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: 0%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Choreographer and filmmaker Herbert Ross directs the romantic backstage drama The Dancers, which features a production of +Giselle by the... [More]
Directed By: Herbert Ross

#29

You Got Served (2004)
14%

#29
Adjusted Score: 15.346%
Critics Consensus: The dance sequences are exhilarating, but everything else about this movie is sloppy and generic.
Synopsis: This hip-hop tale which explores the social subculture of street dancing, focuses on a pair of friends, named David and... [More]
Directed By: Chris Stokes

#28

Honey (2003)
21%

#28
Adjusted Score: 23.9%
Critics Consensus: An attractive Jessica Alba and energetic dance numbers provide some lift to this corny and formulaic movie.
Synopsis: Dark Angel-lead Jessica Alba stars in the title role of this film, the feature debut from music-video director Bille Woodruff.... [More]
Directed By: Bille Woodruff

#27

Step Up (2006)
21%

#27
Adjusted Score: 24.181%
Critics Consensus: This trite teen romance has too little plot and not enough dancing.
Synopsis: An aspiring ballerina from a wealthy family learns some lessons about both dancing and life from a roughneck with soul... [More]
Directed By: Anne Fletcher

#26

Stomp the Yard (2007)
25%

#26
Adjusted Score: 27.411%
Critics Consensus: While Stomp the Yard contains impressive musical and dance numbers, it loses its momentum during the intervening soap opera-style subplots.
Synopsis: DJ is a troubled youth from Los Angeles attending the historically black Truth University in Atlanta, Ga. When adapting to... [More]
Directed By: Sylvain White

#25

Flashdance (1983)
36%

#25
Adjusted Score: 39.537%
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: Jennifer Beals stars as Alex Owens, a Pittsburgh steel-mill welder by day, and bar dancer by night. Harboring dreams of... [More]
Directed By: Adrian Lyne

#24
Adjusted Score: 38.135%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Ostensibly based on the hit single by Cyndi Lauper, Girls Just Want to Have Fun is actually a spoof of... [More]
Directed By: Alan Metter

#23

A Chorus Line (1985)
40%

#23
Adjusted Score: 42.056%
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: Broadway's celebratory musical about rejection makes it to the screen in a fizzless adaptation by Richard Attenborough that misses the... [More]
Directed By: Richard Attenborough

#22

Center Stage (2000)
42%

#22
Adjusted Score: 44.374%
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: "Center Stage" follows the hopes and dreams of a tight-knit group of young dance students as they try to make... [More]
Directed By: Nicholas Hytner

#21

White Nights (1985)
46%

#21
Adjusted Score: 46.135%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The fancy footwork and star appeal of Gregory Hines as Raymond, an exiled American, and the powerful grace of Mikhail... [More]
Directed By: Taylor Hackford

#20

Footloose (1984)
52%

#20
Adjusted Score: 54.886%
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: In this lively adolescent-oriented musical, a city kid attempts to adapt to life in an ultra-conservative backwater Midwestern town. Once... [More]
Directed By: Herbert Ross

#19
#19
Adjusted Score: 57.663%
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: "Mao's Last Dancer" is the inspiring true story of Li Cunxin and his extraordinary journey from a poor upbringing in... [More]
Directed By: Bruce Beresford

#18
#18
Adjusted Score: 66.925%
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: One of a cycle of '70s post-Women's Liberation "women's pictures," Herbert Ross's drama uses the ballet world to examine the... [More]
Directed By: Herbert Ross

#17

Magic Mike XXL (2015)
65%

#17
Adjusted Score: 74.01%
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: Picking up the story three years after Mike bowed out of the stripper life at the top of his game,... [More]
Directed By: Gregory Jacobs

#16

Dirty Dancing (1987)
68%

#16
Adjusted Score: 73.512%
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 teenage girl learns about love, adult responsibility, and how to do The Dirty Boogie in this romantic drama. In... [More]
Directed By: Emile Ardolino

#15

The Company (2003)
72%

#15
Adjusted Score: 75.506%
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 tale centering on the Chicago ballet company--the difficult daily work, the intense pressures of performance, the richly textured behaviors... [More]
Directed By: Robert Altman

#14

Magic Mike (2012)
79%

#14
Adjusted Score: 86.937%
Critics Consensus: Magic Mike's sensitive direction, smart screenplay, and strong performances allow audiences to have their beefcake and eat it too.
Synopsis: Set in the world of male strippers, Magic Mike is directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Channing Tatum in a... [More]
Directed By: Steven Soderbergh

#13
#13
Adjusted Score: 86.624%
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: John Travolta graduated from minor celebrity to superstar with Saturday Night Fever. Travolta plays Tony Manero, a Brooklyn paint-store clerk... [More]

#12

Fame (1980)
84%

#12
Adjusted Score: 86.234%
Critics Consensus: Just because Fame is a well-acted musical doesn't mean it flinches against its surprisingly heavy topics.
Synopsis: Fame is set at New York's High School of Performing Arts, where talented teens train for show-business careers. The film... [More]
Directed By: Alan Parker

#11

Black Swan (2010)
85%

#11
Adjusted Score: 94.792%
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 psychological thriller set in the world of New York City ballet, BLACK SWAN stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a... [More]
Directed By: Darren Aronofsky

#10

Billy Elliot (2000)
85%

#10
Adjusted Score: 88.956%
Critics Consensus: Billy Elliot is a charming movie that can evoke both laughter and tears.
Synopsis: The life of a miner's son in Northern England is forever changed one day when he stumbles upon a ballet... [More]
Directed By: Stephen Daldry

#9

All That Jazz (1979)
86%

#9
Adjusted Score: 89.368%
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: "It's showtime!" In this part film à clef, part musical phantasmagoria, director/choreographer Bob Fosse takes a Felliniesque look at the... [More]
Directed By: Bob Fosse

#8

Chicago (2002)
86%

#8
Adjusted Score: 93.59%
Critics Consensus: A rousing and energetic adaptation of the Broadway musical, Chicago succeeds on the level pure spectacle, but provides a surprising level of depth and humor as well.
Synopsis: A starry-eyed would-be star discovers just how far the notion that "there's no such thing as bad publicity" can go... [More]
Directed By: Rob Marshall

#7

Suspiria (1977)
93%

#7
Adjusted Score: 98.637%
Critics Consensus: The blood pours freely in Argento's classic Suspiria, a giallo horror as grandiose and glossy as it is gory.
Synopsis: An innocent American ballet dancer's excitement at being accepted to a prestigious European dance school turns to terror when she... [More]
Directed By: Dario Argento

#6

Cabaret (1972)
93%

#6
Adjusted Score: 98.226%
Critics Consensus: Great performances and evocative musical numbers help Cabaret secure its status as a stylish, socially conscious classic.
Synopsis: Adapted from the Broadway show, this hard-hitting musical drama is set in decadent 1930s Berlin during Hitler's rise to power.... [More]
Directed By: Bob Fosse

#5
#5
Adjusted Score: 95.725%
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: This wildly off-beat comedy is about a male dancer (Paul Mercurio) who refuses to follow the accepted rules of ballroom... [More]
Directed By: Baz Luhrmann

#4

The Red Shoes (1948)
97%

#4
Adjusted Score: 105.803%
Critics Consensus: The Red Shoes is one of the best-looking movies ever, and blends multiple moods and styles with balletic grace.
Synopsis: The tale of a famous ballerina who must choose between art and love.... [More]

#3

The Fits (2016)
96%

#3
Adjusted Score: 99.656%
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 girl joins a dance drill team at her local rec center but her newfound teammates and friends begin... [More]
Directed By: Anna Rose Holmer

#2
Adjusted Score: 69.152%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Former ballet student, Tara Webster, was destined to become one of the top dancers of her generation before a devastating... [More]
Directed By: Jeffrey Walker

#1
#1
Adjusted Score: 111.134%
Critics Consensus: Clever, incisive, and funny, Singin' in the Rain is a masterpiece of the classical Hollywood musical.
Synopsis: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor star in Singin' in the Rain, one of the greatest and most successful... [More]
Directed By: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

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