'Center Stage' turns 15: Why it's the greatest dance movie ever made
What, you think that headline is hyperbolic? My original impulse was to call Center Stage the greatest movie ever made, period—so consider this a compromise.
In all seriousness: Nicholas Hytner’s 2000 masterpiece(!), an irresistable mélange of teen movie, dance drama, and clog-stuffed ’00s-era time capsule, turns 15 years old this week. (It’s almost old enough to join the American Ballet Company!) Is it a quote-unquote “good” movie? Maybe not, judging by traditional definitions of the word “good.” As EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, in her C-grade review, “Gay boy and straight boy, black street girl with an attitude and white bulimic girl with a demented stage mother—there’s no cliche left untwirled.” She has a point.
Center Stage is, however, a great movie, where “great” is defined as “A thing you loved when you were 12 that’s still entertaining once you reach adulthood, despite how much of it is about feet.” Why? For a whole bunch of reasons, which I’m only too happy to lay out.
1. This brief, tantalizing first glance at Lil’ Zoe Saldana’s legendary bitchface. (She plays Eva Rodriguez, a tough-as-nails dancer from Boston who rocks a bad attitude like it’s going out of style.)
2. How ingenue Jody Sawyer (yes, she shares a last name with the ingenue in 42nd Street; yes, this is probably not a coincidence) accents the first syllable when she says “ballet.” The BALLet! It’s like the THEAter! She’s got moxie!
3. The sheer number of Steve Madden and Adidas slip-on platform sandals on display, which approaches Teen People “30 Under 30” spread-esque levels.
4. The way Jody adorably whispers “Idiot!” to herself after getting tongue-tied while meeting bad-boy star dancer Cooper Nielson, a floppy-haired goofball who could only be considered a heartthrob in the Center Stage Cinematic Universe.
5. Tightly-wound star student Maureen, upon meeting Eva and seeing her light up a cigarette: “What are you doing?” Eva, voice dripping with disdain: “I’m knitting a sweater.”
6. Helloooo, Hot Nonthreatening Love Interest Charlie!
7. The obligatory montage in which the dancers declare war on their shoes.
8. The moment that the minute hand turns to Eyebrow O’Clock. That’s right: It’s Sandy effin’ Cohen (a.k.a. a pre-O.C. Peter Gallagher), playing stern yet fair American Ballet Academy director, Jonathan—a former dancer himself. And now please join me in imagining Peter Gallagher dancing as the Black Swan.
9. The number of f–ks Eva gives as she swans into class late, chewing gum, in a non-regulation leotard, with her hair in her face and contempt in her eyes. Eva’s Bad attitude is the true hero of Center Stage.
10. Except maybe it’s Donna Murphy, as prima ballerina turned instructor Juliette Simone. Her own bitchface is a little more seasoned, a little more jaded than Saldana’s—but no less powerful.
11. How friendly ballet student Emily snacks throughout the girls’ first big expository conversation; in the biz, this is what’s known as “foreshadowing.” (She’s eventually kicked out of ballet school for “not taking enough pride in her body.”)
12. A moment of sincere appreciation for the actual ballet in this movie. There’s a lot of it, and it’s filmed beautifully in long, wide shots that allow us to actually see the dancing as it happens—instead of frenetic quick cuts inserted to up the sense of drama (looking at you, Rob Marshall).
13. The part where Sandy Cohen pimps out Cooper Nielson at the big ballet benefit. Cooper retaliates by sidling up to Sandy’s wife (and Cooper’s ex-girlfriend) and casually kissing her on the neck, as you do.
14. The introduction of dreamboat Eion Bailey, who may be the perfect man (cute; pre-med student; comes with tray of free desserts). Also, his character’s name is Jim Gordon—but somehow nobody ever makes a comic-book joke, because ballet and Batman don’t mix.
15. Mounting evidence that struggling student Jody might be a better dancer if she spent more time on her turnout and less time crafting elaborate updos before class.
16. Eva stamping out a cigarette en pointe. Very classy.
17. Maureen one-upping everyone else by tying not one, but TWO sweaters around her waist.
18. Sandy’s brutal assessment of Jody: “You’re not very turned out. So that needs work. And you don’t have great feet. And while you’re very pretty, you don’t have the ideal body type.” Which… is just insane, because Jody’s body looks exactly like every other dancer at the American Ballet Academy (rail-thin but muscular, the sort of girl who demands not one but two sweaters).
19. Maureen smugly tells Jody that Sandy might be right. Eva, furious: “Jesus! What, you went to a special bitch academy or something?” That Susan May Pratt didn’t go on to star in Special Bitch Academy is the greatest tragedy of the ’00s.
20. When the kids decide they’ve been dancing too much, so they blow off steam by… going out dancing. Sort of like how we unwind from reading blogs all day by going home and reading different blogs.
21. Maureen’s dramatic showdown with a piece of pizza. (She eats the pizza, which means they both win.)
22. Jody’s trip to another off-campus dance class, where the students greet one another by kissing on the lips and eating each others’ muffins (not a metaphor). Their warmup dance is set to Mandy Moore’s “Candy,” as all warmup dances should be.
23. This important close-up of Cooper Nielson’s butt, i.e. the moment you realize maybe he deserves that heartthrob status.
24. This weirdo clearly grabbing his own friend’s butt during Group Showgirls Reenactment Time.
25. Jody white-girl-clapping to “Higher Ground.”
26. Cooper and Jody’s tender, Mandy Moore-scored love scene, which is almost as beautiful as his ridiculously enormous Brooklyn loft—the movie’s true romantic lead.
27. Eva’s unusually hideous goin’ out vest. It’s like a dELiA*s catalog met a screensaver, then barfed all over the Gap Kids denim department.
28. Jody practicing her turnout… in clogs. Ahhh, we were so innocent before the Florida recount!
29. Charlie and Cooper’s epic “Any jump you can jump, I can jump higher” dance-off, the most poetic d-ck-swinging contest ever captured on film.
30. Jonathan to Maureen, whose heart is no longer in ballet: “How do you expect 3,000 people to watch you raise your arm if you don’t do it beautifully?!” There are stakes, people!
31. Sweet, simple Charlie trying to perk up Jody after she learns that Cooper is a cad: “Whatever you feel, just dance it.” Channing Tatum would later make a career out of this advice.
32. You’re prepared for the climax of the movie to come during the big showcase sequence, which will determine which of our heroes get offered spots in prestigious ballet companies. In fact, though, it comes when Dreamboat Jim confronts a conflicted Maureen about her bulimia, and she responds by lashing out: “I’m the best goddamn dancer at the American Ballet Academy. Who the hell are you? Nobody.” Game, set, match.
33. Showcase day arrives. The third principal in Jody and Charlie’s dance (Erik O. Jones; “the O is for Oprah”) gets injured in rehearsal, meaning that Cooper (of course) must step in and dance the other lead. Jody’s nervous, but not because of how Cooper humiliated her personally—it’s because she’s terrified of dancing alongside “the best dancer in the world.” Big ups to the movie for having a heroine who cares more about her career than she does about boys.
34. The big reveal that Maureen, who’s decided to stop dancing after all, has given her starring showcase role to Eva—who leaves her attitude at home for a beautiful, traditional performance.
35. Maureen’s big confrontation with her pushy stage mother, which includes both clichés (“This is your dream!” “It’s your dream”) and a shoutout to Center Stage‘s favorite body part: “You didn’t have the feet. I don’t have the heart.”
36. How confused the audience is by the opening scene of Cooper’s totally avant garde ballet. “Are those… ballerinas? In… regular ballet costumes? Rabble rabble rabble!”
37. The moment things really get cooking in Cooper’s ballet: when he zooms in on a motorcycle, Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” begins playing, and he peels off Jody’s white costume to reveal a sassy red leotard. Y’know what? Let’s just watch the damn thing:
38. Jody effortlessly releasing her hair from its prim ballerina bun when she climbs onto the back of Cooper’s hog. [Note: The rest of this list is basically a play-by-play of amazing things that happen during this climactic dance performance, and most of them have to do with Jody’s hair.]
39. Cooper’s bedroom-stage set, which looks exactly like his actual bedroom. Somehow, Jody is not embarrassed about reenacting her night with him onstage… in front of thousands of people… including her parents. Ballet school really does give a girl confidence.
40. Charlie and Cooper’s dance-fight part deux, featuring dance-punches and dance-wrestling. Just dance-kiss already, guys.
41. The extras who are forced to walk across the stage slowly as Jody dances out her feelings.
42. The part where the camera cuts away from Jody looking like this…
43. …then returns to find her like this. That’s right: She changed clothes, redid her makeup, and had her hair put in cornrows, all in a millisecond and without ever leaving the stage. Because dance magic.
44. The movie’s general Jamiroquai quotient, upped even higher when Cooper’s ballet concludes to the dulcet strains of “Canned Heat.” This boogie is for real.
45. The en pointe pelvic thrusts of self-actualization.
46. Seriously, though, an actual round of applause for Cooper deciding that Jody’s character will choose neither him nor Charlie. Much like DJ Tanner when forced to pick between wealthy nerd Nelson and mulletted rocker Viper, she ultimately chooses herself. Girl power: Still a thing in Y2K.
47. Jody’s final fouettés of triumph, and how she keeps doing them even after the curtain falls.
48. We meet up with Jody backstage, basking in the success of her star-making performance… and the cornrows are gone! And later, she’ll let her hair down from this messy bun to reveal perfect soft curls! She is not just a prima ballerina; she is also a hair witch.
49. A happy ending for all: Eva and Charlie get spots at the company, Maureen is focused on conquering her eating disorder, Cooper makes Jody a principal dancer in his newly-formed troupe, and Jody gets to deliver a kickass kiss off to him—”You’re an amazing dancer and a great choreographer, but as a boyfriend, you kinda suck”—before ditching him in favor of Charlie. Step Up‘s got nothing on this. Play us out, defunct ’00s girl group P.Y.T.!