HeldenFiles: Dancing onscreen taps memories of film faves

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John Travolta dances in a disco scene in the 1977 film "Saturday Night Fever". (AP Photo )

The news that Drew Carey is joining the cast of Dancing With the Stars has had me thinking about the joy of dance onscreen. Nor am I the only one to take pleasure from hoofers at work. When I took to Facebook to ask people for their favorite movies with dancing, the list that resulted was long and varied.

There are, of course, the musicals. Fans mentioned Singin’ in the Rain, the greatest musical of all time in an American Film Institute survey in 2006. One commenter included that under a banner of “just about anything Gene Kelly did.” But folks also brought up West Side Story, The Blues Brothers, Easter Parade, Fame, Grease, High School Musical and its sequels, Hairspray, The King & I, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Chicago, Top Hat, All That Jazz, Sweet Charity and more.

Then there are the dance movies — music-laden though not musicals: Saturday Night Fever, The Red Shoes, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, Flashdance, Urban Cowboy, White Nights, Black Swan and Shall We Dance. Consider, too, the original, John Waters-directed Hairspray. Or Tap, the drama-with-dance featuring not only the late Gregory Hines, but also a fistful of tap-dancing masters.

Long before he became known for mispronunciation, John Travolta had so many dancing credits — Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy and Grease among them — that audiences welcomed his steps even in non-dancing movies like Michael and Pulp Fiction.

That Facebook list also gave individual artists their due, their skills evident in a single movie scene. The Nicholas Brothers, for instance, are immortal because of their dancing across the stage and up a staircase in Stormy Weather. The tributes to the late Shirley Temple Black were incomplete if they didn’t mention her work with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

“Anything with Fred Astaire,” said one commenter, And I’d make sure anything included his great drunk-dance in Holiday Inn. Christopher Walken dazzled to Let’s Misbehave in the big-screen Pennies from Heaven. Looking back to Singin’ in the Rain, we can’t ignore Donald O’Connor. And Jennifer Lopez made a big mark moving with Richard Gere in Shall We Dance. If you say Ann-Margret, I say Viva Las Vegas.

But perhaps most important, are the movies that have nothing formal to do with dance but use it to illuminate characters or add poignancy to a moment. The characters dancing in The Breakfast Club. The tango scene in True Lies. Cary Grant and Sophia Loren dancing to Sam Cooke in Houseboat. (We could do a whole separate column on what happens between screen couples as they dance.) Hugh Grant in Love Actually.

I think, too, of the scene in Badlands where a couple of fugitives (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) stop in the middle of nowhere to slow-dance to Nat King Cole. Or the convoluted, drink-fueled mix of conversation, dancing and courtship early in John Cassavetes’ Faces.

Oh, sure, there are dancing stumbles. (The remake of Footloose comes immediately to mind.) Nor have we considered the ups and downs of dancing on TV shows. That can include the bad — the worst parts of Smash or Glee, not to mention Dance Moms. Dancing With the Stars, for that matter, has been in painful decline, the judges over the top, the presentation excessive — and dumping Brooke Burke-Charvet for Erin Andrews hardly begins to solve its problems.

Still, TV also gave us Bunheads. I could keep going, too. But the more I think about all this dancing, the more I wish I could.

What’s your favorite dance number on TV or the movies? Send me a note at rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

Reminder: Tickets to the Cleveland International Film Festival go on sale at 11 a.m. today . See clevelandfilm.org/tickets for more information. And look for the HeldenFiles now on Friday instead of Saturday.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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