While sung storytelling is the pre-requisite for a musical – it is in the name, after all – musicals on stage and screen are often equally remembered for their stunning dance sequences. The movie musical’s storied history spans back to the beginning of sound (how better to show off the new technology than with song and dance?); while musicals have had a popular resurgence with the likes of La La Land, The Greatest Showman and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, the biggest, boldest dance spectacles seem to have hit their high point during the heyday of Hollywood studio musicals – five of the ten entries on this list are from the 1950s! As we have seen, tastes have moved on, but every dance included here remains timeless.
Unsurprisingly, each is jaw-droppingly good, demonstrating years of training and hours of painstaking rehearsal to achieve the celebration of movement and technical expertise that still wows audiences today. That said, while the dancing may be the star of the show, the virtuosity on display, or the numbers’ scale or ambition, is not the only reason these ten scenes are arguably the best on film. The way each was crafted specifically for cinema captures, highlights and frames the dancers, working with the movement to tell the story.
Without further ado, enjoy this non-definitive and wholly subjective collection of the best dance sequences in film history – ranked by chronology.
Top Hat (1935) – ‘Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)’
Fred Astaire is not only the main attraction of his musicals, but he also busied himself behind the camera, dictating how his numbers were to be shot. Breaking with Busby Berkeley’s style, he pioneered the idea of keeping the camera wide and steady during dance numbers, which kept the focus solely on the dancers’ skill with minimal cuts or cinematic tricks. Of course, the talent he was highlighting was his and Ginger Rogers’, and the result was legendary. While all their pairings have their own charm, this bandstand-set dance in Top Hat – where his in-character dance moves and charm slowly win her over – is a special entry. Its call and response format make its flirtatious undertones clear, but neither performers’ strengths or idiosyncrasies are lost, as they move more and more in synchronisation.
An American in Paris (1951) – Finale
Gene Kelly, like Astaire, was keen to keep the camera wide and stable enough to show off his and his company’s technical finesse and coordinated movements. While Vincente Minelli directed An American in Paris, his camera work was very much in keeping with Kelly’s and Astaire’s preferred aesthetics. The film’s lengthy final scene does away with dialogue and meaningful plot, wrapping up the story with an expressive, expansive dance sequence that sees Kelly’s exuberant ex-serviceman chase the vision of his beloved all over a heavily romanticised Paris, showing off several styles of dance along the way. Dramatically, the ending is less than satisfying. Emotionally, it is brilliant.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – ‘Moses Supposes’
Any dance number from Singin’ in the Rain has a claim to the best dance scene in film – Gene Kelly’s iconic titular number, the odd yet superb ‘Broadway Medley’, the exuberance of ‘Good Morning’ – but ‘Moses Supposes’ takes the top spot in this list for its chaotic spirit. Kelly’s matinee idol Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Cosmo (Donald O’Conner) break out into song and tap dance when mocking the speech coach hired to help their transition from silent films to talkies. Like most of the show’s numbers, it is less concerned with advancing the plot than it is with letting its stars have a grand time. On a metatheatrical level, however, tap dancing – which makes its own sound alongside the movement – perfectly highlights the new possibilities of the medium Don and Cosmo are moving into.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) – ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love’
Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ may have taken on more of a life outside the film, but Jane Russell gets an even more brazen number earlier on in the film. When her Dorothy, a showgirl on the look for a fit and handsome fellow, is trapped on a transatlantic voyage with the entire US Men’s Olympics team, she thinks she’s hit the jackpot – but they are too focused on their training to fall for the busty beauty’s charms. Her lament as she sings and dances her way through their aerobics and acrobatics is comic genius. While the dance might not be as complex as many others on this list, the juxtaposition of her pouting and poses with the synchronised, single-minded athletic choreography executed by the men – and the fact that she inexplicably becomes the object of the men’s attentions after being knocked into the swimming pool – make this number a delight.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) – Barn Raising Scene
This musical film has aged interestingly, to say the least: a story about a woman who shows up at her new husband’s home only to find six brothers living there as well, and all they need is a woman – or seven, preferably kidnapped – to turn their lives around, was old fashioned even in its time. Despite this, its high energy dance numbers and catchy tunes make Seven Brides a top guilty pleasure, and the film thankfully and clearly does not take itself seriously. The Barn Raising Scene perfectly demonstrates how this hot mess of dodgy sexual politics manages to be far too fun – so little is grounded in reality. Between Russ Tamblyn’s flips and the romantically choreographed vision of frontier life, it is peak mindless romanticism.
Funny Face (1957) – Bohemian Dance
The Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire vehicle is far from either stars’ most well-known or well-loved film, but according to Hollywood legend it was Hepburn’s personal favourite among the many movies she starred in. She had trained as a ballerina in her youth but was unable to pursue dance professionally due to the malnutrition she suffered during World War II. Funny Face gave her a chance to sing and dance alongside a screen legend, but her solo – when her shy shop assistant-turned-model Jo ends up in a bar in Paris and decides to cut loose with the band – is the highlight. Hepburn’s/Jo’s joy is infectious, and one wishes she had more opportunities to dance on film.
West Side Story (1961) – The Dance at the Gym
Like Singing’ in the Rain, West Side Story has a strong claim to the greatest musical on film and it largely comes down to its dance numbers, any of which could belong on this list. While the Prologue establishes its world and ‘America’ and ‘Cool’ showcase subsets of its cast, the Dance at the Gym – where every single cast member gets a moment to shine – is the clear highlight. As in Seven Brides, Russ Tamblyn shows off his gymnastics as Jet leader Riff, while Rita Moreno and George Chakiris bring sex and style to their duets on the Sharks’ side of the gymnasium. This may not be the first dance battle on film, but its scale, ambition, finely drawn characterisations through movement and dynamic score by Leonard Bernstein all ensure it remains one of the finest.
Funny Girl (1968) – Roller Skate Rag
Dances that rely on specific props or places are a perennially enjoyable subgenre. Barbra Streisand’s irrepressible Fanny Brice perhaps perfects the trope when she brazenly proclaims to the theatre manager risking his reputation to give her a chance that yes, she can roller skate. As expected, chaos ensues. In the vein of ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love’, the Roller Skate Rag is sold by its setting; the dance is not the most complex or impressive, but Fanny’s battle with her skates and fellow dancers establishes the uncompromising gusto with which she pursues her dreams of stage stardom. Fortunately for Fanny and her fellow dancers, only the theatre manager’s ego is bruised, and she quickly abandons the chorus girl life for comedic fame.
Cabaret (1972) – ‘Mein Herr’
While Bob Fosse was not involved with the original Broadway production of Cabaret, he was called in to direct and re-choreograph the film adaptation, leaving an undeniable print on popular perceptions of the piece. Unlike Astaire and Kelly, Fosse takes the camera in close to highlight the minutiae of movement: first a hand, then a foot, then a face is shown in close-up as Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles entertains the Kit Kat Klub and shares her worldview with the audience. Fosse’s camera highlights the hedonism of a Berlin between wars, with all segments of society congregating in the nightclub to ignore political realities for as long as possible. Furthermore, the number immediately establishes Sally as a force of nature on stage, her talent (or lack thereof) meaningless in the face of her conviction.
Chicago (2002) – ‘All that Jazz’
The classic Kander/Ebb/Fosse show’s raucous opening number immediately drops viewers into the steamy, seedy world of gangsters and showgirls. By splitting the song between the perspectives of star performer Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and wannabe starlet Roxie (Renee Zellweger), time, place and conflict are immediately established. Director Rob Marshall adheres not only to Fosse’s choreographic influence but also his cinematic style: tight shots on Zeta-Jones’ and her fellow dancers’ bodies highlight Fosse’s iconic steps while paying homage to the way he framed them. As the legendary choreographer was due to direct his own film version before his death in 1987, it is a fitting tribute as well as an expertly framed opening number.