Eight dance movies with great politics

Apologies to Emma Goldman, but nobody knows more about political subplots than dance movies

Topics: AlterNet, Step Up Revolution, Film, Politics, Dirty Dancing,

Eight dance movies with great politics
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Step Up Revolution is the fourth film in the Step Up franchise, and its screenwriters clearly wrote what they knew. Other than a few plot points and various subtle character developments, its basic narrative barely diverges from that of its predecessors—rich dancer and poor dancer meet and fall in love, overcoming class differences along the way. This version follows protagonist Emily, an aspiring dancer who moves to Miami with her wealthy father and falls in love with fellow dancer Sean, whose choreography is fully of the impoverished streets where he grew up. (Also, flash-mobbing?) But there’s an element straight from the headlines of gentrification: Emily’s greedy father wants to plop a luxury hotel in Sean’s lower-income community, so they must dance in protest in order to keep the neighborhood intact.

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Contemporary dance movies are almost across-the-board steeped in class and race issues, even if the plot is cardboard-thin, for various reasons. West Side Story set a precedent: everyone loves a star-crossed love story; everyone loves a redemption story. Plus, class-and-race distinctions provide opportunities to show various styles of dancing in one film, like ballet and breakdancing. Some reviews have noted Step Up Revolution‘s distinctly political bent and thought it was a first; as a connoisseur of the contemporary dance film over the past few decades, I’m here to tell you: they’ve long been silent vehicles for politics, delivering revolutionary morals to unsuspecting dance fans for years. Here are eight of the best, but trust: almost every single dance movie since at least 1983 is based on the premise of race-and-class strife.

1. Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985). Long before Sarah Jessica Parker transformed into Carrie, she played 17-year-old Janey, a plucky army brat new to Chicago who has a passion for dance and gymnastics. She dreams of appearing on local “Solid Gold”-like dance show, “Dance TV,” which has just announced citywide tryouts to cast a new couple on the series. Unfortunately, her overbearing father forbids her to do anything but Catholic school activities, so she has to sneak out to meet her “Dance TV”-appointed partner, Lee, after she makes the semi-finals.

Lee loves to dance, too, but comes from a deeply working-class background, and his father expects him to go to trade school—mirroring Janey’s father issues, but with a motorcycle and a mechanic’s license in his future. He scoffs at her prissy lifestyle and stodgy school uniform, but soon they bond over their mutual love for jetés and work on their chemistry as well as their choreography. But the plot takes on an interesting sub-text, particularly for the Reagan ’80s: the blue-collar and military nature of the leads’ upbringing is presented a foil in rival Natalie, a wealthy, devious dance competitor who wears furs to high school and complains to her father, “My therapist is right: I’m unloved, unappreciated, I only have two cars.” When it becomes clear that Janey and Lee are major contenders to win the “Dance TV” contest over Natalie and her beefcake partner, Natalie calls on her industrialist father: Lee’s dad works for Natalie’s dad, and if Lee’s team wins, Lee’s dad will be out a job.

The plot thus takes on class friction in the high-capitalist ’80s, and illuminates how it affected workers, all in a teen dance movie with a Cyndi Lauper cameo. And if that doesn’t convince you to watch it: a young Helen Hunt stars as Parker’s funky sidekick, and an even younger Shannen Doherty plays Lee’s little sis.

2. Stomp the Yard (2007). When I saw this in the theaters, the young women in the audience shrieked when a pre-abusive Chris Brown appeared on the screen. But that didn’t distract from the complex subplot touching on class distinctions among African Americans. Stomp the Yard follows the tale of DJ (Columbus Short), a disadvantaged 18-year-old in LA who’s extremely skilled at krumping among other dance styles, and regularly competes in dance battles around his neighborhood. But when his younger brother gets killed, DJ’s mother sends him to live with family in Atlanta, where he is to attend a fictional HBCU called Truth University (I know, bear with) on a work-study program. He becomes the college’s janitor, foreshadowing jokes at his expense courtesy the bougier students. While there, he decides he’s interested in fraternities in part because their step contests mimic his old dance battles, and in part because he’s trying to impress the (upscale) campus sweetheart, played by Meagan Good.

Guess who her boyfriend is? Yup, Grant, a star stepper who happens to be wealthy and belongs to a fraternity that rivals the one DJ decides to join with his roommate (played by Ne-Yo!). While DJ’s doing his job on campus, he discovers a room that commemorates the successful blacks throughout history who benefited from fraternities, leading to a quite awesome and not at all contrived montage. But just as DJ’s frat is about to challenge Grant’s in a major step contest, his past criminal history comes to light and the record threatens to suspend him from college. Here, Stomp the Yard looks at how racial injustice can stymie promising young African Americans’ chances at success, while examining class disruption within communities—for one, DJ’s frat brothers are not exactly friendly to his hood krumping styles. It’s an underrated film that goes a little deeper than your average dance film, while the choreography is top notch—plus, some of the proceeds went towards the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Project in Washington.

3. Breakin (1984). When much of America was still trying to parse what hip-hop actually was, the commercial movie Breakin was introducing one of its elements—er, breakdancing—and pondering where it fit as an art form among the larger dance world. The plot: Special K (nee Kelly) is a white pro jazz dancer who begins to find inspiration in street battles after she meets super-awesome breakers Turbo and Ozone, and starts getting deep into b-girl battles. But because breakdancing is still misunderstood in the upper echelon of pro jazz dancing, she is ostracized by her dance teacher, Franco, for incorporating street styles into her routines—the subtext being that Franco is generally not feeling lower-income blacks and Latinos in his general aura, particularly when Ozone maybe also wants to make out with her. Imagine Franco’s face if he could see today’s professional dance landscape, which has incorporated street dance so far beyond breakin’ that sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re watching someone old-school ballet or new-way vogue. Beat Street was a better movie about hip-hop, but Breakin’ had a more distinct look at class friction. Both are classics.

4. Save the Last Dance (2001). This is as prototypical dance-movie-setup as you can get: Julia Stiles (who, fair warning, can really not dance) plays Sara, a privileged young white ballerina who moves to a rundown neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago with her father after her mom dies in a car accident—the day she auditions for Juilliard. At her new, majority-black high school, she learns about hip-hop dance through her new friend Chenille (Kerry Washington)—and learns about hip-hop love when she meets Chenille’s fetching young brother, Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas). The hip-hopification of Sara is pretty painful, particularly interpreted by Stiles, who has a serious rhythm problem, but in broadstrokes, Save the Last Dance illustrates what it’s all about: art as salvation from social ills, where dancing overcomes race and class to lift us all up into one love.

5. Honey (2003). Jessica Alba’s dance skills fare far better as the title character in this hip-hop classic. Honey is an instructor at the community center, trying to help her neighborhood’s disenfranchised kids cope with tough lives through dance, while she faces her own struggles as an aspiring hip-hop video dancer. As she helps out some local kids, her career looks up, too, and her street-inspired choreography ends up in several videos courtesy a white director (sometimes I still think about the dance routine inspired by street ball, and weep a little tear). But the career-making director turns against her when she refuses to sleep with him, around the same time the community center is about to shut down due to lack of funds. Will Honey be able to succeed as an honest dancer while keeping her dance studio going? Honey looks into the very real situation of young, low-income kids of color sometimes lacking positive outlets in their neighborhoods due to government cutbacks (see also: You Got Served), as well as the misogynist power-plays within the entertainment industry. Also, there is a Missy Elliott cameo.

6. The Forbidden Dance (Lambada) (1990). Is this the first-ever environmentally conscious dance film? (The anti-smoking subplot of All That Jazz doesn’t count.) In The Forbidden Dance, an Amazonian princess decides to travel to Los Angeles to drum up attention for the slash-and-burn that is destroying her rainforest home. As with late-’80s and early-’90s films, the premise can be super cringe-worthy (the “princess” is accompanied by a “witch doctor” and the Latin stereotypes are through the roof). But it’s an example of a dance film taking on a premise that’s both topical and political, showing how even the bone-headiest concepts can be tailored to fit the dancing.

7. Tap (1989). In contrast, what a phenomenal movie, starring Gregory Hines, Jimmy Slyde, Savion Glover, Sandman Sims, and more, plus Sammy Davis Jr. in his last-ever film performance. In case you could not surmise, this film is about tapdancing, with a plot that once again uses the art form as a positive influence interfering with the temptations of a tough, low-income neighborhood. Hines plays Max Washington, an immensely talented hoofer who was also mixed up in a burglary racket that sent him to prison. Newly out, he must decide between going back to his life of crime or further pursuing his gift. Rife with the tension of how a black art form was changing and vehement about the preservation of such, the film subtly emphasizes oral tradition as a method of passing down history.

8. Dirty Dancing (1987). Of course, Dirty Dancing is a political dance classic, the ultimate example in many people’s eyes, so important it’s been the subject of numerous panels, papers and dissertations. Combining class, race and gender concerns, it’s the movie that spawned the defiant catchphrase “Nobody puts Baby in the corner,” and popularized super-close sex-dancing on the low. Seriously, this film presaged endless hip-hop videos and high-school grinding parties. It’s also the best-written script on this list, the film all dance movies aspire toward but never quite get close enough to touch. Fortunately, the dance movie’s political premise is so entrenched that one day, surely one will supersede its cinematic importance. At the very least, let’s hope the remake comes close.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.

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