Some of the earliest footage captured on film was dance. Human movement to a rhythm or beat was the perfect display of this new motion picture technology. Both social dance and performances popular at the time were recorded. With the development the feature length movie, much more common has been films that include popular styles of dance, reaching its zenith in the musical and latterly, the dance movie.

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1900’s

Thomas Edison filmed social dances in his early experiments and in 1894 Annabel Moore performed a skirt dance depicting swirling twirling skirts. (You can find it on YouTube by searching Annabelle Serpentine Dance). At first film was prodigiously expensive, so early recordings were short. However, they became popular as entertainment and soon picture-houses were springing up, often called Nickelodeons. With increased popularity and lowering costs films became longer, coming to, in 1903, The Great Train Robbery, at a whole 12 minutes long. You can guess the story from the title but it also includes depictions of dance: the robbers are enjoying a square dance before being called to a shoot-out. Then in 1915 The Whirl of Life was released, about the lives of ballroom dancers, and at 60 minutes was an early feature length film.

1920’s – 1930’s

In this period musicals, revues and vaudeville were popular theatre entertainment, and Broadway productions and touring companies entertained America. Revues and Vaudeville were similar in that they were variety shows of music comedy dance and skits. The Zeigfield Follies is a famous revue, characterised by its chorus girls in lavish costumes parading around various sets.
With the development of sound in 1927 it was a natural progression to bring musicals to the screen. 1929’s The Broadway Melody is widely considered the first successful Hollywood musical. Early movie musical stars got their start on the stage, and successful Broadway shows were remade in Hollywood, including the Zeigfield Follies.  Other films like 42nd Street were new and sprang from Hollywood itself. Many if not most were so-called ‘backstage’ musicals, which were usually about young hopefuls trying to make it on Broadway.  Busby Berkley was a prolific choreographer and director from this era, who produced elaborate numbers featuring large numbers of showgirls arranged in complex patterns. He was the first to employ camera angles and movement to show off the choreography. He choreographed through to the 1950’s, and maintained his distinctive style throughout.

Then came Fred Astaire. His legendary partnership with Ginger Rogers lasted 7 years and 9 films. Though innovative camera work had arrived Astaire insisted that at all times when he was dancing that the camera be kept at eye level and show all of him throughout. He believed close ups, reaction shots and the like interrupted the flow of dancing.

The style of dancing for films of this era was tap and ballroom. Ballroom was the accepted style of dance for the wealthy, whose extravagance, sharp tuxedos and elaborate ballgowns movies could portray well. The 30’s was a time of great economic depression. Many were jobless and people often had little to spare. Watching the high-flying wealthy waltz and foxtrot across lavish sets was part of the appeal of cinema. Tap was also a popular dance form on the stage and screen. The flashy moves of tap might not seem a natural fit with ballroom, but it was Fred Astaire, with choreographer Hermes Pan, who fused them with elegance. Despite it’s new refinement the energy of tap is infectious, a key factor in the feel-good films of the era.

1950’s

Moving from the 40’s to the 50’s America was no longer in depression, and the refined elegance epitomised by Astaire and Rogers was replaced with Gene Kelly’s more exuberant athletic style. Storylines now more often featured ordinary men and women. In at least four films Kelly played military men. He was quickly given free rein to choreograph and is credited with fusing tap with a more balletic style.

The next big development was colour. Before the advent of Technicolour film could be coloured by hand, as seen in The Great Train Robbery, but this was laborious and time-consuming. Technicolour at first required 3 different strips of film to go in a large and expensive camera, a process which, in the Great Depression, didn’t take off. The Wizard Of Oz starring Judy Garland did use this in 1939, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the 3 strips could be condensed onto one and production became much less complicated and costly. Some of the most enduringly popular musicals came out of this period, likely due in part to the new life colour breathed into them.  For example, Singin’ In The Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and The King and I (1956). Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is particularly noted for its unique choreography that makes dance out of mundane tasks such as chopping wood.

1960’s – 1970’s

From the 60’s we can trace a steady decline in the number of musicals and those that were made had darker themes and content. This was kicked off by West Side Story, released in 1961,  a retelling of Romeo and Juliet in New York’s deprived Hell’s Kitchen district. Its dark theme and focus on social problems marked it out as different from the light-hearted musicals that came before it. It won 10 Oscars including Best Picture. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ll likely recognise songs like Tonight, America and I Feel Pretty. You’ll also likely recognise the distinctive choreography by Jerome Robbins, who worked on many stage and screen productions including The King and I and Fiddler on the Roof. The juvenile gangs and turf wars featured in West Side Story were recent phenomena, partly due to post-war immigration. This was a very different musical for a very different America. The top hat and ball gown-wearing escapism of Fred and Ginger’s world of not 30 years before was no longer in demand. More than ever films reflected the often stark realities of real life, albeit with a Hollywood ‘gloss’. In addition popular culture was shifting. Ballroom was out, rock and pop were in. Saturday Night Fever (1978), for example, is about a young Brooklyn man dancing to forget the realities of his dead-end job and deprived background. Hair (1979) has themes of conscription, racism, drugs, sexual freedom – all issues in society at the time. In a not-too-common meeting of popular entertainment and contemporary dance, Twyla Tharp was the choreographer. Grease (1978) was lighter in tone, though it did deal with adolescent sex, gang violence and the burgeoning teenage culture of the 1950’s.

Some musicals were released at this time with singing but not necessarily much dancing. This separation of music and dancing has become a standard feature, and marks the beginning of the evolution of the dance movie as distinct from the musical. My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), and more recently,The Blues Brothers (1980), and Evita (1996), feature memorable songs but limited dancing.

1980’s – 1990’s

Jazz was THE dance of the 1980’s. High kicks, big leaps and shoulder rolls are some of its distinctive features.  Dance in Hollywood received a bit of a resurgence, as seen in films like Fame (1980), Flashdance (1983) and A Chorus Line (1985). Worth noting, however, is that of the few dance movies being made, most were about dancers or stage productions. This had been done before, for example in the backstage musicals of the 30’s, but not quite so exclusively. Now it appears as if movie-goers demanded a justification for dance. As such, Fame is about students at a performing arts school, Flashdance is about a welder/exotic dancer who wishes to join a ‘real’ dance company, and A Chorus Line is about an audition day on Broadway. As the popularity of jazz has waned, many of the dance movies of the 80’s have fallen from memory. Girls Just Want To Have Fun (1985) is just one example (but thoroughly worth looking up on YouTube!).

In the 1990’s dance waned in popularity again in Hollywood. Dance films were made in other regions, but Hollywood seemed no longer interested. Strictly Ballroom (1992), an Australian film, did well, highlighting the largely unknown world of competitive ballroom dancing. Tango (1998), an Argentinian film, told a similar story for Tango.

2000’s +

The dance movie returned in 2001 with Save The Last Dance and Moulin Rouge. Moulin Rouge has a mish-mash of dancing styles, including Can Can and Bollywood. Director Baz Lurhman was in fact inspired by Bollywood films to create a new Western musical. It was a huge popular and critical success, being the first dance film in 10 years to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The film’s technique of re-purposing old pop songs to fit an original story has been utilised by stage musicals such as Mama Mia and Viva Forever. Its dance style was, however, not as influential on later movies as Save The Last Dance and it’s 2003 successor Honey.

Save The Last Dance, the story of a ballet dancer learning hip hop, is the first in the current trend of street dance films. Street dance began as part of the underground hip hop movement in the 80’s and is characterised by movements like break-dance, popping and locking, and roboting. By the early 2000’s hip hop culture had become mainstream and commercial and it is perhaps inevitable that Hollywood would capitalise on this. Plots typically follow a similar thread: a young outsider uses dance to escape the confines of his or her life; winning a street dance competition is generally the main goal and is the platform for the final dance showcase. Ballet and ballroom are portrayed as stuffy and resistant to both hip hop and any change. As with the glut of 30’s and 40’s musicals, the dancing, rather than the story, is certainly the main draw for the new generation of urban dance films.

Slick, pop-video style editing of the modern dance film gives the dancing a gloss it does not have in it’s live format. Street dance developed in great part in competitions where individuals and crews battle to show off their best moves. This competitive nature is perhaps what has influenced Holllywood’s drive to one-up itself. Each successive film has led to bigger tricks and stunts at the expense, it could be argued, of artistry or indeed plot. For example, the dance showcase of Step Up (2006) is a 3 minute dance in a school auditorium with a place in a dance company at stake. In Step Up 3 (2010) the final showcase takes place at the inaugural World Jam Finals, hosted by Hip Hop MC Grandmaster Caz and with a potential $100,000 at stake. Two crews spend more than 10 minutes doing battle, cheered on by thousands of spectators. It makes Save The Last Dance look positively quaint

Looking back at dance on the big screen, we can see the rise and fall in popularity of ballroom, tap, jazz and street. Whatever the next big thing is, we can rest assured Hollywood will bring it to us.

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