Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
There’s no better uplifting feeling a film can gift its audience than when a rush of emotion is packaged as an epic, highly-stylized and intricately choreographed dance sequence. It’s a visual shorthand for the filmmaker to contextualize the character’s emotive drive that makes us tap our feet and move in our seats. Because we could all use a mood-lifter right now, we thought it best to count down the 16 best choreographed dance breaks ever put to celluloid.
Now, we’re not talking hairbrush song breaks. Some films listed below (like 13 GOING ON 30) contain both cinematic clichés. No, there’s a distinction between the two – one is far more stylized and intricate than the other. What we really mean is the grand scale dance numbers that appear totally randomly in a film’s narrative – like something out of a Bollywood or Busby Berkeley film.
Spontaneous dancing makes our hearts take flight – and so will yours after you reminisce on this sweet cinematic bliss. So go put on your dancing shoes because we are taking you to the land of 10,000 dances!
16. LOVE, SIMON: The ground-breaking romcom about a closeted gay teen’s coming out experience hits us right in the feels many times throughout the run time. While the titular character is prone to fantastical asides, it’s the college life fantasy that makes our hearts swell due to the fun and frivolity.
15. DAMSELS IN DISTRESS: Totally inspired by a Fred Astaire/ Ginger Rodgers dance number, “The Dress Rehearsal” final chapter of the film is all things elegant and refined – a seeming call back to Stillman’s penchant for a sort of calculated verbal choreography, or cadence, his actors speak in. Warm and effervescent, the sequence a breath of fresh air in the dialogue heavy narrative. I couldn’t find a clip of it so here’s the Sambola – the dance Greta Gerwig’s character invents.
14. 13 GOING ON 30: In this film – a female version of BIG – Jenna Rink (Jennifer Garner) has wished herself to an older, more fabulous age where she owns a NYC apartment and works at women’s fashion magazine Poise. When the company party stalls out, Jenna figures out how to get the party going – play Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
13. SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE: A modern romcom deserves a dance sequence set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” In this scene, Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) are high on molly and attend their friends’ kids’ birthday party. Lainey takes it upon herself toentertain the out of control partygoers with an inspired dance, which in real life was choreographed by LA LA LAND choreographer Mandy Moore.
12. ENCHANTED: After Princess Gisele (Amy Adams) finds a magical portal from an animated world of Andalasia to real world New York City, she finds things are almost exactly the same as in her world – much to Robert Philip’s (Patrick Dempsey) chagrin. A tongue-and-cheek playful mocking of animated Disney films and musicals, this film made me swoon (and laugh) with delight.
11. SHE’S OUT OF CONTROL: Nothing like Oingo Boingo’s tune “Winning Side,” makes me wanna hike up my prom dress skirt and get onto the dance floor. Choreographed by ex-Laker girl Paula Abdul, this is a fun – albeit way too short – dance number where overprotective father Doug Simpson (Tony Danza) goes overboard and follows his 15-year-old daughter Katie (Ami “daughter of Monkee Mickey” Dolenz) to the prom with her womanizing prom date (Matthew Perry). It kinda looks like they are disguising that Perry has two left feet, no?
10. MAC AND ME: This has got to be the most random and totally egregious entry on the list. A deep cut, it adds a whole new layer of weird to the already bizarre film about a boy in a wheelchair and his alien friend.
9. CLERKS 2: While Dante’s (Brian O’Halloran) dance lesson from Becky (Rosario Dawson) starts out routine, it devolves into bubbly fun in this raunchcom.
8. BOYS AND GIRLS: Buried deep inside this totally forgettable romp from the aughts is a spectacular choreographed dance number set to Apollo 440’s techno anthem “Can’t Stop The Rock.” Featuring oodles and oodles of foam bubbles, this sequence is light and fluffy. Claire Forlani and Freddie Prinze Jr. get down and dirty.
7. I’M SO EXCITED: You never know what journey filmmaker Pedro Almodovar is going to take you on when you buy a ticket to his films. You just know it’s going to be a wild ride. This bonkers, colorful feature about the most over-the-top airline and the crazy passengers on board houses an unexpected musical number that’s both hammy and impressive.
6. SHE’S ALL THAT: My God. I’m starting to piece together the aughts were all about forcing Freddie Prinze Jr. to dance. Was this something that was contractually obligated? Only his agent and maybe Sarah Michelle Gellar knows. This gem, set to Fatboy Slim’s “Funk Soul Brother,” is pure bliss.
5. ISN’T IT ROMANTIC: Director Todd Strauss-Schulson’s romcom satire contains not just one big, show-stopping number saved for the finale’s roll call, but a second one, appearing in the second act when the character, Natalie (played by Rebel Wilson) is tasked to win over her co-worker’s heart. Set to Whitney Houston’s party-time banger, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” it wins over the most cynical heart.
4. HAIL, CAESAR!: This Coen Brothers film felt like a NyQuil-meets-TCM fever dream – and we were there for it. Though this doubles as their ode to the glorious double-entendre musicals of the era (which would be another list entirely), the Christopher Gattelli choreographed, Channing Tatum performed song-and-dance number “No Dames” arrives out of the blue in the narrative – and it’s a gosh-darn delight.
3. BABY DRIVER: The manners in which filmmakers bring their musical sequences to life may vary, but their artistry is similar. Director Edgar Wright’s music-fueled feature takes the term dance break to refreshing, revolutionary new heights. While the opening credits shows star Ansel Elgort dancing around city streets, it’s the opening sequence featuring incredible car choreography that won our heart – and left us floored.
2. 500 DAYS OF SUMMER: After a night of amazing sex with the girl of his dreams (played by kookster Zooey Deschanel), Tom imagines his triumphant walk to work as a celebratory affair. Animated birds (and Hall & Oates) FTW!
1.CAN’T BUY ME LOVE: Mention this title and guaranteed any fan will say, “the African Anteater Ritual.” Choreographed by Paula Abdul (pre-Forever Your Girl days), this iconic dance break, set to Randy Hall’s “All Night,” is one of the quintessential entries on my list.