A time-honored weekend tradition (for me, at least) is casually flipping on the TV, only to have a perfect movie beamed into your eyeballs, ruining all of your plans for a productive morning/afternoon/evening. There is no genre of movie better for this than the competitive dance movie, and there is no shortage of them on TV on the weekends. Please allow me to curate a definitive list that will come in handy the next time you’re looking to waste two hours on your couch, regretting everything in your life that has led you away from a career as a professional dancer.
Save The Last Dance
This 2001 classic, starring early-aughts teen queen Julia Stiles, the briefly promising Sean Patrick Thomas (Cruel Intentions, never forget!) and an incredible Kerry Washington is about an aspiring ballet dancer who moves to the South Side of Chicago and learns to love hip hop…and herself. Although this is movie that brought K-Ci and JoJo’s “Crazy” to the nation’s attention, and thus we owe it a great debt, it is not on TV that often (you’re probably more likely to catch it on HBO or some other premium movie channel). It’s just as well, as this film is not great to use as background noise to chores or work, since within a half hour or so you will be on the couch, an infinity pool pour of pinot grigio appearing in your hand as if by magic.
Highlights: a dance training montage to P!n’k’s “You Make Me Sick,” every scene Kerry Washington is in, a girlfight that takes place during a high school gym class scrimmage, “It’s country and you look country in it.”
Take The Lead
I saw this film in theaters years ago because I am dedicated to my work, and I remember it as mostly skippable but for the opportunity to see Antonio Banderas go full live action Puss In Boots on everyone AND have an intimate tango scene with a possibly underage girl. The plot is pretty straightforward (fancy dance instructor teaches a ragtag bunch of inner city kids about ballroom dancing…and themselves) but is also great for playing the “spotting random actors in random movies” game (Laura Benanti! Future Mrs. Channing Tatum! Yaya from America’s Next Top Model!). You can wash dishes while this movie is on, it’s NBD.
Highlights: TANGO THREESOME.
This is the chupacabra, the unicorn, the holy grail. If this pops up on your TV guide channel listings know that you are being called upon to obey the universe’s command, sit down, and watch the magic unfold. If you ask any girl born between, oh, 1970 to 1995 about this movie you will typically get one reaction:
She says this to a MEDICAL DOCTOR!
This movie starred a bunch of professional dancers (aaand it shows), ubiquitous 90s/early 00s movie frenemy Susan May Pratt, Zoe Freaking Saldana and Peter Gallagher. It has everything — salsa dance montages, costume changes that occur mid-pirouette, and the strangest reading of the line “Like I care” ever recorded on film (thanks, Cooper Nielson!). I had to buy this movie because it wasn’t on TV enough for my liking. Now I’m going to have to spend the rest of the day listening to Mandy Moore’s “I Wanna Be With You.”
Highlights: OH, EVERYTHING, but especially Ethan Stieffel’s tour-de-force performance as the almost human being/alleged Laurence Olivier of the professional ballet world, Cooper Nielson; Eva Rodriguez stubbing out a cigarette with the tip of her toe shoe, the climactic misandrist ballet.
This is basically the Citizen Kane of the dance film genre, and also probably the one shown on cable most often — FX seems to have a real thing for it. And why not? It’s great! I still cry in the scene where Jerry Orbach and Jennifer Grey are both really disappointed in each other in that gazebo. The seriousness of the B-plot (a horrible Objectivist waiter impregnates Johnny’s BFF, forcing her to seek an illegal abortion, before setting his sights on Baby’s dumb sister) is so deftly handled that its darkness doesn’t feel at all out of place next to the question “Will Baby and Johnny be able to pull off that lift?” Perfect for an afternoon where you want to watch something that won’t require your full attention (because you already know every line, duh).
The Step Up Franchise
This served as the original inspiration for this list, since at least one of these movies (or, more often, a block of them) is usually airing somewhere on basic cable at any given moment in time. Please allow me to rank them for you, from least to most impressive:
- Step Up 3 & 4: These more recent installments have nowhere near the ubiquity of the first two, given that the whole point of the third movie was that it was in 3D (kinda hard to make it translate in your living room), and the fourth is perhaps too fresh to be added into the basic cable rotation (although it was two years ago, and the fifth installment is on the way. What gives?). None of this matters, because the third and fourth films are really only must-sees if you’re a major Moose-head and/or get a great deal of pleasure out of spotting So You Think You Can Dance alumni during dance sequences (guilty as charged).
- Step Up: Yes, this film has the distinction of being the first in the series AND the set on which Chay Tates and the future Mrs. Chay Tates fell in love, but believe me when I tell you that it’s just okay. Too much angsting, not enough dancing, as I always say. Put this on if you’re going to spend most of the afternoon in another room folding laundry or whatever, then run — DO NOT WALK — as soon as they get to the club.
- Step Up 2: The Streets: Obviously this has to be number one based on name alone. Other things that mark this film as superior to the others: the introduction of Moose, on whose shoulders the franchise now rests, a love interest who appears as a villain in another seminal dance film, Stomp The Yard, a climactic dance sequence in which speakers are able to be used during a downpour, a straight-arrow arts school principal who learns a valuable lesson about THE STREETS, and enough backwards baseball caps to make your head spin. A++ way to spend your Saturday.
You Got Served
This is probably the only film in history that has the members of B2K getting top billing, but it’s admirably straightforward: one street dance crew has a rivalry with another street dance crew, there’s a competition for money that will help pay back a debt to someone’s grandmother, and that’s basically everything you need to know. This movie came out in 2003 and will serve as a harsh wake up call for anyone not ready to grapple with how insane literally everyone looked in the early 2000s.
Also very “of the 2000s”: one of the perks of winning this dance competition is getting the chance to appear in a Lil Kim video.
Highlights: “You’re just mad… ’cause tonight you suckas got served!”
Stomp The Yard
Ooh, this one is close to my heart, if only because I love explaining to the uninitiated that the catalyst for the action is that DJ (played by Scandal’s Columbus Short) sees his adorable kid brother (CHRIS BROWN) get murdered in a fight following their victory in a dance battle, forcing him to move to Atlanta to stay with his uncle, who works. At. Truth. University.
Are you not sold yet? Okay, there’s more: the competitive element to this movie is stepping competitions between fraternities, allowing DJ to hone his dance skills and learn valuable lessons about team work and brotherhood. Everyone in these fraternities is about thirty years old, smoking hot and taking everything extreeeemely seriously, and there is no shot that better sums that atmosphere up than DJ’s frat bros chanting “We rep the Thetas” on a cliffside during the Magic Hour.
Not a great weekend diversion if you don’t have time for weird sexual awakenings.
And that’s about it, everyone! Have a productive weekend!