DANCE AND THE CITY
BY ISABEL GOMEZ
What is a city but a big stage for anyone to perform on? It's no surprise then that it's been used as a dance setting for many movie scenes. This piece explores and celebrates dance in and around the city as seen in various films.
In the 2011 feature-length dance music video Girl Walk // All Day, we follow The Girl as she dances her way from one end of New York to the other, making stops at Staten Island, Wall Street, Yankee Stadium, Central Park, and everywhere in between. Along the way, she meets a cast of characters both scripted and candid since the director, Jacob Krupnick, shot the movie in stolen locations full of real crowds and people who sometimes join in the call to dance. The result is a portrait of a city full of diverse groups of people and places bustling with life expressed through motion and dance. The energy is palpable; The itch to dance is infectious; You want nothing more than to throw timidity to the wind and join The Girl in her uninhibited NYC dance tour.
The result is a portrait of a city full of diverse groups of people and places bustling with life expressed through motion and dance. The energy is palpable; The itch to dance is infectious;
In these times of coronavirus when cities have gone empty and dead, it’s hard to not imagine alternate realities where cities are brimming with people, and it’s sad to think of all the stories and chance encounters currently being lost as a result of the lockdown. These stories have been told time and again in movies, and there is a special relationship in film between dance and the city. Every city has its rhythm and that rhythm is best expressed through dance when words are just not enough. The rhythm of a 1950s Upper West Side blue-collar neighbourhood is the ominous snapping sound of the Jets and the Sharks as they dance their way through the community while wordlessly setting up the story and stakes of West Side Story. The rhythm of Mumbai is the pop bollywood bop of “Jai Ho,” as everyone in the crowded subway station of Slumdog Millionaire wraps up the story in an all out unapologetically cheesy Bollywood dance in a celebration of triumph and love. The rhythm of the small French town of Rochefort is an enthusiastic ballet by the residents of the city’s idyllic central square in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. All these dance numbers set the mood of the city and the characters in that moment more effectively than any piece of dialogue could. A dance number in the middle of a packed highway is the best way to explain the psyche of the city of Los Angeles, where people are starry-eyed enough to spin even a mundane traffic jam into a celebration of another day of living in La La Land. The battle cry of “Fight The Power,” as Rosie Perez flexes and dances in front of various Brooklyn brownstones in the opening credits of Do The Right Thing, has the audience ready to run out and join a protest.
But dance in the city is not just a communal experience. The scale of a city also allows film to contrast that vastness by zooming in on personal moments amongst the hustle and bustle. What better way to show a character dancing to the beat of their own drum than to literally having them dance to their own beat oblivious to those around them. First done by Denis Levant in Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang and paid homage to later by Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha, these two rebels in their ambling youth run, jump, and dance their ways across the city; One in the diseased-infested streets of a Paris, and the other in the hipster streets of New York City. Another outsider is Saraghina, the prostitute of Fellini’s 8½ who beguiles young Guido and his friends after they pay her to dance the rumba on the beaches of the city of Rimini. This moment is impossible to convey without dance and is pivotal in showing Guido’s sexual awakening, a major theme of the movie. Then we have Gene Kelly in the titular number of Singin’ in the Rain, who is so overcome by happiness, he can’t help but twirl and splash his way through the city without any care in the world even as a the rain pours down, passersby stare, and a policeman approaches him with disdain.
Every city has its rhythm and that rhythm is best expressed through dance when words are just not enough.
Dance in films have shown that the medium is for anyone and can be done anywhere. Nowhere is this fact more present than in these film scenes that take place in communal spaces and are open to anyone who wants to make their cities their stages. As cities shut down, here’s looking forward to a time when we can dance with strangers on subway stations, run maskless through the street, and watch prostitutes gyrate on the beach. Here’s to the cities we love so much that that love can only be expressed through dance. And here’s to hoping those cities will be full of life and dance once again.