Thursday, 9 August 2007

Capturing Dance, Recording History

Published: August 1, 2007

When filmmakers make movies about dance on stage — be it ballet or modern — the results are usually a bit of a let down: The backstage drama winds up with more (and better) stage time than the performances.

But when it comes to social dance, Hollywood deserves a fair measure of praise. Movies that incorporate or revolve around social dance are distinctly of their own time. And without movies to show how people danced at a given moment in history, the style of that era would exist only in photography and memory.

Imagine the extreme frustration that would befall today's grandparents if they could only show their grandchildren photographs of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. A still image of those two slim figures tapping out a duet or waltzing together across the room would show the style of the day and the surroundings, but none of the quality of the movement.

Of course, the average couple going out for a spin on a Friday night in 1949, the year that "The Barkleys of Broadway" opened, couldn't possibly dance as well as this professional pair. But Fred and Ginger represented a standard of elegance and — given the cornball plots to fill the time between the dancing — enough romance to send the audience into flights of fancy.

In the modern era, perhaps the greatest film to capture social dance is "Saturday Night Fever" (1977). The scenes in the Brooklyn nightclub give us glimpses of lively group dances, some of which are interrupted by the flashy stylings of the local hotshot, Tony Manero, played by the exceptionally gifted John Travolta. Though his home-grown style looks spontaneous on the dance floor, the rehearsal scenes let the viewer in on the trick: Tony and his partners practice quite a lot. What he creates in the studio pushes the form forward when he takes it public.

But "Saturday Night Fever" is also brutally realistic about life, love, and sex. These young women and men don't know where they're going, and only the boy who can dance — the artist — can see a way out of the borough. The film uses the vehicle of dance to show how modern society was changing and expectations were expanding, which makes it much more than a film about dance.

The plot of "Flashdance" (1983) brings high and low dance into a culture clash. Exotic dancer Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) wants to get into the local ballet company. Lacking ballet technique and a rule-abiding temperament, she breaks in by way of attitude. The dance that is captured here is more about strip dancing than fox trotting, but her workouts and the culminating audition scene are examples of a jazzbased style that was popular at the time. And whereas in "Striptease" (1996), Demi Moore also had some creative, moody stripper acts set to popular Annie Lennox songs, nothing beats "Flashdance" for that infamous gush of water.

By contrast, social dance is at the center of the plot of "Footloose" (1984). A sleepy small town, in which the most important church pastor has forbidden dance, is disrupted when the sexy, daring Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) arrives from the big city. He leads the high school students in a reasoned protest in favor of a prom with dancing.

Ren gets the girl and the prom, but the fun part is watching his buddy Willard (Chris Penn) learn how to dance. The teaching starts from the need to understand rhythm and then to have the confidence to create something personal. At the prom, the exuberant dance moves suggest that the rest of the teens — who have previously not been allowed to dance — have been secretly practicing, too. There is partnering, individual showing off, and even a littlebreak-dancing, which considering that the Midwestern town depicted was almost lily-white, was probably not entirely accurate.

But the '80s were the era of breakdancing — and any film about dance needed it. The film "Breakin'" (1984) brought jazz and breakdancing together. "Beat Street" (1984) emphasized the role of the DJ. Neither film may live large in the annals of cinema, but their purpose was to capitalize on the interest in a new urban dance form. By putting breakdancing at the center of the action, the filmmakers gave a national audience to something that was only emerging in cities. And they gave modern films about street dance, such as "You Got Served" (2004), a jumping off point to incorporate the explosion of gang culture.

Though films such as "Grease" (1978) and "Dirty Dancing" (1987) became hits within the musicalfilm genre, both look back to other eras rather than explore the contemporary. "Grease" opened only one year after "Saturday Night Fever," but how different the happy version of the '50s looks in comparison to the grittiness and reality of Brooklyn in the late 1970s. "Dirty Dancing" took a retrospective look at 1963 in the Catskills, but launched the new (and supremely annoying) song "(I've Had) the Time of My Life" onto the radio.

As different as all these films are, the one element connecting films about social dancing — be they retrospective or of their time — is the idealistic message that dancing is a sort of healing activity. It can bring families together, elevate one's social standing, and open minds. And if that's true, we could use a little more of it — in film and in real life, too.

Source: NY Sun

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