Is there anything better in a comedy, drama, horror or any other unsuspecting genre when a movie breaks out in an energetic dance sequence? Used for good humour, experimental exploration and pure cinematic joy, such sequences have been used by some of cinema’s finest ever minds, with our breakdown of the very best dance scenes of all time featuring such names as Quentin Tarantino, Claire Denis, David Lynch, Spike Lee and Jean-Luc Godard.
Indeed, whilst a dance scene in a musical is very much par for the course, some of the finest of such scenes in cinema come in movies that otherwise don’t display any rhythmic sensibilities. Such films as Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and Jennie Livingston’s genre-defining documentary Paris is Burning contain such dynamic dance sequences, yet none could make our strict ten-film cut.
Instead, our list of ten films covers all bases, including throwaway Hollywood comedies, sci-fi think-pieces and pivotal cultural dramas, with each film including a dance scene that takes you off guard and envelopes you into a feeling of rapturous joy or, conversely, pleasurable confusion. Take a look at our list of the ten best dance scenes in non-musical movies, below.
The 10 best dance scenes in non-musical movies:
10. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name became a cultural sensation when it was released in 2017, catapulting actor Timothée Chalamet to international acclaim, and for good reason too. A beautiful, sexual romantic drama, the story follows a romance between a 17-year-old student and an older man hired as his father’s research assistant in 1980s Italy and stars Chalamet alongside Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg.
The dance scene in question is something of an unusual one, with the real brilliance coming from the reaction of Chalamet’s character to watching his lover dance with someone else. Sitting on the sidelines whilst smoking, he stares at Hammer’s character with a longing stare as well as a bevy of other emotions made all the more compelling by Chalamet’s performance.
9. Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004)
Remarkably the iconic dance sequence in Napoleon Dynamite in which the titular protagonist takes to the stage in front of the school and boogies to ‘Canned Heat’ by Jamiroquai is spontaneously performed, despite it seeming like a totally planned, if erratic, performance. Playing an alienated teenager who decides to help his friend win class presidency, actor Jon Heder delivers the film’s most memorable scene with his fluid lanky moves.
Totally holding the attention of the audience for over two minutes of pure dancing, Heder’s performance in Napoleon Dynamite remains a pure, innocent piece of comedy gold almost 20 years since its release.
8. Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
Inland Empire, the most recent feature film from David Lynch, is a true nightmare for the digital age, telling the story of an actress who begins to embody the character she is trying to portray, descending into a nightmare world of surrealism as a result. At one point, she slumps against the wall of her home whilst an inextricable performance plays out before her to the tune of ‘The Locomotion’ by Little Eva.
Arriving as quickly as it departs, the performance feels like a strange fever-dream, worsened by a jarring strobe light and a camera angle that places us askew and detached from the action.
7. Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014)
Telling the story of an imprisoned A.I. humanoid who is hoping for a better life outside her limited space and her maniacal creator who holds a sinister hold over her life, Alex Garland’s modern sci-fi masterpiece features a brief musical interlude that almost steals the show. Winning a competition to visit the A.I. inventor, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives with enthusiasm toward Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) work until he discovers several dark secrets.
Speaking to one of his android helpers in private, Caleb’s talk is interrupted by Nathan who prompts a spontaneous dance between himself and the robot, playing Oliver Cheatham’s ‘Get Down Saturday Night’ as he throws some serious shapes and attempts to reveal some humanity from within his toughened soul.
6. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
Starting Spike Lee’s iconic summer-inspired comedy-drama is an electric dance scene that lights a stick of dynamite underneath the movie that deals with the fraught tensions of racial issues in Brooklyn. Starring the director himself in the lead role, Do the Right Thing also features the likes of Danny Aiello, Giancarlo Esposito, Ruby Dee, Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro and Rosie Perez.
Perfectly setting the scene, this initial scene sets the pace of the hot-headed movie whilst using ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy, to reinforce the urgency of the film’s central message.
5. The Big Lebowski (the Coen brothers, 1998)
The most recognisable role of Jeff Bridges’ career, ‘The Dude’ in The Big Lebowski became a figurehead of ‘90s pop culture thanks to his blasé, bohemian approach to everyday life. With the help of co-stars John Goodman and Julianne Moore as well as a hilarious script from the Coen brothers, Bridges was allowed to excel as the ultimate cinematic slacker who is mistaken for a millionaire in the classic crime comedy caper.
One of the character’s most beloved scenes comes when he is drugged and enters into a psychedelic headspace that recalls the pageantry of musicals from the Hollywood Golden Age, complete with elaborate costumes and frenetic dancing.
4. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
‘Jack Rabbit Slim’s Dance Contest’ is one of the most iconic scenes in Tarantino’s cult classic, with the famous dance contest scene involving John Travolta’s loveable hitman Vincent Vega and the wife of his boss, Mia (Uma Thurman), who he’s taken out for dinner as a favour for his superior. After Mia encourages Vincent to enter the dance contest the pair of them embark on an improvised twist to the tune of Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’.
A joyous moment of high-energy innocence amid the violent, profanity-ridden movie, the dance contest scene speaks to the director’s own sprightly rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic, showing a glimpse of humanity for his highly-strung characters.
3. Bande à part (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic comedy-drama, Bande à part is beloved as one of the greatest independent arthouse movies of all time. Telling the story of two crooks who have a fondness for Hollywood B-movies who convince a language student to help them commit robbery, this French classic bridges the gap between European and Hollywood cinema, demonstrating how cinema from both sides of the Atlantic inspired each other.
Illustrating the sheer youthful energy of the characters whilst also giving clues as to their nuanced personalities, the dance scene that takes place in the cafe has become an iconic moment in modern popular culture.
2. Climax (Gaspar Noé, 2018)
If Gaspar Noé’s 2018 movie Climax kept up the electric pace of its opening scene then we would still be discussing it today as one of the greatest movies of the 21st century. Using little else other than the fantastic performers of the film as well as the music of Cerrone, Noé creates a sensational opening scene that sets the pace for the rest of the film but differs entirely in tone and enjoyment.
Contorting their bodies into impossible shapes, as enjoyable as the sequence is, it also opens the door to the horrors of the film to come.
1. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
A dance film of peculiar sorts, Claire Denis’ incredible Beau Travail is an artistic exploration of suppressed masculinity and an innate yearning for youth that manifests itself as rage.
The film follows an ex-Foreign Legion officer, Chef Galoup (Denis Lavant), recalling his glorious youth leading troops into Djibouti when a young, beautiful man Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), joins his ranks. Jealous of his aesthetic beauty and physical strength, Galoup indirectly kills Sentain and is subsequently sent back to France for a court-martial.
To bookend this beautiful tale, we join Galoup, clad in black on a twinkling dance floor, where he smokes, pirouettes and glides across the room. Building into an explosive rhythm, he leaps off the walls and onto the floor in frenetic madness, embracing his newfound liberation and finding true happiness in pure spontaneity.