Why Dance Movies Have Endured for Decades

Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke is a serious and acclaimed director, most notably of the serious and acclaimed film Still Life, which was awarded the grand prize at the serious and acclaimed Venice Film Festival in 2006. His "documentary-inflected fictions"—including Still Life, which is about the controversial damming of the Yangtze River—have made him a "master of postmodern discontent," according to the serious and acclaimed New York Times movie critic Manohla Dargis. (Story continued below...)

But when Mr. Jia was asked to name his favorite movies a few weeks ago for a profile that ran in the serious and acclaimed New Yorker, he mentioned ... drum roll ... 1984's Breakin'.

Notably not playing at a theater near you.

Never heard of Breakin'? Missed out, did we, on the break-dancing flick that marked rapper Ice-T's big-screen debut? In this case, it's safe to say that if you've seen any dance movie, you've seen this one: young, poor, struggling kids band together, realizing the only way to escape life eternal on The Streets is to somehow choreograph and stage a dance performance.

What is so alluring—and captivating, and so easily mockable—about the dance movie? Like Coke, its basic formula has barely changed since the days of Fred Astaire. Like the Miracle on Ice, the underdog invariably triumphs, to goosebumps and moistened tear ducts. And like so many conventional genres, it's about to undergo a heavy-handed skewering by the Wayans brothers in the satire Dance Flick.

Here are some reasons why dance movies, from the critically excoriated (Breakin', baby) to the celebrated (like the Oscar- and Tony-nominated Billy Elliot) are easier to love than to hate:

They're the ultimate American dream. Is it feasible, or even comprehensible, that someone who welds steel beams on a construction site would, by night, be a maniac on the floor? As an exotic dancer? With, true to the cliché, a heart of gold? Not in the slightest. And yet, there's still something satisfying about watching Jennifer Beale plod—or plié—steadily toward her dream of attending a tony ballet school. Dance movies like Flashdance are the ultimate manifestation of the Puritan work ethic: there's not a setback that a multiracial, melting-pot, fleet-footed cast can't solve, but like our forefathers, the answer is never just luck. Goals in these movies are always attained through diligent practice and hard work. And all of this is carefully chronicled in the all-important training montage (usually by the barre after hours, with buzzing fluorescent bulbs flickering ominously in the background).

What's that you say? Dancing is illegal out here in desolate rural Utah? No matter! Kevin Bacon and shirred polyester will see us through! Women of normal BMI and moderate turnout can't be in the American Ballet Theatre? Think again, uptight company directors—Jody Sawyer and the rest of Center Stage's cast will prove you wrong. Somebody had a botched abortion, and somebody else's parents are uptight and summer's ending kind of soon? Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey handily solve those problems and more through the power of the pachanga. And the mambo.

Technical skills we can't imitate. It is utterly incongruous and never explained when Gene Kelly lapses into tap dance in his films. He is varyingly a poor Parisian painter (American in Paris), a sailor on furlough (Anchors Aweigh) and a silent film star (Singin' in the Rain). Last I checked, men on those career tracks don't typically keep tap shoes on at all times. But he was one of most brilliant, soaringly athletic dancers of his time—how could you hire him and not showcase that ability? A half century later, you've got Chris Brown. Brown has an almost unsalvageable reputation at the moment, but back in 2007, he appeared in Stomp the Yard for about six minutes before being conveniently killed. His sole duties were to street-dance the hell out of his scenes in a strobed, trip-hopped sequence that takes your breath away with its inimitable intricacy. We've learned to CGI acrobatic thrills so deftly that we'd believe a man in a bat suit could rappel effortlessly between skyscrapers. But there's still a gee-whiz factor to watching someone really, truly, actually do something that you can't.

The allure of an untapped talent reserve. I dare to believe that there's a hidden talent within me, whether to dance or sing or solve Fermat's last theorem, and that unforeseen exposure to a key element will suddenly cause it to burst forth. Kind of like antimatter, or those submersible bathtub pellets that explode into sponge critters. Sure, it takes practice (cue the aforementioned B-roll of sports bras, blistered feet, undone homework and water lifts). But in every dance movie is also the promise of inert talent, poised to be uncovered. Baby had never sashayed to the mambo before she met Johnny, and yet 20 minutes of movie time transform her into freakin' Julianne Hough. Without Johnny, his love and his collection of black muscle T's, she might never have unleashed her suppressed passion and talent for ballroom dancing. And a world without Jennifer Grey in frosted purple eye shadow, cavorting across a low-rent Catskills resort in blousy chiffon … well, that's like a world withoutIce-T-emceed homoerotic dance battles. And nobody—at least, not this body—wants to live in that world.