Save the Last Dance

(Photo by Courtesy Everett Collection)

30 Essential Dance Movies

As seminal dance film Save the Last Dance turns 20, we look at the best dance films ever made… and why the Julia Stiles favorite is just a bit too off-beat to make the cut.

Save the Last Dance, which turns 20 this year, has some things you probably want in a movie. A soundtrack that includes Jill Scott and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes? Yes. References to James Baldwin in the first twelve minutes? You got it. A 23-year-old Kerry Washington in one of her first adult roles, radiating the kind of charisma and power that will one day convince Pope Associates to kill and die for her? Damn right.

It also has a lot of what you’d expect to find in a dance movie, especially one about a ballet dancer. Rehearsal montages? Absolutely. Bleeding toes mangled by hours spent dancing in pointe shoes? Obviously. A dramatic final number performed in front of snooty gatekeepers? Of course.

Unfortunately, for lovers of dance, Save the Last Dance’s dance sequences themselves leave a lot to be desired: the hip hop club scenes are given short shrift, as are the moments in which the lead characters go to the Joffrey Ballet to watch a professional performance. The sequences in which Julia Stiles and her body double do ballet – and especially when they perform the climactic ballet-hip hop hybrid final number – are a reminder that while it can be hard to cast actors who can really dance (or dancers who can really act), it’s usually worth it.

As for the racial politics of the movie – suburban white girl moves to Chicago to live with her father when her mother dies, goes to a majority Black high school where students have criminal records and kids, falls for the college-bound Black boy who teaches her hip hop, and is relieved of the comforting colorblind fantasy that there’s “only one world” – it’s not so much that they’ve aged badly. In a crop of dance movies that came out between 2000 and 2006 (Center Stage, Step Up, etc.), Save the Last Dance is the most direct about race and racism, making explicit what a lot of the other movies leave implicit. But it’s hard to imagine a dance movie made in 2020 putting a gawky white ballet dancer learning hip hop – and her realization that white women enjoy privilege that plays out in their dating and social lives – at the center of its narrative. Which is a sign of how the needle has moved in the two decades since Save the Last Dance was released.

And there are still some things that the film leaves implicit, the most obvious of which is the notion that ballet is inherently white and feminine, practiced by uptight and feminine people, that it’s a form of rigid artifice. Hip hop, on the other hand, a Black artform with origins in street and social dancing, is depicted as inherently loose, cool, masculine, and real. These are stereotypes that were in place in 2001 – and that have been reinforced by films in which uptight white girls have to learn to loosen up and get down – and they persist today, making ballet and Blackness seem antithetical, especially for Black girls and women who aspire to learn ballet.

In honor of Save the Last Dance’s 20th anniversary, we’ve assembled a list of 30 essential dance movies sorted by Tomatometer, encompassing ballet, hip hop, modern, tap, ballroom, breaking, and the magic of Mike.

In order to be considered for this list, the movie had to include diegetic dancing – that is, dancing that the characters acknowledge as dancing, as opposed to a musical number in which the characters break out in song and dance. Exceptions were made for musicals that contained diegetic numbers, like A Chorus Line, which is about a Broadway audition, and Singin’ in the Rain, which is about the creation of a musical. -Chloe Angyal

 Angyal is a contributing editor at MarieClaire.com and the author of Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet From Itself, which will be published by Bold Type Books on May 4. 

#30

Dancers (1987)

#30
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: A Russian ballet superstar (Mikhail Baryshnikov) woos an American ingenue while filming a performance of "Giselle."... [More]
Directed By: Herbert Ross

#29

You Got Served (2004)
14%

#29
Adjusted Score: 15606%
Critics Consensus: The dance sequences are exhilarating, but everything else about this movie is sloppy and generic.
Synopsis: Street dancers (Marques Houston, Omarion Grandberry, Jarell Houston) work together to win a competition worth $50,000 and a spot in... [More]
Directed By: Christopher B. Stokes

#28

Honey (2003)
21%

#28
Adjusted Score: 23469%
Critics Consensus: An attractive Jessica Alba and energetic dance numbers provide some lift to this corny and formulaic movie.
Synopsis: A dancer/choreographer (Jessica Alba) organizes a benefit to raise money for a new studio for inner-city youth.... [More]
Directed By: Bille Woodruff

#27

Step Up (2006)
21%

#27
Adjusted Score: 24738%
Critics Consensus: This trite teen romance has too little plot and not enough dancing.
Synopsis: A troubled guy but a gifted dancer (Channing Tatum) attracts the attention of a talented ballerina (Jenna Dewan) at a... [More]
Directed By: Anne Fletcher

#26

Stomp the Yard (2007)
25%

#26
Adjusted Score: 26812%
Critics Consensus: While Stomp the Yard contains impressive musical and dance numbers, it loses its momentum during the intervening soap opera-style subplots.
Synopsis: A troubled street dancer enrolls in a Georgia college and finds himself in the middle of a tug-of-war between fraternities,... [More]
Directed By: Sylvain White

#25

Flashdance (1983)
36%

#25
Adjusted Score: 40698%
Critics Consensus: All style and very little substance, Flashdance boasts eye-catching dance sequences -- and benefits from an appealing performance from Jennifer Beals -- but its narrative is flat-footed.
Synopsis: A Pittsburgh welder (Jennifer Beals) dances nights in a bar, dates her boss (Michael Nouri) and dreams of going to... [More]
Directed By: Adrian Lyne

#24
Adjusted Score: 38452%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: An Army colonel's daughter (Sarah Jessica Parker) dares to try out for a TV dance show with her girlfriend (Helen... [More]
Directed By: Alan Metter

#23

A Chorus Line (1985)
40%

#23
Adjusted Score: 42893%
Critics Consensus: On stage, A Chorus Line pulled back the curtain to reveal the hopes and fears of showbiz strivers, but that energy and urgency is lost in the transition to the big screen.
Synopsis: Dancers auditioning for a musical reveal their innermost thoughts and desires in this adaptation of the Broadway show.... [More]
Directed By: Richard Attenborough

#22

Center Stage (2000)
42%

#22
Adjusted Score: 44017%
Critics Consensus: Viewers willing to sit through soapy plot contrivances to see some excellent dancing might enjoy Center Stage; for everyone else, there's still always Fame.
Synopsis: Students at a dance academy strive to be the best while trying to survive the angst of their teen years.... [More]
Directed By: Nicholas Hytner

#21

White Nights (1985)
46%

#21
Adjusted Score: 46452%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The KGB sends a stranded Kirov Ballet defector (Mikhail Baryshnikov) to live with an expatriate U.S. tap dancer (Gregory Hines)... [More]
Directed By: Taylor Hackford

#20

Footloose (1984)
51%

#20
Adjusted Score: 54784%
Critics Consensus: There's not much dancing, but what's there is great. The rest of the time, Footloose is a nice hunk of trashy teenage cheese.
Synopsis: A hip Chicago teen (Kevin Bacon) moves to a Midwestern town where, thanks to a pastor (John Lithgow), dancing is... [More]
Directed By: Herbert Ross

#19
#19
Adjusted Score: 58117%
Critics Consensus: Mao's Last Dancer has a stirring story to tell, but excessive sentimentality and leaden pacing keep this biopic from hitting its marks gracefully.
Synopsis: The ballet life of Li Cunxin begins when he 11, taken from his peasant family in rural China to train... [More]
Directed By: Bruce Beresford

#18
#18
Adjusted Score: 64512%
Critics Consensus: The Turning Point is a handsomely-made resuscitation of Old Hollywood melodramas with a compelling duo at its center, but the formulaic script keeps this story from realizing its symphonic potential.
Synopsis: An aging ballerina (Anne Bancroft) and her ex-rival (Shirley MacLaine) fight over their past and the future of one's ballerina... [More]
Directed By: Herbert Ross

#17

Magic Mike XXL (2015)
65%

#17
Adjusted Score: 75126%
Critics Consensus: Magic Mike XXL has enough narrative thrust and beefy charm to deliver another helping of well-oiled entertainment, even if this sequel isn't quite as pleasurable as its predecessor.
Synopsis: Three years after retiring from stripping, Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) reunites with the rest of the Kings of Tampa (Matt... [More]
Directed By: Gregory Jacobs

#16

Dirty Dancing (1987)
69%

#16
Adjusted Score: 75844%
Critics Consensus: Like its winsome characters, Dirty Dancing uses impressive choreography and the power of song to surmount a series of formidable obstacles.
Synopsis: A doctor's (Jerry Orbach) teenage daughter (Jennifer Grey) gets slinky with the dance teacher (Patrick Swayze) at a Catskills resort... [More]
Directed By: Emile Ardolino

#15

The Company (2003)
72%

#15
Adjusted Score: 75176%
Critics Consensus: Its deliberately unfocused narrative may frustrate some viewers, but The Company finds Altman gracefully applying his distinctive eye to the world of dance.
Synopsis: A young woman (Neve Campbell) works as a nightclub waitress while becoming a rising ballerina in Chicago.... [More]
Directed By: Robert Altman

#14

Magic Mike (2012)
79%

#14
Adjusted Score: 87718%
Critics Consensus: Magic Mike's sensitive direction, smart screenplay, and strong performances allow audiences to have their beefcake and eat it too.
Synopsis: A male stripper (Channing Tatum) takes a newcomer (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing and instructs him in the fine arts... [More]
Directed By: Steven Soderbergh

#13
#13
Adjusted Score: 87619%
Critics Consensus: Boasting a smart, poignant story, a classic soundtrack, and a starmaking performance from John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever ranks among the finest dramas of the 1970s.
Synopsis: A Brooklyn paint-store clerk (John Travolta) dons a white suit and becomes king of the dance floor at his local... [More]
Directed By: John Badham

#12

Fame (1980)
84%

#12
Adjusted Score: 86010%
Critics Consensus: Just because Fame is a well-acted musical doesn't mean it flinches against its surprisingly heavy topics.
Synopsis: Leroy, Coco (Irene Cara), Bruno (Lee Curreri) and others of mixed talents and means attend New York's High School of... [More]
Directed By: Alan Parker

#11

Black Swan (2010)
85%

#11
Adjusted Score: 95708%
Critics Consensus: Bracingly intense, passionate, and wildly melodramatic, Black Swan glides on Darren Aronofsky's bold direction -- and a bravura performance from Natalie Portman.
Synopsis: A ballerina (Natalie Portman) begins to lose her fragile grip on reality as a sultry newcomer (Mila Kunis) threatens to... [More]
Directed By: Darren Aronofsky

#10

Billy Elliot (2000)
85%

#10
Adjusted Score: 88855%
Critics Consensus: Billy Elliot is a charming movie that can evoke both laughter and tears.
Synopsis: A working-class youngster (Jamie Bell) in 1984 England discovers a hidden talent for dance with the help of a hard-bitten... [More]
Directed By: Stephen Daldry

#9

All That Jazz (1979)
86%

#9
Adjusted Score: 90442%
Critics Consensus: Director Bob Fosse and star Roy Scheider are at the top of their games in this dazzling, self-aware stage drama about a death-obsessed director-choreographer.
Synopsis: A Broadway choreographer (Roy Scheider) chain-smokes, pops pills and overworks his way to open-heart surgery.... [More]
Directed By: Bob Fosse

#8

Chicago (2002)
86%

#8
Adjusted Score: 94129%
Critics Consensus: A rousing and energetic adaptation of the Broadway musical, Chicago succeeds on the level of pure spectacle, but provides a surprising level of depth and humor as well.
Synopsis: A lawyer (Richard Gere) handles the cases of two murderous women (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger) who are looking to gain... [More]
Directed By: Rob Marshall

#7

Suspiria (1977)
93%

#7
Adjusted Score: 99679%
Critics Consensus: The blood pours freely in Argento's classic Suspiria, a giallo horror as grandiose and glossy as it is gory.
Synopsis: A New York ballerina (Jessica Harper) enrolls at a haunted dance academy run by witches in the Black Forest.... [More]
Directed By: Dario Argento

#6

Cabaret (1972)
93%

#6
Adjusted Score: 99245%
Critics Consensus: Great performances and evocative musical numbers help Cabaret secure its status as a stylish, socially conscious classic.
Synopsis: Multiple Oscars went to this tale about an American chanteuse in Berlin caught in the rising tide of Nazism.... [More]
Directed By: Bob Fosse

#5
#5
Adjusted Score: 93784%
Critics Consensus: As emotionally rich as it is eye-catching, Strictly Ballroom uses its infectious energy as the fuel for a modern dance classic with all the right moves.
Synopsis: An Australian ballroom dancer (Paul Mercurio) makes an ugly duckling his partner (Tara Morice) and dares in competition to go... [More]
Directed By: Baz Luhrmann

#4

The Red Shoes (1948)
97%

#4
Adjusted Score: 106774%
Critics Consensus: The Red Shoes is one of the best-looking movies ever, and blends multiple moods and styles with balletic grace.
Synopsis: A ballerina (Moira Shearer) loves a ballet composer (Marius Goring) but dances for an obsessive impresario (Anton Walbrook).... [More]

#3

The Fits (2015)
96%

#3
Adjusted Score: 100680%
Critics Consensus: As gripping as it is unique, the thrillingly kinetic The Fits marks debuting writer-director Anna Rose Holmer as a singular talent.
Synopsis: An 11-year-old tomboy (Royalty Hightower) tries to fit in with her peers after joining an all-girl dance team.... [More]
Directed By: Anna Rose Holmer

#2
#2
Adjusted Score: 78875%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Former ballet student Tara Webster longs to return to her dreams after a devastating injury leaves her unable to dance.... [More]
Directed By: Jeffrey Walker

#1
#1
Adjusted Score: 112925%
Critics Consensus: Clever, incisive, and funny, Singin' in the Rain is a masterpiece of the classical Hollywood musical.
Synopsis: A silent-film star (Gene Kelly) loves a chorus girl (Debbie Reynolds) who dubs his squeaky-voiced co-star in a 1927 Hollywood... [More]
Directed By: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

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