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Rachel Levin
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…And the Dance Oscar Goes To…

by Rachel Levin
February 8, 2003

…And the Dance Oscar Goes To…

By Rachel Levin
February 8, 2003

Oscar season is upon us, and the nominations are almost here. This year, dancers should be particularly excited to hear which films are in the top running.

No, there's not a special category for best dance scene in a motion picture at the Academy Awards. But this year there might as well be. So many recent films are relying upon dance for pivotal moments in the plot, for illustrating the intensity of emotion in a scene, and for forwarding character development.

Here are some of my nominees for this year's "Best Dance Scene in a Motion Picture" in no particular order:

Frida: The Tango Scene
Salma Hayek's Frida Kahlo and Alfred Molina's Diego Rivera are on their first "date" at the party of the beautiful Italian photographer Tina Modotti, played convincingly by Ashley Judd. The camera invites us into intimate discussions among the artists and intelligentsia of Mexico City. In order to diffuse the tension of an intellectual argument that has broken out between Rivera and his rival David Siqueiros (Antonio Banderas), Tina invites a drinking match to see which man will have the honor of leading her in the tango. Too caught up in their own macho sparring, the men are out-drunk by none other than the diminutive Frida, in her eye-catching red dress, who downs tequila right from the bottle. The guests are incredulous as Frida guides Tina into the middle of the floor to the sensual and melancholy rhythms of Lila Downs bellowing "Alcoba Azul." Tina is a willing partner in her backless gown. Skin is caressed; backs are arched; two pairs of high-heeled shoes stomp the wood floor in synchronized time. Everyone is mesmerized and, without a doubt, titillated. Frida seals the dance with a kiss on Tina's lips. This scene is a prime example of how much more can be said in movement than in words. The tango reveals Frida's boldness, fluid sexuality, and force of character.

Ashley Judd and Salma Hayek in Julie Taymor's FRIDA. Photo courtesy of Peter Sorel.

Far From Heaven: Dance with Deagan at the Jazz Luncheonette
Cathy Whitaker (played by Julianne Moore) was once the pinnacle of perfection and the envy of all homemakers in her 1950's Connecticut suburb. But her marriage is on the rocks as her husband Frank's (Dennis Quaid) homosexuality becomes apparent, and her own affection for her African-American gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) grows. Deagan notices both Cathy's emotional and physical wounds and offers to take her on an afternoon outing to cheer her up. They take a glorious walk among the fiery leaves of fall, and their connection is brought to another level when Deagan takes her to lunch at a black diner where they play midday jazz. Cathy and Deagan's relationship is taboo in the white section of town, but Cathy learns that it is just as forbidden among in the black section as well. She feels visible and out of place. He tries to relax her with the dance; he leads firmly but tenderly and tries to soothe her apprehension. Yet she is unable to calm down under the disapproving gaze of the other patrons. In every corner of this stratified society, it is impossible for these two bodies to come close and move together.

Far From Heaven: New Year's Dance in Florida
OK, so Far From Heaven gets two. Partner dance often replicates the norms of heterosexuality in the larger culture. The man leads; the woman follows. Frank's dance with his wife Cathy on their New Year's holiday in Florida is a kind of metaphor for the reparative therapy he is undergoing to "cure" his homosexuality. If he can just learn to move with her, lead her, and desire her, he will once again inhabit the realm of "normal" sexuality. However, as they move off the dance floor, Frank catches the gaze of a desirable young man who is to become his lover and eventually partner. The dance with Cathy is a performance; off the floor, the instinct of his heart takes the lead.

Talk to Her: Ballet Practice Out the Window
Dance permeates the visual fabric of this Spanish film by Pedro Almodóvar, a contender for the best foreign film Oscar. The film opens with a haunting performance of female madness by modern/ballet dance legend Pina Bausch. This dance sets up the theme of feminine pain and aligns the fate of two audience members, Benigno and Marco. Benigno is a nurse caring for the young and beautiful Alicia, who is in a long-term coma. He meets Marco when Marco's girlfriend Lydia, a bull fighter who spars with the grace of a dancer, also arrives at the hospital in a coma after an accident in the ring. Benigno's connection to Alicia is at first unclear, but as it unfolds, the audience becomes uncomfortable with what can only be described as Benigno's obsession. Alicia is a ballerina, and Benigno first spies her from his second floor balcony, conveniently across from her ballet studio. As the camera looks down at Alicia dancing from Benigno's perspective, we are both frightened by his transition from removed audience member to intimate caretaker and appreciative of the beauty and fragility of this young woman. As an audience member of a ballet, who wouldn't find it irresistible to capture such fleeting grace and perfection for one's own?

Drumline: Sorority Step Dance
It is hard to narrow down which dance scene to choose in this film that is bursting with rhythm and movement. Set in the high stakes world of Southern college marching bands at fictional A&T University, the film showcases the saucy moves of the dance troupe that grooves to the band's music. In many instances, the drumline itself-featuring cocky freshman upstart Devon Miles (played by Nick Cannon)-engages in its own kind of trancelike choreography. The halftime scenes on the field (Remember: "Halftime is Game Time") are showy extravaganzas, but possibly the best dance scene from the film is a more intimate one. Laila (played by Zoe Saldana from CenterStage, another dance great) invites Devon to a fraternity party, and she and her sorority sisters hush the crowd as they pound out an African-American step dance. The unique rhythm and steps in unison seem to speak directly to the human heartbeat. Clearly, Laila and Devon's hearts are beating as one in this scene. As the fraternity brothers take their turn in the step dance, the camera zooms in on Devon and Laila for a close-up, the sound of the steppers fades, and they have their first kiss to Alicia Keys' "Never Felt This Way." The scene confirms that finding your love partner, just like your dance partner, requires that special mix of rhythm and energy.

The Pianist: Dance of the Warsaw Ghetto
By far the most melancholy of the nominees, this scene stands out among the horror of the Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Warsaw as truly absurd and cruel. The brilliant pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, along with some 400,000 other Jews of Poland, have been relegated to a cramped quarter closed in by walls. Once musicians, bankers, doctors, and other prominent citizens in the city, the Jews must now struggle to make a living within the confines of the heavily-guarded ghetto. To add to their daily misery, they must wait for long intervals to go about their business as a Polish streetcar passes right through the main thoroughfare. The brutal German guards taunt the Jews as they wait wearily-even old men, women, and children. A klezmer band plays upbeat music on the sidelines, trying to earn a few coins from passersby, and in the process creates an ironic counterpoint to the drudgery of the Jews' lives. On one such occasion, a guard orders several Jews to dance to this music. He pairs old men with young women, short men with tall women, and picks on those who are unattractive or strange in appearance in order to create a grotesque crew of dancers for his own amusement. In their misery, the Jews must dance, the band must play, or risk death by the unforgiving guards. Here the disconnection of freedom, joy, and individual expression from the act of dancing exposes the depths of the Jews' despair.

Chicago: Tap Dance of the Defense
This music and dance extravaganza reveals how little difference there is between a blockbuster trial and a musical number, where the lawyer persuades the jury with "Razzle Dazzle" and the star of the show is a young murderess. Richard Gere as lawyer Billy Flynn busts out his singing and dancing chops in the trial of the century, the trial of adorable murderess Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger). It is true that the camera never dwells long enough on Gere's tap dancing feet long enough in this trial sequence (granted he is no Savion Glover), but no matter. The portrayal of trial-as-tapdance is one of the most brilliant send-ups of the legal system ever. (See Robert Abrams' review of Chicago)

Richard Gere in Rob Marshall's CHICAGO. Photo by David James

Catch Me If You Can: The Romance of Frank Abagnale, Sr.
FBI agent Carl Hanratty's (Tom Hanks) pursuit of outlaw impostor Frank Abagnale Jr. is for all intents and purposes one big dance. Frank Jr. leads; Hanratty follows. For most of the film, Frank Jr. is the more agile dancer, always staying one step ahead of his partner. So where did he get these skills of nimble movement? One might attribute it to genetics. Apparently his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) was one heck of a dancer. Toward the beginning of the film, we learn that he won his wife Paula's heart at a dance in a French village. He takes great pride in telling his son the story, and romantically dips Paula as he relives the moment he fell in love. Yet, the dip foreshadows his downfall and Paula slipping from his grip. Frank Jr. ultimately takes his own missteps and Hanratty, slow and steady, comes out the victor in this competition.

Do you have any more nominees? Write to the editor and cast your vote!

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