Our favorite dance movies: From the classic ''Fame'' to the newcomer ''Take the Lead,'' a guide to 10 movies with fancy footwork

Our favorite dance movies

Dance movies are a lot like sports movies. There’s often a young, athletic, Rocky-ish contender or two, looking for a shot at the big time. There’s triumph, heartbreak, soaring bodies, and fallen arches. And there’s usually a big competition/audition/performance at the end, at which all that hard work at the barre finally pays off. Now that ABC’s Dancing With the Stars has finally made the connection between the ballroom and the scoreboard popular, in waltzes Take the Lead (opening April 7) to capitalize on the craze. Antonio Banderas stars as Pierre Dulaine, the founder of the New York City after-school program whose dance competition was made famous in the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. Banderas can dance, all right, but does his film have the smooth moves to make it into our dance-movie hall of fame? Check these out, and see if Take the Lead can follow in their footsteps.

Image credit: Fame: The Kobal Collection REMEMBER HER NAME Cara (center) and cast


Starring Irene Cara and Gene Anthony Ray

”Fame” is a dance movie you need to see

Director Alan Parker’s landmark dance ensemble piece follows four students of varying archetypes (the sensitive gay man; the painfully shy girl; the brash brute; and the straight-arrow good girl) as they chase spotlight dreams at the New York City High School for the Performing Arts. Pop in the disc for the feel-good struggle story; stay for the Academy Award-winning song and pre-Fly Girl dance moves.

Image credit: Flashdance: The Kobal Collection FOR ‘REAL’ J. Lo’s got nothing on Beals (shown here)


Starring Jennifer Beals and Michael Nouri

”Flashdance” is a dance movie you need to see

Think Batman… if he wore a thong and danced on a chair. Oh, never mind. Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) is a welder by day and stripper by night. But don’t get any ideas. This Pittsburgh steeler demands r-e-s-p-e-c-t. And she received it when the film was a smash and America unsheathed its sharpest scissors to replicate her diced sweatshirt/cozy leg warmer wardrobe. A chart-trouncing soundtrack (700,000 copies were sold in two weeks) made Flashdance a certified Reagan-era classic. Its sweaty, sultry dance numbers have also been channeled by such pop luminaries as J. Lo.

Image credit: Strictly Ballroom: The Kobal Collection TWO TO TANGO Strictly Ballroom‘s Mercurio and Morice

Strictly Ballroom

Starring Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice

”Strictly Ballroom” is a dance movie you need to see

Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) does the dance film the only way he knows how: glossy, garish, and gaudy. The director’s love letter to ballroom-based dirty dancing bursts from the screen with swaths of rich colors and delightfully choppy editing. Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) is a ballroom champion with an unconventional style and unmatched cockiness. The not-so-graceful, not-so-cute Fran (Tara Morice) is his new partner, silently begging for Scott to mold her into a swan. Luhrmann’s first directorial achievement is a fabulous take on what might have been a formulaic picture.

‘CENTER’ OF ATTENTION Stage‘s Schull and Stiefel

Center Stage

Starring Amanda Schull, Sascha Radetsky, and Ethan Stiefel

”Center Stage” is a dance movie you need to see

With its far-from-brilliant tagline of ”Life doesn’t hold tryouts,” Center Stage could have slipped, mid-pirouette, into a puddle of sap. But a captivating cast of real-deal dancers makes the story of a ballerina academy interesting and spandex appealing. Dance students (and dance-film fans) will appreciate the authenticity conveyed by veteran stage director Nicholas Hytner and naturals like dancer Ethan Stiefel, who was considered one of the world’s greatest male dancers at the time of filming. Plié that, Justin Timberlake.

Image credit: Save the Last Dance: The Kobal Collection ‘DANCE’ FEVER Stiles saves her best moves for the crowd

Save the Last Dance

Starring Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas

”Save the Last Dance” is a dance movie you need to see

A dance vehicle with substance and style — a rare coup in a genre that can forsake character development for choreography. Weighty issues of class and race pepper Dance‘s plot, which revolves around a Vermont ballerina (Julia Stiles) forced to live with her father in a Chicago ghetto after her mother’s sudden death. The central love story holds the interest of hopeless teen romantics, while the best-selling soundtrack provides the backbeat.

KEEP ME ‘COMPANY’ Campbell put her years of ballet to good use in this dance flick

The Company

Starring Neve Campbell, James Franco, and Malcolm McDowell

”The Company” is a dance movie you need to see

In Robert Altman’s backstage look at a professional dance troupe (played by the Joffrey Ballet), it’s all about hard work and very little about having a personal life. The story was conceived by Scream queen Neve Campbell, a trained dancer who knows the life. She gets to do some performing in the spotlight, but the movie belongs as much to McDowell, breathing life into a showbiz archetype as the troupe’s imperious artistic director. She makes the movie fly, but he keeps it moving along.

‘HOT’ MOVES The kids of Washington Heights PS 115 practice for the competition

Mad Hot Ballroom

”Mad Hot Ballroom” is a dance movie you need to see

At last, a documentary that won’t bore your kids. This one introduces you to 11-year-old kids from three New York City schools — in workaday Bensonhurst, upscale Tribeca, and hardscrabble Washington Heights (shown) — who are training for the citywide ballroom competition. It’s a pleasure to watch them learn the moves, but the kids also speak trenchantly about their home lives, their schooling, and their choreographed courtship with members of the opposite sex. Whether or not they’re dancing toward a prize, these kids have grace and style.

Image credit: Everett Collection ‘DANCING’ FEVER Grey and Swayze get down and Dirty

Dirty Dancing

Starring Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, and Jerry Orbach

”Dirty Dancing” is a dance movie you need to see

Here’s the movie that made a nation swoon with fantasies that any woman, given a suitably hunky instructor (like Patrick Swayze), could learn to mambo like a pro. And that said hunky dance instructor would naturally fall for you if you were plucky enough, even if you looked like mousy, pre-rhinoplasty Jennifer Grey. As suggested by the title and the bump-and-grind moves of the after-hours dancers, it seemed there was a dirtier movie inside struggling to get out, but really, this tale of star-crossed romance at a Catskills resort in 1963 was a sweet, largely innocent throwback, the Grease of the ’80s.

Image credit: Shall We Dance?: Kobal Collection ‘SHALL WE’? Yakusho and Kusakari Dance

Shall We Dance?

Starring Koji Yakusho and Tamiyo Kusakari

”Shall We Dance” is a dance movie you need to see

Forget the inferior Hollywood remake with Fly Girl Jennifer Lopez. Check out this worldwide hit from Japan for a sweet, funny tale about Shohei, a repressed accountant (Yakusho) who spots a lovely dance instructor (Kusakari) through a window and is transformed. Taking her class, he’s overwhelmed with passion — not for his teacher, but for dance itself. The lack of romance matters less than Shohei’s learning to slough off his modesty and self-effacement to express unbridled joy. His release is glorious to watch.

Image credit: Everett Collection RED, ‘RED’ WHINE Robert Helpmann and Shearer can attest, this is harder than it looks

The Red Shoes

Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, and Marius Goring

”The Red Shoes” is a dance movie you need to see

Ballerina Shearer didn’t consider herself much of an actress, but you’d never know it to watch her stunning performance in this greatest of all dance movies. In a plot inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a lethal pair of enchanted dancing shoes, Shearer plays Vicki, a ballerina torn between love (represented by Goring, who plays her composer husband) and career (in the form of Walbrook, her impresario and taskmaster). It’s a visually gorgeous tale (its art direction won an Oscar, and its cinematography captures dance like no film before or since) that ends in tragedy, but it nonetheless inspired little girls everywhere to become ballerinas.

Take the Lead
  • Movie
  • 117 minutes