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Good Dance Movies (1980-85): Tippy Toes with Rhythm

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David Appleford itcherBy 1933 when Busby Berkely’s 42nd Street hit the screens with its spectacular tap dancing sequences, silent comedy was no longer king; it was the turn of the all-tap dancing Hollywood Musical. All of a sudden, studios were building films around single dance numbers. ~ David Appleford

The Evolution of Dance Movies

Admittedly, in earlier days, many of those sequences were more human kaleidoscopic geometric patterns backed by a song with an endlessly repeated chorus, but dance on film continued to develop. However, like the western, the popularity didn’t last. Audiences declined in the fifties, and by the late sixties, dancing in film was at first sporadic then all but gone. Then something strange happened and it took another decade to take shape.

Rock singers and bands started to use music videos with dance as a way of promoting their new releases. Many were awful, but occasionally a good video would emerge using a look and style that was clearly cinematically inspired. By 1980, music videos exploded. From that MTV generation, feature films, mostly non-musicals, started to include dance scenes just to keep up with the times.

Think of ‘Risky Business’ and you think of Tom Cruise dancing in his socks and skivvies to Bob Seeger. Think of ‘The Big Chill’ and you remember the cast performing an impromptu dance around the kitchen table to a Motown classic. Both scenes had nothing to do with the film but they’re the ones you remember.

Between 1980 and 1985, Hollywood caught up with the trend in a big way and dance officially returned. The following are five films that best reflect what was happening during that time. Even though a couple may be well known, they’re certainly no classics, and they’re not musicals in the traditional sense, but when it comes to dance they all have merit for one reason or another, and here’s why.


Frenzy Dance Movie Recommendations

‘Breakin’’ (Joel Silberg, 1984)

Go out and sweep, kucklehead. Who are you anyway, Fred Astaire?

As the title suggests, ‘Breakin’’ was inspired by the Breakdancing street movement of the early eighties. It was low budget and looked it, plus it starred unknown names such as Shabba Doo, Boogaloo Shrimp and Pop N’ Taco, none of whom could act, yet the film proved to be popular to the point where dance classes around the country began to regularly incorporate Breakdancing in their classroom schedules.

The plot revolves around street dancing rivals who battle it out at the Radiotron nightclub. Whoever wins the dance is hardly the point, but who wouldn’t want to root for guys with names like Doo, Shrimp and Taco?

The film was so popular there was even a 1985 sequel called ‘Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo’, but by the time of its release, the Breakdancing fad was already beginning to date. Stick with the first. It’s more fun, the dancing appears fresh, and you might notice an early appearance from Ice-T who declared his performance in the film to be “wack.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I’ll take it as an endorsement.

‘The Blues Bothers’ (John Landis, 1980)

It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.

The car chases and crashes resembling large scale demolition derbies are so over the top, the film doesn’t make you laugh, it numbs you. But this is why its inclusion in this list is important. Besides being the first film to use characters developed from NBC’s ‘Saturday Night Live’, surprisingly the dance numbers are outstanding.

Using performances from musical greats like Ray Charles, Cab Calloway and John Lee Hooker, ‘The Blues Brothers,’ despite all of those flying vehicles, is a big screen document showcasing some of the best in American music. But there are two sequences that stand out and they both use dance.

Even if you fast forward through all the nonsense, make sure you stop at the evangelical church service where Pastor James Brown lets rip and dances in the aisles with his congregation, followed by an ecstatic John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. And when you’re done with that, move on to Aretha Franklin as a singing waitress in a diner performing ‘Think’ with diner customers and fellow musicians while dancing on counter tops. Those two sequences alone make up for everything else that doesn’t work.

‘Tuff Turf’ (Fritz Kiersch, 1985)

C’mon Jimmy, Lincoln freed the slaves. All I want to do is talk to her.

With a story of young, misguided love, street gangs, turf ownership and a faint, and I mean a really faint echo of ‘West Side Story’, ‘Tuff Turf’ tells of a troubled teenager who moves from the east side to the west side, in this case it’s Connecticut to Los Angeles. The boy is played by James Spader and even though he’s something of a rebel we know he’s an intellectual rebel. We know that because every time we see him he’s either reading a book or has one under his arm.

His leading lady is trouble and her name is Frankie. She’s played by one time child actress Kim Richards. Remember the cute little girl in ‘Assault On Precinct 13’ who goes to the ice cream van and never comes back? That’s Kim Richards, only here she’s older, taller and has legs that seem to stretch forever. During a dance number she jumps over tables, leaps over chairs and even swings from a chandelier. It’s hilarious, but it’s also a great example of how Hollywood did whatever it could to include a dance number.

‘Flashdance’ (Adrian Lyne, 1983)

What was he before he was a dog?

It may be one of the most successful films of the eighties but there’s a reason why it’s included in this list. ‘Flashdance’ is the perfect example of a film that used the filming of its dance sequences based on the source that inspired the early eighties movie dance craze – the music video. Director Adrian Lyne had a background in TV commercials and music videos. He knew how to make things look good even if the visual had little to do with the narrative, and it’s this style he employed in ‘Flashdance’.

The story of an attractive eighteen year old (Jennifer Beals) who welds at a Pittsburgh steel mill by day, works as an exotic club dancer by night, lives in a spacious converted warehouse that no eighteen year-old could ever afford and dreams of becoming a professional dancer is baloney, but it’s well shot baloney. Plus, without it, there would be no dancing Kevin Bacon in ‘Footloose’.

The nightclub performance sequences are spectacular and framed, shot and edited with all the expertise of a slick music video. When the girls of the club workout on weights for training it looks less like a scene inside an exercise gym and more like a TV commercial plugging milk. And let’s be honest, after watching the film, who hasn’t fantasized of having a bucket of water poured over them while in the middle of a dance on the disco floor?

‘That’s Dancing’ (Jack Jaley, Jr., 1985)

This film is dedicated to all the dancers… especially those who devoted their lives to the development of their art long before there was a motion picture camera.

It’s fitting that the documentary should have been released in 1985. As far as the movies went, that was the beginning of the end of the eighties dance craze. What’s really interesting about this film is that those familiar with ‘That’s Entertainment’ Parts 1, 2 and 3 may not realize that the dance themed documentary even exists. The film had a fragmented theatrical release and the DVD is never included in the ‘That’s Entertainment’ box set. 

Hosted by some great names of Hollywood’s song and dance past, including Gene Kelly, Ray Bolger, and Sammy Davis Jr. and pieced together by Jack Haley, Jr – his dad was the Tin Man in ‘The Wizard of Oz – That’s Dancing’ looks back on everything covered in this column. You’ll see some of the greatest dance numbers ever on film, but unlike Haley’s original documentary ‘That’s Entertainment’, this dancing retrospective doesn’t rest solely on dance sequences from MGM’s golden past, it incorporates other studios, thus we get clips of ‘Saturday Night Fever’, ‘Flashdance’, and ‘Fame’, plus an MGM outtake from ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

The film ends not with a classic dance sequence of the golden days of the Hollywood hoofers but a clip from the form that inspired its theatrical re-emergence; we get Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’. How about that for going full circle?


Care to Dance?

Dancing in musicals is a whole different matter and that requires a completely different list. Technically speaking, ‘That’s Dancing’ could appear in both, but the above five films should give you a taste for what happened when for five consecutive years in the first half of the eighties dancing became temporarily popular. And then it went again.

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