By Tiia Kelly | September 21, 2021
There is something to the language of dancing bodies that cinema has long understood, and viewers have long felt. Zadie Smith knew it when she looked to the beguiling physicality of figures like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and the Nicholas brothers for lessons on writing. The horror genre, which has developed its own distinct history of contorted bodies, knows it. This Twitter account, committed to posting daily movie dance scenes, knows it especially.
But there is something else entirely to cinematic dance moments that are less than aspirational — and, at their most joyous, less than coordinated. These, too, contain a certain language: a character’s amateurish flailing during a Saturday detention dance break is, after all, very different to the spectacle of Channing Tatum’s shiny moves in Step Up or Magic Mike. Less visual marvel, more emotionally driven physical outburst, these scenes explore how the openness of messy physicality can dissolve barriers of inhibition and self-consciousness, enriching the dynamics between characters.
A vital piece of this distinction is the setting. Rather than dancing onstage, in a studio, or a public-space-turned-performance-site, what happens when these acts of dance occur in closed, domestic spaces? What about vast, isolated landscapes, or the fringes of a group of people? In an enclosed rhythmic bubble, absent of any diegetic audience or company, a character’s dance partner is their audience.
A dance montage in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, set to the same Paul Simon song the film is named after, depicts a mating-ritual-like encounter between protagonist Donna (Jenny Slate) and love interest Max (Jake Lacey). Donna has just been dumped by her long-term boyfriend, bombed a performance at her regular comedy club, and drunkenly seduced good-natured Max before taking him home for a one-night stand. Over a shot of the pair kissing, the familiar drums of Simon’s song ring out. The film cuts to Donna in her underwear and Max’s unbuttoned shirt, swinging her head and spinning around. In the background is Max: Donna’s beanie on his head, amusedly playing bongos on a couch.
The montage is characterised by frenetically assembled bursts of activity. Donna and Max jump around, half-dressed, downing beers. They twist their pelvises, spin each other around and wiggle their shoulders. They make out and mouth Simon’s lyrics to one another. In a particularly heart-melting shot-reverse-shot, Max is shown leaning against a wall, smiling, whilst Donna dances about, trying to make him laugh. The scene’s goofiness, representative of any good ‘dance party’ scene, here becomes a shorthand for the characters embracing comfort in one another’s presence.
Further, the unambiguous song choice — is Donna the titular obvious child? — emphasises the film’s circulating theme of immaturity; the issue of Donna falling pregnant withMax’s child whilst still being a child in many ways herself. Her desire to precede sex with an almost-juvenile dance party mostly offsets any self-seriousness on her part as a sexual being. However, it also grounds her burgeoning relationship with Max in delightfully silly foreplay, and the childlike playfulness of the sequence is the very thing that solidifies their bond. Sex is funny, and there’s no need for pretence or modesty.
Stylistically, Moonrise Kingdom approaches its own dance sequence quite differently. Director Wes Anderson forgoes Obvious Child’s montage approach for a single handheld long shot, in and out of which the characters move. In the aftermath of sharing their first I-love-you’s, Anderson’s two leads, twelve-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), play a Françoise Hardy record on a remote beach they’ve claimed as their own. Suzy is alone in the frame, bending over a radio to play their song of choice, ‘Le Temps De L’Amour’, literally ‘The Time of Love’. She exits the frame then re-enters, holding Sam’s hand. Suzy sways softly to the music. Sam bobs his head. They move progressively more wildly, with Sam wagging his arms about while Suzy twists her body from side to side. The first cut of the scene brings us to a cosier mid-shot, zooming in as the pair share an endearingly clumsy slow dance.
At this point in the film, Sam and Suzy have deserted their respective homes to run away together. Both characters feel alienated from their peers and guardians, and are drawn to one another’s somewhat uncontainable, curious temperaments. One section of Hardy’s lyrics, translating to the time of love / it’s long and it’s short / it lasts forever, one remembers it, stresses an impermanent moment living on through memory. When you’re young, you feel like you’ll be young forever. Though everything for Sam and Suzy feels eternal and vital in the moment, we see only a brief, formative fragment of their lives. The dance scene epitomises this — the characters try desperately to carve out their own independent space, a mini civilisation for the two of them. Yet their bodies give them away: they’re just kids figuring out what their limbs can do, shooting off energy like sparks.
In both Obvious Child and Moonrise Kingdom’s dance scenes, the freeform dance party is followed by newfound intimacy. In the former, it’s Donna and Max sleeping together for the first time. In the latter, it’s Sam and Suzy, caught up in their newfound ‘freedom’, trying to mimic adult romantic interactions. Whilst slow dancing, they share an innocent French kiss, after which Suzy invites Sam to place a hand on her chest. “I think they’re gonna grow more,” she says. The succession of scenes indicates, almost, a causality: the shedding of unease and lack of posturing in each pair’s dancing facilitates feelings of closeness. The development of both relationships hinges on this willingness to let go in another’s presence; to be less than mysterious — even embarrassing.
In Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, this trope is transplanted into the period genre, subverting the classic period film ball scene. These moments, traditionally defined by barely concealed yearning and incredibly charged hand touches, are traded for a scene that places characters Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timotheé Chalamet) on the literal outskirts of this formal atmosphere. After Jo accidentally burns her dress at a party, leaving her unable to dance with the rest of the guests, she meets Laurie, who suggests a solution: the two of them can dance on the porch surrounding the house, where no one may see her scorched frock.
The scene, accompanied by the jubilant strings of Alexandre Desplat’s score, is washed in warm light from the party inside. Jo and Laurie mimic partner choreography, clasping hands and performing intricate footwork before bumping into one another, laughing. They vacillate between cultivated and raucous, depending on whether they are visible to the partygoers inside, guiding each other in refined steps around the porch before erupting into looser, whole-body thrashing. The two frolic riotously as literal outsiders — forgoing the decorum of Victorian-era courtship to embrace the unrestrained cravings of their youthful bodies. The physicality of this early scene suffuses Jo and Laurie’s subsequent interactions: they are all scrambling energy and play, lightly hitting and hanging off each other.
In contrast to Obvious Child and Moonrise Kingdom (and despite what Laurie may later come to think), the porch sequence emphasises the platonic camaraderie central to the dance-party trope. Private, spur-of-the-moment dance parties relish in what our bodies long to do when nobody’s looking. One’s dance partner must, then, be a co-conspirator. Jo and Laurie are bonded by their porch dance, both errantly like-minded and overflowing with energy.
In all three movies, the two-person dance party is a direct expression of intimacy, connecting characters through the wildness of their unseen bodies. These moments become indicative of characters’ places in their ongoing development. Maybe they’re playing at adulthood, or outright rejecting it through unsophisticated cavorting. Perhaps they’re moving on the peripheries of propriety or finding romance in youthful romps around the living room. Whatever the case, the dance party is there as the rollicking language of familiarity and tenderness to carry them through.