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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to dance in film


Film and dance go together like peanut butter and jelly, and it seems that there are so many essential movies that centre around dance in all its forms. Even though there are plenty of ballet films out there, the dance world expands so much further beyond that medium alone, and there are so many movies that capture all corners of dance exceptionally.

This is also to say that there are so many amazing films that portray the nuances of ballet and other classical styles of dance with the artistry and expertise of which it is so deserving. From the ballet world to the modern dance sphere, and even styles like hip hop (and others even beyond that), the movies that have represented dance over the years have so much variety that it can be hard to compile a definitive list.

However, if you want to start watching some dance movies, you can find a bit of variety throughout the spectrum of options. From hip hop to ballet and everything in between, there are so many unique choices, and these are some of the most influential.

The six definitive dance films:

The Red Shoes (Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, 1948)

The Red Shoes is probably the quintessential ballet movie that was around before Black Swan came on the scene. Released in 1948, it involves great dancing, a love triangle, and some of that old Hollywood glam that people seek out in old movies quite frequently. From the costumes to the dance elements, it makes itself known as an attention-grabbing film to stand the test of time.

If you’re in the mood to watch a ballet-centred movie that’s a longtime classic, The Red Shoes is basically required reading. Even if you just watch it for film history education, you’ll probably end up enjoying it.

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

We simply cannot beat the classics, and Suspiria is the classic to top all classics when it comes to vintage horror, dance movies, and Italian cinema. Of course, the creativity of the 2018 Suspiria is brilliant, but the use of colour, the acting, the cinematography, and the very innocent, doe-eyed view of the ballet world have created a film that stands the test of time.

While this film goes far beyond the subject of ballet, dance is where it begins. Integral to the plot, and that’s what gives it a spot on this list.

Step Up (Anne Fletcher, 2006)

I know, a sharp turn from The Red Shoes, right? But Step Up is one of the most relevant dance movies of the past few decades, especially as it pertains to hip hop as an organised style. Starting off in a ballet school, Step Up is one of the first early 2000s movies to utilise the ballet-girl meets bad-boy trope. Whether or not you’re a dancer yourself, this film is likely to make you want to take a hip hop class.

Of course, there’s an entire franchise of Step Up movies to satiate you if that’s what you’re looking for, but getting started with the first one is likely sufficient. 

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

OK, this one might be a little bit obvious. You all knew it was coming. Black Swan is one of the first films that people think of when ballet filmography comes to mind, and admittedly, it’s for a good reason. Black Swan might reveal a lot of the ugly dramatisation of the ballet world, but it’s relatively accurate—as much as a movie like this can be.

However, former dancers like myself might have a bone to pick with this one, mostly because it can be a little hard to watch if you have some light ballet-teacher-related trauma. Even still, the dancing is great, and so is the story.

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012)

And yet an even sharper turn from the ballet movies that started off this list. But hear me out; I promise this is actually relevant. Remember how I said that there are so many different kinds of dance, even beyond hip hop? Well, Magic Mike represents the culture around an extremely niche style of dance that was yet to be captured in a major film at its time of release, and that’s extremely interesting.

Beyond that, it’s also a great story and has a surprisingly competent script, contrary to its marketing. Yes, let’s totally watch Magic Mike for the plot.

Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino, 2018)

Yes, this list includes both versions of Suspiria. But really, how could it not? One of the primary reasons for championing the 2018 Suspiria so highly has to do with my only criticism of the original: it failed to utilise dance as an element of horror—a task at which the 2018 film succeeded. By transitioning the dance school from a ballet academy to a modern company, the choreographers were able to take notes from horror conventions and historic choreographers like Graham and Wigman to create a chilling and unique spectacle of movement.

Yes, this movie is extremely long, and weird, and dark, but it’s worth it. It stands apart from the original as its own masterpiece, and I will die on this hill.