how frequently a film is included in “best dance film” lists and “best dance scene” mashups.
That’s a lot of data! Yeah it is. (See the math here if you like). If a film scores a top 10% rating in any dimension, it gets a special badge. I thought about making a key, but you all are smart – I’m sure you’ll figure it out.
Since all this is about DANCING, it just felt wrong to share my results in writing and photos only. So I made a Top 100 Dance Films video countdown and it is so fun! Write-ups and scores for the top 30 are below. Enjoy!
*Sequels and remakes are generally collapsed within the ranking of the original film, unless there is a compelling reason to consider the sequel or remake a standalone. Full rankings, including all sequels and remakes, available on Letterboxd.
30. Magic Mike XXL (2015)
Some sequels are just their own thing. MMXXL ditches all the artsy stuff and character development from the original and goes straight for a goofy best friends on a road trip Crossroads vibe but with more fake tans and secret stripper dynasties. Sure, it’s a little one-note, but it’s Channing Tatum, you grouch! Have another whatever, lighten up a bit, and get into that iconic gyrating. Also, Donald Glover shows up at some point. Ok!
29. Hairspray (1988)
John Waters’ late-80s take on mid-60s Baltimore teenage dance TV is a little slice of heaven in a world that will never fully deserve it. All races, bodies, and gender identities are home in this magnificent place, in which a radiant, plus-size Ricki Lake not only dominates broadcast television’s dance universe, she also fights for racial equality, smokes cigs with the beatniks, irons her hair, beats the snotty blonde bully fair and square, and smooches the hunky teenage heartthrob. Features Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono, and Ric Ocasek!
28. Step Up 2: The Streets (2008)
There are sequels and then there are sequels that launch international phenomena. Jon M. Chu’s Step Up 2: The Streets mashed together Step Up and You Got Served into a formula that would be replicated many times in the U.S. and in nearly every other country in the world that makes films. (And by themselves, 3 more times.) It’s a tale as old as time: sexy misfit dancer meets hot dance crew leader. They clash, then fall in love, then unite their crew of lovable weirdos to dance-battle with the vaguely evil bad guy crew to save the community center/get a scholarship/get their street cred back/start a revolution, etc. And again and again! What can I say, it’s a winning formula. The other entries in the franchise and their scores are below (more on the original in a minute):
- Step Up 3D (2010): 9.07, plus top franchise marks for most iconic dance moves
- Step Up Revolution (2012): 7.77
- Step Up All In (2014): 5.92
27. Pina (2011)
Criterion Channel, Amazon (rent)
From Criterion: “The boundless imagination and physical marvels of the work of the German modern-dance pioneer Pina Bausch leap off the screen in this exuberant tribute by Wim Wenders. A long-planned film collaboration between the director and the choreographer was in preproduction when Bausch died in 2009. Two years later, Wenders decided to go ahead with the project, reconceiving it as an homage to his late friend. The result, shot in stunning 3D, is a remarkable visual experience and a vivid representation of Bausch’s art, enacted by a group of staggeringly talented dancers from her company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Pina is an adventurous work of cinema that highlights the bold legacy of one of the world’s true creative visionaries.”
26. Strictly Ballroom (1992)
Baz Luhrmann’s debut is a deeply romantic fairy tale set in the tacky, neon world of competitive Australian ballroom dancing. Heartfelt and hilarious in the way that only Australian cinema can be, Luhrmann’s trademark sparkle and flourish is rough, but runs deep – and the film earned international accolades at Cannes ’92.
25. Fame (1980)
Fame isn’t a very good movie, but in 1980, the high school for the performing arts ensemble drama was a total sensation and the concept has proven staying power. Fame won two Oscars (best song, best score), has been referenced in 129 other works, spawned two television series’ (1982’s Fame and 1997’s Fame L.A.), a broadway show, and a 2009 remake (which scored a decent 6.17).
24. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
Free on YouTube
Certainly the bleakest film on the list, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? follows a depression-battered Jane Fonda as she struggles to hold on to her will to live through a grueling dance marathon that lasts for more than 40 days. An early project from celebrated filmmaker Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie), folks describe the film as brutal and haunting – definitely more of a dark-night-of-the-soul undertaking than your typical dance flick. But worth it, I hear!
23. Save the Last Dance (2001)
Ah, Save the Last Dance. It’s tough to take now (Julia Stiles, the stiffest suburban white girl of all time, leans on her new Black friends who help her work through her grief and teach her the dance moves that get her accepted into Juilliard), but 20 years ago this was exactly the movie American teenage suburban white girls thirsted for. Including me, sigh. Adjusting for inflation, it made nearly $200M at the box office, and folks still like to weigh in with their opinions about it – the film has more than 3 million audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, by far the most of any film on the list.
22. The Band Wagon (1953)
TCM/HBO Max, Vudu (rent)
Featuring two of the greatest dancers of the Golden Age of Hollywood – Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse – and some truly iconic dancing, The Band Wagon’s good qualities more than make up for its uneven moments. The extended murder mystery dance ballet is particularly inspiring – in fact, Michael Jackson based some of his best moves on it. Though he was 54 at the time, Astaire’s inventiveness, choreography, and grace mark him solidly at the top of his game. Cyd Charisse is just incredible too, and “Dancing in the Dark” remains one of the prettiest and most romantic scenes of the era.
21. Top Hat (1935)
A lighthearted, screwball musical comedy – the kind that only mid-Depression, pre-World War Hollywood cinema could produce – in which the entire team, led by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, seem to exist only to delight us. The film sparkles with grace, humor, charisma, and spectacularly precise, masterfully expressive DANCING. It’s just hard to argue with that kind of cinema.
20. Paris is Burning (1990)
Criterion channel, AppleTV (rent)
Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary about New York City’s Black and Latinx drag ball scene in the 1980s surges with attitude, style, and life. Holy as gospel to the queer folks who would grow up in its wake, the joy of Paris is Burning is a bold and life-giving shove against transphobia, homophobia, racism, AIDS, and poverty. Also, Madonna – WTF, seriously. To quote Dorian Corey: “I don’t tell you you’re ugly, but I don’t have to because you know you’re ugly… and that’s shade.”
19. Swing Time (1936)
TCM/HBO Max, Vudu (rent)
Heads-up: In this film, Fred Astaire performs in blackface to a song called “Bojangles of Harlem.” I had no idea this was coming, and when I watched Swing Time, I got angry. I struggled with whether or not to include the movie on this list. I’m not sure if I’m right, but ultimately decided that it’s important not to avoid talking about this. I was squirming out of my skin as this scene began and my first instinct was to turn off the movie – but my discomfort told me to stay and to think about it. Because this scene is real. Powerful, rich, white Hollywood people created it, and it still exists in a film celebrated (watched, and enjoyed!) as classic American cinema. As a white American who loves film, this scene is part of my heritage. I am connected to the legacy that made this scene for popular consumption during a time in history when the terrorist practice of lynching Black men, women, and children was culturally acceptable AND legal. It is important to recognize that, so that I can keep getting better at seeing and rooting out the insidious ways white supremacy brainwashing still tells me, through my instincts, that I should look away from this – and other horrific words, actions, and beliefs… which only allows the oppression of Black people in America to continue, unchecked.
I’m not going to sweep Swing Time under that rug. Go read this thoughtful piece by Kevin O’Rourke about this perplexing scene instead, and struggle with me to understand this peculiar piece of our racist cinema history. Here’s a quote:
“So I find ‘Bojangles of Harlem’ both personally upsetting and intellectually perplexing, because the blackface Astaire wears is such an incredible disappointment, and because—like so much we learn about our heroes—it complicates the view of Astaire as a genial, widely beloved star of stage and film whose dancing gladdened millions. Astaire certainly was these things, but he also participated in and perpetuated a harmful tradition of racist minstrelsy. The blackface Astaire wears in Swing Time, regardless of his intentions or the time in which he wore it, mars, and will continue to mar, his legacy.” – Kevin O’Rourke, from “Fred Astaire and the Blackface Talking”
18. Footloose (1984)
Hulu, Amazon Prime
I have always felt like this movie was custom-made to be my favorite movie of all time. I mean, dancing as activism to liberate yourself and your town from religious oppression? AND Kevin Bacon dancing out his feelings? AND disapproving parents? AND a tractor fight? AND red cowboy boots!? Come on, you’re just rubbing it in now. Footloose is the greatest movie of all time and I will fight anyone who disagrees. I won’t actually fight you, I’ll just try to persuade you because I don’t believe in violence (only counterviolence). Anyway! Footloose was a big hit in ’84 and has infused itself into our cultural consciousness; it has been referenced in 281 other works and remade as both a broadway show and a 2011 film starring Kenny Womald and Julianne Hough. I also love the remake and will gladly fight/not fight you about that too – it earned a decent 7.92.
17. Step Up (2006)
Come for the romance, stay for the hot dance moves! In this Baltimore School for the Performing Arts masterwork, Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan’s chemistry is WAY off the charts (obviously – they were falling in love IRL while filming), so the romance does take first billing here. BUT, the choreography and dance moves are not to be denied. Channing Tatum is doing all sorts of amazing things he has no business being able to do with that hunky triangle man-body and Jenna Dewan moves like her heart is going to explode in every scene. Though it didn’t impress critics, Step Up did earn a place in our hearts.
16. Flashdance (1983)
Flashdance is as 80s as 80s movies get, in all the best ways: leg warmers, leotards, big hair, big loft, big dog, big dreams. It is so much fun. Plus, Giorgio Morodor, the father of disco and electronic dance music, composed the score! So worth it if only to enjoy his genius, Jennifer Beals’ tuxedo shirt, and the iconic dance audition finale – what a feelin’ indeed. Not only did this little movie make more than 22x its budget back at the box office, it has embedded itself deep in our cultural consciousness, referenced in 328 other works over the past 38 years from arthouse films (Dogtooth) to blockbusters (Deadpool 2).
15. An American in Paris (1951)
TCM/HBO Max, Vudu (rent)
Gene Kelly got the reins on this one and went all the way – choreographing and dancing through some of the most delightful numbers in cinema (see: “I Got Rhythm”) and spending more than half a million dollars of studio money on the outrageous 17-minute dialogue-free dance sequence finale that – on its own – is worth watching the movie for. The plot is a dud but it doesn’t really matter – the point here is dance and beauty. So colorful, inventive, and bombastic, An American in Paris won 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and has solidified its place in history as one of the greatest musicals of American cinema.
14. The Full Monty (1997)
Looking back it’s pretty wild that The Full Monty was nominated for Best Picture, but it’s really hard to get too mad at this movie for anything. It’s so sweet and good-natured! People sure went nuts for it though – it made more than 72x its tiny budget in profit at the box office, the equivalent of $420 million in 2021 dollars, plus it won an Oscar for Best Score. It most certainly has the worst dance moves on the list. But they are executed with gusto – and that’s what counts.
13. Magic Mike (2012)
I didn’t expect to use words like “introspective” and “nuanced” to describe a film about Florida strippers, but my BF Steven Soderbergh is just full of surprises, you know? C-Tates and those triangle shoulders strikes again – this time, in a film inspired by his experience working as an exotic dancer in Tampa, his hometown, as a hot young thing in between college dropout and superstardom. In this film, you get to enjoy your sweaty dance number dessert along with a meal of beautifully shot and edited, character-rich, thoughtful filmmaking.
12. All That Jazz (1979)
Not currently streaming – check the library
From Criterion: “The preternaturally gifted director and choreographer Bob Fosse turned the camera on his own life for this madly imaginative, self-excoriating musical masterpiece. Roy Scheider gives the performance of his career as Joe Gideon, whose exhausting work schedule—mounting a Broadway production by day and editing his latest movie by night—and routine of amphetamines, booze, and sex are putting his health at serious risk. Fosse burrows into Gideon’s (and his own) mind, rendering his interior world as phantasmagoric spectacle. Assembled with visionary editing that makes dance come alive on-screen as never before, and overflowing with sublime footwork by the likes of Ann Reinking, Leland Palmer, and Ben Vereen, All That Jazz pushes the musical genre to personal depths and virtuosic aesthetic heights.”
11. The Artist (2011)
A feathery souffle of a film, this tribute to the silent era circles around the connection between a fading film star and a dancer who aspires to rise – which apparently was exactly what the world wanted in 2011. The Artist is charming and was a total sensation, winning the enthusiastic admiration of critics, audiences, and the Academy. It one FIVE Oscars, including three biggies: Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture.
10. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Mental illness and dancing go surprisingly well together – and when you toss David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro in the mix you get nominated for all the awards. Unhinged, empathetic, and surprisingly romantic – Silver Linings Playbook is a solid movie with some intriguing questions to ponder, even if Bradley Cooper is miscast. Say what you will – and I am a fan – but I will stand by that opinion forever.
9. The Red Shoes (1948)
Criterion channel, HBO Max
The fantastic, impressionistic ballet centerpiece in The Red Shoes is one of the most beautiful sequences in cinema history – and even though it is 73 years old, still manages to feel fresh and contemporary. With its massive painted sets, inventive camera movement, elegant costumes, and expressive, technical ballet – in pure aesthetics alone, those 15 minutes are sublime. Deeply moving. The surrounding film is enigmatic, stylish human drama fueled by obsession and artistic achievement – but the film never really loses the fairy tale at its center. Classic prestige cinema, The Red Shoes is becoming more and more relevant and influential as the years pass.
8. Billy Elliot (2000)
Set in a Northern England coal mining town during an extended period of strike, conflict, and hardship for miners, 11-year old Billy (baby Jamie Bell) starts secretly ditching his boxing lessons to learn ballet. And he’s great at it, which is a real pickle! The glam/punk/new wave soundtrack of T.Rex, The Jam, The Clash, and Style Council is a perfect complement to Billy’s joy and frustration, as he struggles to define himself through the conflicting models of masculinity and the extremely limited opportunity around him. A triumphant shout of a film, Billy Elliot whirls and kicks and warms the heart in the best way.
7. Chicago (2002)
“Cell Block Tango” (the “pop, squish” song) is one of the most exhilarating and aggressive pieces of musical film in recent history, and is one of many dazzlers from Chicago. Directed and choreographed by Broadway veteran dancer/choreographer Rob Marshall, the film is based on the stage musical that Bob Fosse’s choreography made famous in the mid-70s. The mega-popular film that emerged from one of the most successful Broadway revivals in history won 6 Oscars – including Best Actress and Best Picture – and has been referenced in 142 other works, including Burlesque, the Fame remake, and a documentary about Enron.
6. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
And top honors in the Quality category go to… Singin’ in the Rain – the only film on the list with a perfect Quality score, which means it ranked in the top 10% in all three measures. For my money, I don’t think the golden age of Hollywood gets much better. Tap was never so effervescent and fun. Each number overflows with humor and earnest goodwill and the cast seem to be determined to turn your day around with their goofy antics. It’s a masterpiece!
5. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
I came to Saturday Night Fever for the cute disco moves and 70s fashions – and there were some fresh moves to be had, but let me tell you: this movie is not cute. At all. Tony Manero is a major league capital-A Asshole – I don’t care what the Bee Gees say. The film drips with racism, sexual violence, and desperation, and not exactly in a helpful “we need to examine this” kind of way. More in a “boys will be boys kind of way.” Yuck. But as we know, the American public eats that shit up. Converting 1977 dollars to 2021 dollars reveals the extent of it: this film made the equivalent of more than 1 BILLION dollars, 66x its tiny budget. It has embedded itself deeply in our cultural consciousness as well, referenced in 613 other works (the most of any film on the list!). But don’t let that neat light up dance floor fool you, friends: the 70s were a dark, dark time for humanity and Saturday Night Fever is cool with that.
4. La La Land (2016)
It’s a shame that La La Land may always be remembered – at least a little bit – for being tricked into trying to steal the Best Picture Oscar from Moonlight. (It is kind of poetic, though, especially when you consider the whole Ryan Gosling “I Saved Jazz” SNL monologue joke in the context of the 1950s west coast “cool jazz” movement that was mostly by/for white people and made tons of money. Nothing but respect for you, Dave Brubeck – you seem super cool and “Take Five” really rips, but you inadvertently started something that became a real problem. As I understand. I don’t know that much about jazz actually, you all should definitely not be listening to me.)
But it’s still a shame! Because La La Land is a gorgeous, earnest, expressive romance that grows from the sorrow and loneliness of being human – and its dance numbers are SO good. Not only beautifully choreographed and passionately danced – but saturated with narrative significance and meaningful character development. And its effectiveness endures – the film gets richer with repeated viewings and I have a feeling that it will prove to be timeless, just as fresh in 50 years as it is today.
3. West Side Story (1961)
It broke the mold. Jerome Robbins’ adventurous, expressive choreography – and re-examination of the role that dance can play in a musical – redrew the maps that all musicals would then follow. Its energy still reads and its moves are still tense and exciting, even after 6 decades. These dancers can jump SO high, and I never get enough of those “POPs” and “BANGs” in “Cool.” And even considering the cringe-worthy choice to cast Greek actors wearing lots of bronzer as Puerto Rican (I know you did your best, George Chakiris), the film is surprisingly woke, which is more than I can say for a lot of films that come out nowadays, not to mention films that came out in 1961.
(Although I imagine his heart is in the right place, and I will definitely see it, I can’t imagine that Steven Spielberg can improve on this masterwork. His remake comes out later this year.)
2. Black Swan (2010)
Tense and exhilarating, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is the story of Nina, a tightly wound, timid dancer whose ambition unleashes a dark, sensual, psychotic inner monster. Throughout the film, Nina’s obsession with perfection mutates into its most raging form – from dieting to body dysmorphia, from absent-minded scratching to shivving with a piece of broken glass and growing black wings. It’s real horror movie stuff – but packaged in a clean, tight, restrictive ballet company box with a bloody grin bow. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis are both fantastic and pull off Aronofsky’s intended doubling affect as intoxicating, spine-tingling mirrors. Although popular and widely praised, Black Swan’s superpower is influence – ranking in the top 10% across all 4 measures. Only one other film on the list pulled that off…
1. Dirty Dancing (1987)
The clear ruler of the dance film universe, Dirty Dancing does it all: a story with substance that is about much more than dance (see: class differences and the problem of femaleness in 1960s America); Patrick Swayze; so many different high quality, iconic dance scenes – from the family foxtrot to Johnny and Penny’s incredible mambo to the after-hours bump-and-grind and of course, the “big move”; the most perfect casting in the history of cinema; the satisfying triumph of real love between the smokin’ hot leather jacket wearing dance instructor and the smart, socially conscious brunette; Patrick Swayze; “I carried a watermelon”; the overwhelming smokin-hot sexiness of Johnny’s cabin and the “Lover Boy” sequence; the complex father-daughter relationships; Patrick Swayze!; that FINAL 20 MINUTES. Oh my god it’s overwhelming. Go watch Dirty Dancing right now! Good lord if you didn’t just watch it yesterday it’s probably been too long.
Fun story: when we lived in Austin, Justin joined me and a galfriend at an intentionally interactive Dirty Dancing screening (hooting and cheering encouraged) and I think he was the only dude in the theater and he totally had a good time and really enjoyed the movie and that’s when I knew, again, that he truly is the man of my dreams. Still.
If you want EVEN MORE and/or if you didn’t see your favorite dance movie included here, check out the fully ranked list on Letterboxd – this includes all 171 ranked films, including remakes and sequels. As always, feel free to add any films I may have missed in the comments and I’ll gladly score them for you. Cheers!