10 ways to improve dance-movie plots (while dumping the evil developers)
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Let’s get the obvious out of the way early: No one goes to a dance movie for the plot. Dance movies rise or fall on the strength of daring choreography and cinematography, impressive athleticism and physical performances, and staging and editing that bring it all across to the audience. A great storyline won’t do much to save a dance movie that’s weak on the dance.
But that said, the average dance movie still devotes maybe a third of its runtime to actual dance sequences, and something worthwhile has to fill out the rest of that time. Nobody goes to movie theaters just for the popcorn, either, but if the average 90-minute movie experience consisted of 60 minutes of sitting in a dark theater eating popcorn, and 30 minutes of actual film, a lot more emphasis would be placed on making that popcorn taste good.
So why have dance movies becomes so moribund and lazy?
At this point, there are three standard plotlines for this kind of film:
- An evil developer is about to raze a clubhouse or other building that’s emotionally important to the protagonists, and they can only save it by dancing to raise funds and/or awareness.
- A Romeo-and-Juliet romance between one lead from a privileged family (usually a white woman trained in classical dance) and one from a less privileged background (usually a self-trained guy who’s up on whatever street trends the film is exploiting) inspires both dancers to try new things, often letting the classically trained one ace a big audition by incorporating outsider moves.
- Two rivals dancers or crews (generally a popular but arrogant repeat winner vs. a scrappy up-and-comer) settle their scores at the big dance contest.
The details vary: In Strictly Ballroom, the Romeo character is the one trained in traditional ballroom dance and learning outsider moves from the family of his Juliet. In Dirty Dancing, the girl from the right side of the tracks isn’t a trained dancer already, but she does discover a brave new world in a less-privileged Romeo. In Honey, the protagonist is trying to save her dance studio from bankruptcy rather than from an evil developer; The Forbidden Dance’s heroine wants to rescue an entire rainforest from the bulldozer. And once in a while, a dance movie will escape all these tropes by embracing a different microgenre altogether, as Take The Lead did by fusing the dance movie and the inspirational-teacher movie, or the original Footloose did by marrying the dance movie with the youth-revolt stories of the ’50s and ’60s.
But minor variations aside, these Big Three dance-movie clichés have piled up to a ridiculous degree over the years, in films including Save The Last Dance, Stomp The Yard, You Got Served, Step Up and Step Up 2 The Streets, How She Move, Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, Burlesque, Dance With Me, Girls Just Want To Have Fun, and Fast Forward. In a way, 2010’s Step Up 3D acknowledged the level of repetition by incorporating all of the Big Three in a joyously over-the-top meta-mishmash. Step Up 3D is a ridiculous movie, but it’s almost as enjoyable for its entertaining self-aware silliness as for its performance sequences.
But once a genre has openly acknowledged, mocked, and fused its own standard stories, it’s time to move on and try something new. Which is why Step Up Revolution, the latest in the highly profitable Step Up series, is such a disappointment. It’s right back to trope No. 1 and trope No. 2, both presented unironically and unimaginatively, as if they were fresh enough to demand emotional involvement from the audience. But there’s no drama left in a storyline once it’s become laughable through decades of retreads; trotting out the evil developer and the endangered clubhouse is like flashing a giant sign that says “WE DON’T CARE ABOUT THIS MOVIE AT ALL.”
So here are 10 suggestions for the screenwriters of the next decade’s worth of dance movies. Each one is a story seed; they don’t necessary work together. But each one of them is also a pathway away from same-old same-old dance stories:
- Note the themes that make those tired old storylines work, then take them in new directions. All three of them are underdog stories, with youth, vigor, and creative new ideas pitched against entrenched powers: rich elites, snobbish scholastic or performance gatekeeper judges, the dance crew that won the last however many competitions and is favored to win the next one. So why not keep the dynamic, but pit the underdogs against different enemies? There are plenty of other gatekeepers out there who might censor, judge, control, or constrain up-and-coming dancers, from the city committees that hand out art grants (is it worth accepting institutionalized guidelines on self-expression to earn a career-making payday?) to the parents of kids who can’t believe a new dance school has cred until the owner has won a prominent competition. It’s possible to keep the format while expanding the range of antagonists.
- That said, accept that not every artistic struggle is a class struggle. Every story about people making art is a story about a bunch of artists trying to work together, and artists are notoriously divisive about what constitutes art, or the right way to make it, or the proper end result. Why not focus less on inventing exaggerated, monumental outside forces, and more on the internecine drama of dancers trying to decide, both for themselves and among their peers and contemporaries, what art is worth doing? For that matter, instead of inventing an evil, arrogant, dominant dance crew as the antagonist at the big competition, why not play up the fact that most of the competitors at a big dance contest are peers who just want to win, not to crush the underdogs’ spirits out of a malevolent agenda? There’s less obvious catharsis in a story about two white hats who have to come to terms than there is about one where a white hat beats a black hat, but there’s plenty of drama in understanding that every time someone wins, someone else loses, and the loser doesn’t necessarily deserve to be smacked down.
- Understand that schools can be entrenched powers too. So many dance-movie protagonists triumph by getting into a good academy or dance program. But what happens to people who enter those programs and don’t find them to be the end-all and be-all of existence? Professors can be just as stifling and entrenched as city planners, especially when their tastes in dance stand between a dancer and graduation. Why not start where most films end, with the admission into an academy or troupe, then explore all the many ways that can go wrong and lead a dancer to need to break out and try something new?
- Acknowledge the inherent drama of the dance world. Snobs-vs.-slobs stories bring a lot of easy, simplistic conflict, but they aren’t the only kinds of stories out there. The dance world, like any art world, is home to a lot of dramatic people placed in pressurized situations, from schools to troupes to shows. And all of those situations have their own deep-seated conflicts. A few movies have focused on all the little micro-dramas in an environment full of up-and-coming performers—A Chorus Line, Fame, Center Stage—but compared to the Big Three above, they’re still underused. Any film exploring the dense web of hopes, dreams, disappointments, and furies endemic to these environments already has drama to spare without relying on one-dimensional bad guys.
- Understand that part of that inherent drama is that not everyone gets to fulfill their dreams. And no, that doesn’t mean a depressing dance movie with a miserablist ending where the protagonist blows that big audition, or loses the big dance-off, and skulks off to die alone in the rain. Here’s one example: One of the strongest plotlines from the 2009 Fame involved a high-school dancer-in-training finding out from a friendly-but-firm teacher that he’d peaked in his teen years, and has nowhere to go but down—none of his teachers feel he has the talent or potential to make it any further as a dancer. He drops out of the story shortly thereafter, but consider a plot that starts with that kind of failure, and addresses how the dancer overcomes it. Does he learn to enjoy dancing just for himself? Does he pioneer a new kind of dance that uses his strengths in a way classical ballet didn’t? Does he teach someone who does have the talent to do what he couldn’t do?
- Expand beyond the 22-year-old dance prodigy. Speaking of dance teachers, dance films don’t take advantage of their dramas nearly enough, either. Similarly, they don’t seize on the stories of younger dancers. Dance drama doesn’t begin and end with one audition—it’s a lifetime of commitment for people who start young, and there’s just as much drama in very young dancers finding their passion as in twentysomething dancers exploring theirs. (See, for instance, Billy Elliot.) Similarly, there are stories in the life of every dance teacher, and the glut of stories about inspirational teachers in general makes it clear this is a popular story source.
- Treat dance as important to the characters, not just the audience. Part of the strength of dance movies that do move beyond the Big Three tropes is that they often focus on what dance means to an individual who’s committed to it. Older dance movies like Saturday Night Fever and Flashdance focused closely on how important artistic expression can be to someone who doesn’t have much else worth living for, but that kind of story has gone out of fashion, and has been replaced by films where characters are focused on dancing primarily to defeat an enemy or prove a point or pay some bills or forward a cause. The viewers who show up for the dance sequences are expected to be passionate about the dance sequences, but beyond a little lip service, the characters themselves aren’t; they’re too busy pursuing one form of material gain or another. And when did that become more important? Viewers love characters who are doing what they love; characters who actually have to sacrifice other aspects of their lives for that love, or can only escape the less satisfying aspects of their lives through that love, are inherently dramatic.
- Talk to actual dancers. The country is full of them, and chances are excellent that none of them have ever fixed a ballet dancer’s life by teaching her to krump, or saved the local youth center from demolition by putting on a show. But all of them, whether self-taught or traditionally trained, are likely to have unique personal stories about competing with themselves and other people, enduring physical pain, and holding out for the reward of recognition. And any dancer who’s made it to the pros is going to have stories of personal victories and transcendent moments—all of which are ripe for harvesting into film.
- Look to literature. Libraries and bookstores are packed with stories that use dance in ways film hasn’t dreamed of. Why not adapt one of the many books about people navigating their own personal dramas in the dance world, like Celeste Conway’s The Melting Season (about a teenager mourning her father and escaping her family history through dance), or Martha Southgate’s Another Way To Dance (about racism in the ballet world)? And for the truly ambitious filmmaker: Special-effects technology has finally caught up to Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s 1979 novel Stardance, about a woman who can’t fit in as an earthbound modern dancer, but is so driven to pursue her art that she pioneers zero-gravity dance. The authors tried for years to self-fund an adaptation, but this is a film that can’t and shouldn’t be made cheaply; it would make a fantastic blockbuster-sized science-fiction drama.
- Finally: Less talk, more dance. Again, people go to dance movies for the dance. Is it really necessary to pad out half an hour of terrific dancing with a bunch of rote framework? Why not just invest in more and longer dance sequences, or spend more time with the dancers as they work their way up to the big ending number, and pay attention to what it takes to assemble and execute a dance? Film history is filled with movies about the process of writing and the process of making a movie; why do so few films about dance (Robert Altman’s The Company excepted) pay serious attention to the process of creating a dance?
And if all else fails, try reversing the narrative entirely. Because isn’t it about time evil developers got their due? Maybe the time is right for a movie about a rich, stuffy developer who just wants to improve the lives of a bunch of slum-dwellers by cleaning up their disintegrating neighborhood and their hazardous clubhouse, but they keep shutting him down with protests and performance. But once he falls in love with one of them, she teaches him the latest urban dance moves, and he takes his argument for gentrification directly to the people. Once he expresses himself sincerely through dance, they cheer him on and buy stock options in his company. The film can end with him and his new girlfriend triumphantly dancing on the roof of their new 50-story condo building as the sun sets. It’ll be no less ridiculous than the current version of the story we keep getting over and over in these movies.