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10 of the best dance films

From Red Shoes to Black Swans and Silver Linings, dance has long inspired movie-makers.

By Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer)

6 May 2016 at 4.47pm | 34 Comments

Friedrich Nietzsche wisely noted that, 'We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once'. Indeed Nietzsche would surely agree that the following dance films should be viewed by all fans of dancing, at least once.

We’ve listed ten of the greatest, stretching back to the roots of the genre with the electric duo Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire, to films that feature iconic choreographers of the last century and the composers whose unforgettable music ensure these films last well into the next.

Let us know if we missed your favourite by commenting below or tweet us @royaloperahouse.

The Red Shoes (1948)

Based loosely on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, young ballerina Vicky is dangerously torn between love and her desire to dance. The 15-minute sequence known as the 'Ballet of the Red Shoes' used a corps de ballet of 53 dancers. The Red Shoes is one of the highest earning British films of all time.

Billy Elliot (2000)

‘I've got this fire in my body. I'm just there. Flyin' like a bird. Like electricity,’ says Billy in his audition for The Royal Ballet School. Raised in Country Durham during the collapse of the mining industry, Billy loves to dance.

From the makers of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hillthis British tale about raw talent is said to be inspired by Royal Ballet dancer Philip Mosley. Read an interview with Philip about the true story behind the film.

Save the Last Dance (2001)

Julia Stiles is the classically trained ballet dancer who moves to Chicago after a family tragedy to discover hip-hop and love in her new neighbourhood. She also falls in love with a handsome, soon-to-be doctor played by Sean Patrick Thomas. The film went on to earn over $140 million worldwide and its stars were awarded the 'Best Kiss' at the 2001 MTV Movie Awards.

An American in Paris (1951)

American war veteran Jerry (played by Gene Kelly) is trying to make it as a painter in post-war Paris. Though he is taken under the wing of an influential heiress, he really loves Lise, a beautiful French girl played by Leslie Caron.

Set to the unforgettable music of the Gershwin brothers, the final 17-minute dance sequence took a month to film – and cost $500,000.

Artistic Associate of The Royal Ballet Christopher Wheeldon recently won over Broadway with his stage adaptation of the film. His production makes its West End debut in 2017.

Center Stage (2000)

Center Stage follows a year in the life of 12 very different dancers, including a young Zoë Saldana, studying at the American Ballet Academy.

Will ballerina Jodie win a place at the prestigious New York City Ballet? Or will she opt to join rebellious choreographer Nielson Cooper to start a contemporary dance company?

Black Swan (2010)

Darren Aronofsky won Best Film at the 2011 Oscars and Natalie Portman was crowned Best Actress for her performance as ballerina Nina Sayers, who becomes consumed by duplicitous roles in Tchaikovsky’s classic Swan Lake

Dirty Dancing (1987)

Jennifer Grey has the ‘time of her life’ when she falls in love with instructor Patrick Swayze and discovers dance. The 80’s cult classic features a stellar soundtrack and that unforgettable line, ‘Nobody puts Baby in the corner’. Replicate that lift with caution.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

David O’Russell’s film based on the novel by Matthew Quick celebrates the reformative and healing power of dancing, featuring an all-star cast including Bradley CooperJennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro.

Step Up (2006)

After breaking into a dance academy, rebel Tyler Gage, played by Channing Tatum, is forced to take part in community service. He soon falls for a ballet student (a role performed by Tatum's real-life future wife Jenna Dewan) winning her over with his hip-hop dancing. The film created an avalanche of Step Up fans and four sequels since it was released ten years ago.

West Side Story (1961)

Iconic Romeo and Juliet adaptation West Side Story won an astonishing ten Academy Awards upon its release. The musical was conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who is often hailed as the greatest American choreographer of the 20th century. Robbins had a huge influence on the creation of American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet and his work is often performed by The Royal Ballet.

Shall We Dance (1937)

Jazz and classical ballet collide again in what became the seventh of 10 collaborations between iconic dance partners Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Choreographer George Balanchine is featured in the classic, his satirical ballet ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ appears at the close of the film. The Royal Ballet perform his work Jewels in April 2017.

Which is your favourite dance film?
Let us know in the comments below.

You can see more ballet on the silver screen at a cinema near you, with live relays from The Royal Ballet. Tickets are on sale now.

This article has 34 comments

  1. i heartballet responded on 6 May 2016 at 8:10pm Reply

    You missed the late, great Gregory Hines dancing with Mikahil Baryshnikov in White Nights.

  2. Giovanna responded on 6 May 2016 at 11:22pm Reply

    Most of dance film, have very poor stories, indeed.
    For this reason my favourite is Billy Elliot.

    I also remember the splendid final dialogue of Shirley Mc Laine and Ann Bancroft in The Turning point and the amusing/moving Shall we dance (2004) with Gere, Lopez and Sarandon

  3. Nina battleday responded on 7 May 2016 at 8:36am Reply

    Surely 7brides for 7brothers should be one of them?

  4. Peleia Lekka responded on 9 May 2016 at 7:48am Reply

    The epic Baryshnikov films Turning point, White nights, Dancers!-and how about Fame,Flashdance and Footloose?

    • Sharon Keogh responded on 10 May 2016 at 6:15pm

      I So agree - love all those film especially The Turning Point & Fame was massive and introduced so many people to dance - my only reservation on your list is Footloose...

  5. Loren responded on 9 May 2016 at 8:47am Reply

    Fantastic couldn't stop watching

  6. Jessica Williams responded on 9 May 2016 at 1:20pm Reply

    Billy Elliot is always one of my favourite dance films but I do love Fred and Ginger's Top Hat! They had such elegance and grace, they're dance routines are the most incredible to watch.

  7. Janet responded on 9 May 2016 at 3:18pm Reply

    All That Jazz, Chorus Line, The Company

  8. Chrysoula responded on 9 May 2016 at 3:21pm Reply

    These are some of my favourite movies ... But I have to agree that when it comes to the dance+storyline+acting quality, 1980's fame is nr1

  9. Susie responded on 9 May 2016 at 5:54pm Reply

    Possibly my favourite film of all time is White Christmas. The dance sequences included are phenomenal. Vera Ellen is incredible.

  10. Karenatasha responded on 9 May 2016 at 8:24pm Reply

    Most of this is very poor, indeed. Lots of filler junk in which real dancers don't appear.

    • Sharon Keogh responded on 10 May 2016 at 6:37pm

      @Karenatasha; have to disagree with your statement - With the exception of Julia Stiles & Jennifer Grey & Natalie Portman. All the lead roles in all the above films were professional dancers & some classical stars - I would hardly describe Moira Shearer, Astaire &Rodgers, Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, full Westside Story cast, Amanda Schull Ethan Stiefel, Sascha Radetsky, as poor!

  11. Coppelia responded on 9 May 2016 at 9:16pm Reply

    Certainly not a masterpiece but 'Dirty Dancing II Havana Nights' with a young Romola Garai and Diego Luna is watchable in a cheesy so-bad-its-good-kind-of-way

  12. Janine sMITH responded on 9 May 2016 at 9:30pm Reply

    Dream sequence in Oklahoma is wonderful and charged with emotion. Also, the ball scene in Van Helsing - great energy, visually very attractive and appealing.

  13. Alex responded on 9 May 2016 at 10:46pm Reply

    There was a great French movie, Le Bal, made in 1983 and set in a Paris might club telling French history of the 20th century through dance. There is no dialogues in the movie, just dancing. This is my favourite dance movie.

  14. Jan responded on 10 May 2016 at 12:13am Reply

    What about Brigadoon....love it. Is that showing my age lol

  15. Vanessa responded on 10 May 2016 at 10:41am Reply

    The Red Shoes mesmerised me at 12 and I resumed my ballet hobby for 25 years.... It had everything. Powell and pressburger knew how to make imaginative dramatic films with painterly designs. I wouldn't recommend it now as any kind of measure of what the real ballet world is like though!

  16. Strictly Ballroom is worth watching.

  17. Alice responded on 10 May 2016 at 4:18pm Reply

    Top Hat, Strictly Ballroom and Singing in the Rain would have to be in there for me, as well as some of the ones you've listed (Red Shoes, Dirty Dancing, An American in Paris and Billy Elliot). The best dance films need to make you need to dance, right now!

  18. Melissa johnson responded on 10 May 2016 at 5:20pm Reply

    I love the lullaby of Broadway sequence in Gold diggers of 1935 and Eleanor Powell in Broadway melody of 1936, I just love tap!

  19. Elizabeth A responded on 10 May 2016 at 10:58pm Reply

    The "Dragonfly Ballet" and "Olympia" sequences from Powell and Pressburger's "The Tales of Hoffmann" are beautiful pieces with wonderful scenic design.

  20. Iris Startup responded on 12 May 2016 at 8:32am Reply

    Love everything with Fred Astaire too but would add Carlos Saura's film Carmen, dramatic and with some legendary dancers such as Antonio Gades and Christina Hoyos.

  21. Alison Gunn responded on 21 May 2016 at 1:31pm Reply

    What about Hellzapoppin' for the incredible lindy hop sequence? And Bolshoi Babylon for its backstage drama and political insight.

  22. Anne responded on 21 May 2016 at 4:43pm Reply

    Agree re Sauras, but would suggest Blood Wedding- best fight scene ever danced? Also Norman McLaren's Pas de Deux.

  23. Camilla responded on 23 July 2016 at 10:58pm Reply

    What about Rita hayworth ? Always loved the Red Shoes & anything Fred Astaire did . Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly . I still can watch Dirty Dancing over & over .

  24. The Turning Point
    Saturday Night Fever
    White Christmas
    Everything made from the late 20's- early 50's - especially if Fred Astaire, Gene Kelley, Cyd Charisse and Vera Ellen amongst many others are in it.

    Black Swan would be in my bottom 10.

  25. Linda Harrison responded on 25 July 2016 at 5:58pm Reply

    I think we can remove Black Swan from the list. How about adding Flying Down To Rio with the incomparable Nicholas Brothers?

  26. Can't think why Black Swan was included in this great list of dance sequences. Natalie Portman had a classical dancer stand in for her dance scenes, which only came to light after she won her Oscar. It should not have been included in this list - bad choice.

  27. Deborah davids responded on 29 July 2016 at 11:21pm Reply

    Black Swan was truly horrible. Any and all of the Baryshnikov movies should be listed above and First Position.
    Some of the old classic movies aren't mentioned either...

  28. William Swales responded on 3 January 2017 at 6:27pm Reply

    Mr Chad says 'WOT - no Bob Fosse?'

    Watch Bob Fosse's 'Cabaret' (featuring Liza with a zee Minnelli). Here you will see a sequence 'cabaret' dances - followed by the grim reality each dance parodies.

    Then there is Powell and Pressburger's amazing 'Tales of Hoffmann' (sung in English) featuring Moira Shearer as 'Olympia' the dancing doll as Hoffmann dons his 'rose coloured glasses' and falls in love with an automaton.

    The prologue ‘sets the scene’ with some spectacular dancing from Moira Shearer playing a dragonfly as she skips across lily pads (lilies denote innocence and purity; unfulfilled love; and procreation) and ‘walks’ on water. Then begins the first story – ‘The adventure of the dancing doll’ - an adaptation of ‘The sand man’; the second episode - where Hoffman ‘sells his soul to the devil’ and enters the ‘underworld’ - is an adaptation of ‘A New Years Eve adventure’; and the third episode - depicting the singer ‘Antonio’ (played and sung by Ann Ayers) – who is killed by a quack ‘miracle doctor’ - is from ‘Rath Krespal’.

    The restoration – taken from the original ‘three-strip’ Technicolor camera masters - is BREATHTAKING. This film isn’t just ‘in colour’ – it IS colour. The vividness and colour, together with the wonderful use of the ‘colour space’ to emphasise the driving force behind each story (yellow for jealousy; red for obsession; and blue for cold callousness and remorselessness) blows one completely away as we follow the fantastic exploits of ‘Hoffmann’ seeing the world through his ‘rose coloured glasses’ as Hoffmann’s sinister opponent and life-long arch enemy ‘Councillor Lindorf’ seeks out to destroy Hoffman in his pursuit of ‘Stella’ (played by Moira Shearer) – a prima ballerina loved by Hoffman and desired by Lindorf – an evil manipulative man who shows that ‘every person has their ‘price’.

    Nothing out there touches this astonishing production – or comes anywhere close. It’s a spectacular technological marvel filled with beautiful ‘eye-popping’ virtuoso performances from dancers and singers alike - and there has been nothing like it before or since. Your eyes will not believe what they are witnessing. See and experience the magical splendour and majesty of the costumes and sets; marvel at the stunning performances of Moira Shearer as she dances with exquisite precision and breathtaking virtuosity; and savour the brilliant deep darkness of Robert Helpmann as he brings to bear his powerful ‘Nosferatu’ characterisation of Hoffmann’s arch enemy to fabulous singing accompaniments from Hoffmann et al.

    Obvious highlights include the amazing 3 octave coloratura aria ‘The doll song‘ - beautifully and expressively sung by Dorothy Bond - as Hoffman (played and sung by Robert Rounsville) pursues ‘Olympia’ – an automaton (brilliantly portrayed by Moira Shearer) – in the belief that everything Olympia ‘says’ ‘confirms’ that Olympia is madly in love with Hoffman; and the hauntingly beautiful barcarolle ‘Moon of Love’ as a gondola carries Hoffmann into the ‘underworld’ – but there is also something VERY special just before the denouement takes place that will leave you BREATHLESS and SPELLBOUND (have a box of tissues on hand).

    When you first play the film, begin the amazing experience by going straight into the ‘Extras’ FIRST - and play the intro with MARTIN SCORSESE – the person responsible for the amazing restoration - and THEN watch the film to appreciate the splendour and grand magical spectacle that unfolds.

    The film is a CLASSIC that knocks modern film making into a cocked hat – don’t miss out!

    Happy viewing.

  29. Bruce responded on 4 January 2017 at 8:14am Reply

    Astaire himself said the sequence with the Nicholas Brothers in the film Stormy Weather was 'the best dance sequence on film'. The film itself is a clouded affair but that sequence spectacular. I, myself, will happily side with Astaire in this regard. As to 'wholes' the balletic employment in WSS in a contemporary whole puts so many of items generated even today in the shade. Robbins I suspect was beyond his own and for ALL time. It is sad that the RB's Robbins rep is so limited and so many of his masterworks - things like In G Major, Opus 1

  30. Bruce responded on 4 January 2017 at 8:15am Reply

    (Sorry, mistakenly hit return bar) ...

    To finish ...

    Opus/19 The Dreamer, 2 and 3 Part Inventions, etc., are not included.

  31. P Stephenson responded on 4 January 2017 at 7:31pm Reply

    ulanova in giselle way back in195? a sort of dreamlike experience. love, betrayal and something undefinable.

  32. Marion Taylor responded on 5 January 2017 at 9:46pm Reply

    The Danny Kaye Hans Christian Andersen film has some lovely ballet sequences which I enjoyed again over Christmas. Renee Jeanmaire is seen in the Little Mermaid ballet choreographed by her husband Roland Petit who also appeared in it. They dance to an orchestrated version of the Marguerite and Armand music (Liszt's B minor sonata). A very young Erik Bruhn also appears in another ballet earlier on in the film.

This article has 1 mention elsewhere

  1. Cinco textos para quem quer estudar e questionar | Dos passos da bailarina:  […] 10 of the best dance films Em seu site, o Royal Ballet publicou uma lista com os dez melhores filmes de dança, segundo a companhia, com direito a trechos de todos eles. É muito bacana! Para ver a lista completa, aqui. […]

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