Movies

Five Transformative Dance Scenes in Movies

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Movement. Grace. Muppets.

Ah, dance. Human emotion rendered in pure movement. It can inspire, entertain, provide emotional closure, or grant much-needed catharsis. And with a remake of Footloose coming out this week, what better time to celebrate its powers? While sadly devoid of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (thanks to a Nerve office ban on the word "boogaloo"), this profoundly serious list aims to illustrate some of the classic moments in film where dance has served to lift us beyond our sad mortal form to a more transcendent state.

5. The Mask

This scene marks a turning point in this highly underrated psychological drama that launched the career of the American Meryl Streep, Cameron Diaz. Jim Carrey's Stanley Ipkiss spends the first part of the film as a stammering nobody, until he pulls a crude wooden mask from a river and decides to put it on his face. This transforms him, presciently, into early-2011-era Charlie Sheen, at which point he arrives at the club where Diaz's character is performing and dance-molests her into submission (or at least a state of centrifugal-force-induced affection), despite the fact that his face makes Gary Busey look like Cary Grant. The scene is a nuanced examination of how swing music makes people behave recklessly, and cinematographer John Leonetti (Mortal Kombat, The Scorpion King) frames Carrey's stirring disregard for Diaz's physical safety with grace.

4. Napoleon Dynamite

A quiet character study that builds to an explosive climax, Napoleon Dynamite is the Unforgiven of movies about Idaho. Focused on a high-stakes race for public office, Napoleon Dynamite's characters sleepwalk through a haze of small-town ennui until the final sequence, a virtuosic display of human kinetics set to the strains of popular composer Jamiroquai. The narrative effect of this scene is striking: Jon Heder's Napoleon single-handedly manages to lift the entire town from their stupor with his vigor and rhythmic prowess, and the unwashed masses rally around him in a stirring homage to democracy. (Or is it a warning against charismatic demagogues?)

3. Labyrinth

David Bowie stars as David Bowie in this haunting story of child abduction. Labyrinth studies the intersection of reality, fantasy, and leotards, while making liberal use of the sadly unappreciated art of Muppetry. Bowie's tour de force performance is a landmark in uncomfortably phallic cinema and reaches a screaming peak in his performance of "Magic Dance." Bowie's presence in this scene is pure, unhinged menace, and his acts of violence against the smaller Muppets provide jarring contrast to his baby-tossing glee.

2. Pee Wee's Big Adventure

In this scene from the 1985 bike-heist thriller Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Paul Reubens performs with barely suppressed malice, belying the clean lines and disciplined grace of his movements. Set to the Champs' 1958 composition "Tequila," this scene exemplifies the way that dance can convey an unstable emotional state. Reubens begins the scene showing Pee Wee's lack of confidence in his situation, but gradually begins to lose himself in pure movement before erupting into a shocking display of destruction and violence later subtly referenced by Reubens disciple Michael Jackson in the video for 1991's "Black or White."

1. Footloose

Footloose's subtext requires careful parsing. Largely a study of psychosexual repression and subconscious awakenings, the film also takes a sophisticated view of the place of rhythm and dance in agriculture. Kevin Bacon and Chris Penn's carefree acrobatics cleverly mask their deeper competitive relationship, and the moment in which Penn turns a simple spin into a wrestling maneuver is powerful commentary on man's bashful compulsion to mask desire with violence. Let us indeed hear it for the boy, for deep down inside, we are all the boy.