Dancing Queens: Guide to the Musical Films That'll Get Your Toes Tapping

Mention dance on film and many will think of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who thrilled millions with the grace and athleticism of their distinctive styles during the golden age of the Hollywood musical. Yet dancing women have been capturing the imagination since long before the first flickering images were projected on to a screen in 1895.

First Flickering Steps

During cinema's prehistory, hand-drawn images of women dancers had been animated by optical toys like the phenakistoscope and the zoetrope. But, around 1885, British photographer Eadweard Muybridge succeeded in producing a series of stills showing an unnamed woman dancing and he brought them to life with a projection device called a zoopraxiscope. Taking inspiration from this experiment, inventor Thomas Edison and his Scottish assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson invited several celebrated dancers to their Black Maria studio to record routines that the public paid to see in Kinetoscope peepshow parlours. 

Often credited as the first woman to appear on film, Spanish dancer Carmen 'Carmencita' Dauset Moreno reproduced one of her celebrated music-hall dances in mid-March 1894 and she was followed by Ruth Dennis, sisters Edna and Stella Leigh, Lola Yberri, Amy Muller, Crissie Sheridan and Annabelle Whitford, whose Serpentine Dance was the first film to be hand-tinted in 1895. As she revealed her legs while swirling her skirts, Carmencita provoked the mayor of Ashbury Park in New Jersey to ban her film, in an early incidence of censorship. By contrast, the 1896 Cinématographe record that the Lumière brothers made of Loïe Fuller's Danse Serpentine was praised for its artistry. 

Terpsichorean Talkies

As narrative began to replace novelty, silent cinema afforded female dancers fewer opportunities to shine and it was only with the coming of talkies in the late 1920s that screen dance began to come into its own. Song took precedence in the earliest musicals, but variety showcases like the Oscar-nominated The Hollywood Revue of 1929 allowed stars like Joan Crawford and Marion Davies to parade their Charleston and tap dancing skills. 

Tap thrust Canadian Ruby Keeler into the limelight, as the understudy who becomes a star in Lloyd Bacon's seminal backstager, 42nd Street (1933), which saw choreographer Busby Berkeley perfect the fantasy production number, in which the camera looked down on kaleidoscopic designs formed by rigidly drilled chorus girls. One mother was so put out by the objectification of the dancers in a number in William Dieterle's Fashions of 1934 that she reportedly scolded Berkeley, 'I didn't raise my daughter to be a human harp.' But, while the unrepentant Buzz continued to make pretty patterns, a vibrant new star survived their collaboration on Mervyn LeRoy's The Gold Diggers of 1933 to become the best-known female dancer in cinema history.

Backwards and in High Heels

Ginger Rogers had broken into movies after establishing herself on Broadway and expected to return to wisecracking comedies after dancing 'The Carioca' with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio (1933). But the public response persuaded RKO to pair them in another seven screwball musicals, in which Ginger's peppily self-sufficient blonde gradually fell for Fred's dapper charmer. Katharine Hepburn summed up their partnership by claiming that 'she gave him sex, and he gave her class'. But Rogers and Astaire had a unique chemistry that gave classics like Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936) and Shall We Dance (1937) a timeless elegance that is endlessly referenced during each series of Strictly Come Dancing.

In most of their outings, Ginger took an instant dislike to Fred and only came to appreciate his good points on the dance floor. Their off-screen relationship could be equally fractious, as neither wanted to be part of a team and Rogers was often frustrated by Astaire's perfectionism. She was never in his class as a dancer and, with the notable exception of a reunion in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), she largely steered clear of musicals for the remainder of her career. Yet, as the old joke had it, she could do 'everything he did, backwards and in high heels'.

Change Partners

Astaire danced inventive solos in The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936) and Carefree (1938). But it was his duets with Ginger that audiences adored and he started searching for new partners. Actresses Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard valiantly tried to keep up in A Damsel in Distress (1937) and Second Chorus (1940), but tap sensation Eleanor Powell proved more than a match for Astaire and their routine to 'Begin the Beguine' in MGM's last monochrome musical, The Broadway Melody of 1940, is simply scintillating. 

Hailing from a dancing family, Rita Hayworth also held her own against Astaire in You'll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942) before joining Gene Kelly in Cover Girl (1944). However, Astaire eventually opted to select co-stars for individual projects rather than form a new twosome. He and Kelly were fortunate that there were so many accomplished and versatile dancers in Hollywood and they were often spoilt for choice. 

Versatile Hoofers

Although she was primarily a singer, Judy Garland hoofed gamely with Kelly in The Pirate and with Astaire in Easter Parade (both 1948). The latter also featured Ann Miller, an energetic tap dancer whose fleet footwork in 'Shaking the Blues Away' is one of the highlights of the picture. She also cut a rug with Kelly in On the Town (1949), which co-starred the elegant Vera-Ellen, who twice teamed with Astaire when not stealing scenes from David Niven in Happy Go Lovely (1951) and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).

Miller and Vera-Ellen feature in the compilation films That's Entertainment 2 (1976) and That's Entertainment 3 (1994), as well as Hollywood Musicals of the 40's (2000) and Hollywood Musicals of the 50's (1999), which also allow Cinema Paradiso customers to see such spirited performers as June Allyson and Debbie Reynolds in action. Among the other gems on show are a couple of ace swimmer Esther Williams's aquacade spectacles, which create more of a Technicolor splash than the nevertheless exquisite black-and-white ice-skating routines performed by Olympic champion Sonja Henie in film like Second Fiddle (1939) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941). 

Henie was based at 20th Century-Fox, which was also home to child star Shirley Temple, whose joyous 'Stair Dance' with African-American veteran Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson in The Little Colonel (1935) was the first interracial dance routine in Hollywood history. Fox also boasted the talents of Alice Faye, Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda, with the latter pair joining forces on Down Argentine Way (1940). Headlining colourful romps like Pin Up Girl (1944) and The Dolly Sisters (1945), Grable became the sweetheart of American service personnel during the Second World War, with her long legs being famously insured for $1 million by Lloyds of London.

Effortless Elegance

For all Grable's exuberance, she lacked the elegance of the classically trained Leslie Caron and Cyd Charisse. The Parisian Caron was barely in her 20s when Charisse's pregnancy caused her to drop out of Gene Kelly's Oscar winner, An American in Paris (1951), and her elfin poise led to a teaming with Fred Astaire on Daddy Long Legs (1955), as well as starring roles in a second Best Picture triumph, Gigi (1958), and Fanny (1961), which was a musicalisation of Marcel Pagnol's 'Marius' trilogy (1931-36). 

Taller than Caron, the Texan Charisse had a sinuous grace that made her the perfect partner for both Kelly and Astaire. Despite making her mark in Till the Clouds Roll By and The Harvey Girls (both 1946), Charisse had to make do with minor movies before Kelly chose her to partner him in the 'Broadway Ballet' sequence in Singin' in the Rain (1952). They reunited for the enchanting 'Heather on the Hill' duet in Brigadoon (1954), while Astaire - who nicknamed Charisse 'beautiful dynamite' - brought out her deft gift for comedy in The Band Wagon (1953) and Silk Stockings (1957), which (like the Kelly-Charisse vehicle, It's Always Fair Weather, 1955) is inexplicably unavailable on disc. 

En Pointe

Both Charisse and Caron had started out as ballerinas, but cinema hasn't always shown ballet in its best light. One of the earliest surviving clips shows Dane Ellen Price (who was the facial model for the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen) in a 1903 scene from La Sylphide. But the first ballerina to take film seriously was the Russian Anna Pavlova, who not only recorded several of her stage solos, but also headlined Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley's silent drama, The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), Compatriot Lydia Lopokova also ventured into features, dancing with George Balanchine and Anton Dolin in the theatre sequence in the early British talkie, Dark Red Roses (1929). 

Indeed, two of the finest ever ballet pictures were produced in this country, as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger put Scot Moira Shearer through her paces in the Technicolor masterclasses, The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). But contemporary Margot Fonteyn's appearances on screen were limited and her fabled partnership with Rudolf Nureyev can only be enjoyed through documentaries like Paul Czinner's The Royal Ballet (1960) and Tony Palmer's Margot (2005). 

Set during the period when Fonteyn and Shearer were still dreaming of stardom, Sandra Goldbacher's tele-adaptation of Noel Streatfield's beloved novel, Ballet Shoes (2007), gave Emma Watson her first role outside the Harry Potter franchise. But dance largely played second fiddle to drama, as was the case for Maj-Britt Nilsson in Ingmar Bergman's Summer Interlude (1951), Claire Bloom in Charles Chaplin's Limelight (1952) and Jessica Harper in Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977). The latter was released in the same year as Herbert Ross's The Turning Point, which starred Anne Bancroft and Shirley Maclaine as former dancers and had the misfortune to set the record for unconverted Oscar nominations, with its tally of 11 later being equalled by Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985). 

Scottish animator Norman McLaren also earned an Oscar nomination (and won a BAFTA) for his mesmerising ballet short, Pas de Deux (1968), which can be found on the wonderfully comprehensive Norman McLaren Boxset. Dance has inspired several avant-garde film-makers, including Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke and Yvonne Rainer. But modern dance has been given shorter shrift outside biopics like Karel Reisz's Isadora (1968) - which earned Vanessa Redgrave an Oscar nomination for her performance as 'the Mother of Modern Dance', Isadora Duncan - and documentaries like Daniel Geller's masterly Ballets Russes (2005).

The last two decades have seen something of an upsurge in ballet movies, with the principal dancers being played by Amanda Schull in Centre Stage (2000), Neve Campbell in The Company (2003) and Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow (2018). Digital animators have also done their bit to introduce younger viewers to the art form in pictures like Barbie of Swan Lake (2003) and Ballerina (2016). But the pick of the recent crop is Darren Aronofsky's brooding psychological thriller, Black Swan (2010), which earned Natalie Portman the Academy Award for Best Actress for her display as a dancer with a New York corps whose mental state starts to deteriorate after she is forced to compete with Mila Kunis for the prized dual role in demanding choreographer Vincent Cassel's production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake

Dance in the Doldrums

Despite the best efforts of Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno in Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins's West Side Story (1961) and Shirley Maclaine in Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity (1968), the dance musical went into decline in the 1960s. As was the case with Jeanette MacDonald and Deanna Durbin in the 30s, few dancing demands were made on singing superstars like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965) or Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly! (1969).

The latter was directed by Gene Kelly, who had virtually given up cine-dancing after soft-shoe shuffling his way through George Cukor's Les Girls (1957) with Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg. Kelly's co-directing buddy, Stanley Donen, had guided Fred Astaire through charming teamings with Jane Powell in Royal Wedding (1951) and Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957). But Astaire also decided to hang up his dancing pumps and cinema didn't unearth another dance icon until John Travolta burst on to the scene in Saturday Night Fever (1977). Such was his magnetism that Travolta largely overshadowed partner Karen Lynn Gorney and Cynthia Rhodes and Finola Hughes fared little better in the sequel, Staying Alive (1983). But Olivia Newton-John managed to make an impression in the nostalgic gem, Grease (1978), although she couldn't compete with the 68-year-old Kelly in the roller-skating sequence in Xanadu (1980).

Dance Fads

Roller disco was one of the many dance crazes that Hollywood tried to latch on to in the blockbuster era in a bid to connect with moviegoers who were now predominantly in their teens and early twenties. Thus, while Spanish auteur Carlos Saura was showcasing the passion and precision of flamenco in Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983) and El Amor Brujo (1986), American directors churned out voguish efforts like Salsa (1988) and Lambada (1990). Bizarrely, nobody thought to make a dance movie with Madonna, whose athleticism and choreographic innovation are readily evident in documentaries like In Bed With Madonna (1991). Instead, audiences got to watch Elizabeth Berkeley pole dance in Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995), Piper Perabo dance on bar tops in Coyote Ugly (2000) and Kirsten Dunst front a cheerleading troupe in Bring It On (2000).

By contrast, Tara Morice was allowed to play a blossoming wallflower alongside ambitious maverick Paul Mercurio in Baz Luhrmann's debut feature, Strictly Ballroom (1992). However, the tables were turned in Masayuki Suo's Shall We Dance? (1996) and Peter Chelsom's 2004 remake, as novices Koji Yashuko and Richard Gere were respectively taught how to put their best feet forward by dance class partners Tamiyo Kusakari and Jennifer Lopez, under the watchful eyes of teachers Reiko Kusamura and Susan Sarandon. 

What a Feeling

Another academy, New York's High School of Performing Arts, took centre stage in Alan Parker's Fame (1980), which was partly inspired by the hit Broadway musical, A Chorus Line (which was filmed by Richard Attenborough in 1985). Among the interweaving narratives are the stories of dance students Laura Dern and Irene Cara. The latter had an international hit with the film's theme tune and went one better by winning the Oscar for Best Song with 'Flashdance...What a Feeling', which was the highlight of Adrian Lyne's Flashdance (1983), which followed the fortunes of a teenage welder in a Pittsburgh steel mill with ambitions to become a dancer. However, while Jennifer Beals can be seen in close-up during the exuberant audition sequence, the more complex moves were performed by double Marine Jahan.

Although Lori Singer remained largely in Kevin Bacon's shadow in Herbert Ross's Footloose (1984), Sarah Jessica Parker got to strut her stuff as the army brat determined to appear on a Chicago TV station's dance show in Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985). But the most cherished dance film of this period remains Emile Ardolino's Dirty Dancing (1987), which was inspired by writer Eleanor Bergstein's own experiences and stars Jennifer Grey as the teenager who discovers herself while dancing with Patrick Swayze at a Catskills holiday camp during the summer of 1963.

Defying expectations is also the theme of Save the Last Dance (2001), as Julia Stiles abandons her ballet aspirations after her mother's death, only to be inspired to audition for the prestigious Juilliard School after discovering hip-hop at her Chicago high school. In pictures like Wild Style (1982), Beat Street (1984) and Fast Forward (1985), breakdancing was largely a male presence. But sisters like Jessica Alba, Jenna Dewan and Rufina Wesley can be seen doing it for themselves in such dance flicks as Honey (2003), Step Up (2006) and How She Move (2007), as can Nichola Burley in StreetDance (2010), which was the first British film to be shot entirely in 3-D.

Hooray for Bollywood

No celebration of screen dance would be complete without a visit to Bollywood. Although this nickname for the film industry centred on Bombay (now Mumbai) was only coined in the 1970s, dance had played a crucial role in the development of Indian cinema before the release of the first talkie, Ardeshir Irani's long-lost Alam Ara (1931). The gestures and signs still used in modern choreography derived from classical forms like Bharatnatyam, Kathak and Odissi, as well as folk dances like Bhangra, Garba, Dandiya and Bihu. However, stars like Vyjayanthimala (Sadhna & Madhumati, both 1958), Sandhya Shantaram (Navrang, 1959), Geetanjali (Parasmani, 1963) and Padmini (Thillana Mohanambal, 1968) created their own variations on the traditional moves in routines that became known as 'item numbers', as they helped popularise 'filmi' songs that were slotted into the plot whether they were relevant to the action or not. 

While actresses could mime along to the sublime voices of playback singers like sisters Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, there was no hiding place on the dance floor and even dramatic actresses like Nargis and Madhubala respectively showed off their moves in numbers like 'Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi' and 'Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya' in Raj Kapoor's Awara (1951) and K. Asif's Mughal E Azam (1960). The finest dancer of this period, however, was Helen, who was profiled in the Merchant-Ivory documentary, Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls (1973). Born Helen Ann Richardson in Burma, she has appeared in over 700 films, with her routines to 'Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu' in Howrah Bridge (1958), 'Piya Tu Ab To Aaja' in Caravan (1971) and 'Mehbooba Mehbooba' in Sholay (1975) often being ranked among the finest in Bollywood history. 

Renowned for breaking taboos, Helen famously incorporated cabaret, belly dancing and the Twist into her choreography, while Rekha showcased the Mujra style in films like Silsila (1981). But the tone of Bollywood dancing changed forever with the introduction of disco in the 1970s and the all-pervading influence from the mid-1980s of MTV. Among the stars to rise in this era were Hema Malini (Prem Nagar, 1974), Jaya Prada (Sargam, 1979), Meenakshi Seshadri (Damini, 1993) and Urmila Matondkar (Rangeela, 1995), while the new generation includes such idols as Rani Mukerji (Hum Tum, 2004), Katrina Kaif (Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya, 2005), Malaika Arora (Dabangg, 2010) and Priyanka Chopra (7 Khoon Maaf, 2011).

Two Dancing Divas

For all the aforementioned talent, two actresses are unsurpassed in the dancing stakes. Sadly, 54-year-old Sridevi accidentally drowned in the bathtub in a Dubai hotel room in February. Debuting as a toddler in the late 1960s, she demonstrated a unique versatility in 300 credits across the generic range. But what set a Sridevi performance apart was her evident enjoyment and her exuberance can be relished in such numbers as 'Har Kisiko Nahi Milta' in Janbaaz (1986), 'Kaate Nahin Kathe' in Mr. India (1987), 'Na Jane Kahan Se Aayi Hai' in ChaalBaaz (1989), 'Main Aisi Cheez Nahin' in Khuda Gawah (1993) and 'Navrai Majhi' in English Vinglish (2012).

Fittingly, the role that Sridevi vacated in Abhishek Varman's Shiddat was filled by her friend and rival, Madhuri Dixit. Known as 'the Dhak Dhak Girl' after the song 'Dhak Dhak Karne Laga' in Beta (1992), Dixit was trained in Kathak dance. Such is her wit, grace and finesse that she has been nominated on a record 14 occasions for the Best Actress prize at the Filmfare Awards. Cinema Paradiso users new to Bollywood should check out her duet with Aishwarya Rai on 'Dola Re Dola' in Devdas (2002). But aficionados will also want to check out 'Humko Aaj Kal Hai' in Sailaab (1990), 'Chane Ke Khet Mein' in Anjaam (1994), 'Akhiyaan Milaoon' in Raja (1995), 'Ek Do Teen' in Tezaab (1998), 'Kay Sera Sera' in Call (2000) and the title track in Aaja Nachle (2007).

Even more musical superstars...

Interested in more dance-themed films and superstar dancers? Browse our Music and Musicals section and find the right title for you. For you Bollywood lovers, here is our entire Bollywood Films collection, enjoy!

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