Still from 'Dirty Dancing'
Vestron Pictures

The Best Dance Numbers in Movie History

From tap to ballroom to ballet, these are my favorite dance numbers in film history. I can always count on these scenes to bring a smile to my face and set my toes to tappin’.
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The golden age of movie musicals might be over, but its spirit lives on in these iconic dance routines. Let’s take a little trip through 70 years of movie history—don’t worry, I’ve got the playlist covered!  These are the best dance numbers in film.

Note: This list is incredibly biased and based on nothing more than my personal preferences. Enjoy!

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

The plot of this musical from 1954 aged really poorly, but it also features one of the best dance numbers ever filmed. In Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the seven Pontipee brothers live on a rundown ranch in Oregon during the frontier days. When the eldest brother, Adam, marries the spunky waitress Milly, the younger brothers all decide that they want wives too.

The “Barn Dance” scene features the Pontipee boys attempting to court the girls of the town—and show off against their townie rivals. Starting off as a straightforward dance sequence, it soon becomes a series of feats of strength related to life on the frontier. Michael Kidd choreographed the rip-roaring number; he also choreographed The Band Wagon, which also makes an appearance on this list.

Rather than casting Hollywood players, Kidd insisted that the producers look for trained dancers. That led to the casting of several professional ballet dancers, and you can see the ballet influence during this number. Costume designer Walter Plunkett used actual quilts as the basis for the women’s costumes, along with distinctive the white petticoats that get shown off in this number.

If you look closely, you might spot Julie Newmar among the “brides.” She would go on to play Catwoman on the 60s Batman TV show. Newmar is the very tall dancer with long, dark hair.

Read More: All the Actresses Who Have Played Catwoman

Stormy Weather

Legendary band leader Cab Calloway is just one of the reasons to enjoy the “Jumpin’ Jive” number from Stormy Weather (1943). The Nicholas Brothers also deliver one of the most iconic tap routines of all time, culminating in a jaw-dropping series of leap-frogging splits on a staircase.

I’ve written about the importance of Stormy Weather before as one of the few Hollywood productions featuring an all-Black cast. The only similar major picture from the era was Cabin in the Sky, which also featured star Lena Horne. She appears alongside Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Cab Calloway, as well as Fats Waller, Katherine Dunham, Dooley Wilson, and—of course—the Nicholas Brothers. Almost all of them had performed at the Cotton Club, and Stormy Weather is the closest thing modern audiences can get to the legendary—and extremely problematic—Harlem hotspot.

Strictly Ballroom

Long before he made Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and Elvis, Baz Luhrmann treated audiences to Strictly Ballroom (1992). This lovely little movie features Scott (Paul Mercurio), the son of former ballroom dance champions who chafes at the idea of following in his parents’ footsteps. Then he meets Fran (Tara Morice), the frumpy dance student who develops a crush on him. Eventually, he finds love and a new passion for dance after learning the paso doble from Fran’s Spanish immigrant family.

The couple defies the rules of the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix, which is all but rigged to preserve the status quo. When they are disqualified, the couple keeps dancing anyway, leading a crowd-pleasing dance number that inspires everyone—even his overbearing mother and depressed father—to join in.

The spectacular costumes and charming dance scenes are the early hallmarks of Baz Luhrmann’s work, but unlike many of his later films, this one has a happy ending. Trust me, if you’ve never seen this movie, it’s great.

Hellzapoppin

The frenetic pace of the infamous lindy hop scene from Hellzapoppin toes the line between breathtaking and nerve-wracking. The scene features Black entertainers dressed as various service workers, including deliverymen, a chef, and several maids. After work is done, they grab instruments and start playing. The music attracts dancers, and the furious lindy hop commences. The pace is so intense that pieces of the dancer’s costumes fly off.

The 1941 musical was an adaptation of a Broadway show, and it’s really hard to describe. The movie is about the making of itself, stuffed with slapstick humor, wizards, and demons—no, really—that takes the familiar trope of “let’s put on a show” from Hollywood musicals and turns it on its head.

The scene above requires zero context because it does not relate at all to the main narrative. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a dance troupe that had been around since the 1920s in one form or another, performed the dance number. It was choreographed by Frankie Manning, one of the godfathers of the Lindy Hop. His long-time dance partner, Norma “The Queen of Swing” Miller, also appears in this scene.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a gem of a movie from the 80s and remains my favorite John Hughes flick (sorry, The Breakfast Club). Have you ever heard the fan theory that this movie is actually a Fight Club situation, with Ferris serving as Cameron’s alter ego? Wild stuff.

During their epic day off, Ferris hijacks a parade float and starts off singing “Danke Schoen” by Wayne Newton. Then he erupts into “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles, and the crowd literally goes wild. Accompanied by a marching band and backup dancers in dirndls, Ferris leads the entire city of Chicago in an epic dance number.

Everybody gets into it, singing along and dancing in a joyous moment of unity. Young and old, black and white, the city is united for one brief moment by a teenage kid playing hooky from school.

Saturday Night Fever

It’s easy to forget that John Travolta was known as a really good dancer once upon a time. Saturday Night Fever (1977)was one of his first film roles, and while the movie itself doesn’t really hold up, his disco scene on a lighted disco floor had a huge influence on pop culture in the 70s. You have to imagine that a lot of guys pulled a hamstring trying to imitate this routine, which draws inspiration from both the Hustle and Cossack dancing.

Saturday Night Fever introduced John Travolta and cemented The Bee Gees as the Kings of Disco. Travolta would go on to make Grease the following year but fell off the Hollywood radar until Quentin Tarantino cast him in Pulp Fiction (1994). The dance scene between Travolta and Uma Thurman had a major impact on pop culture and proved that he still had it. Trust me, we thought that eye thing was really cool in the 90s.

500 Days of Summer

Okay, is this technically the best choreography ever? Not really, but the dance number from 500 Days of Summer (2009) always makes me smile. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character, Tom, has just met the girl of his dreams and everything seems to be going his way.

Set to the tune of Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True,” this dance sequence plays with every trope from the history of musicals, including a marching band and an animated bluebird that briefly lands on his hand. This scene makes me sad that the rumored Guys and Dolls remake starring JGL and Channing Tatum never got made.

The Band Wagon

Didn’t I promise you another Michael Kidd number? “The Girl Hunt Ballet” is, for my money, way better than the extended ballet at the end of American in Paris. I’ve always preferred Fred Astaire over Gene Kelly, and when Astaire dances with Cyd Charisse, something truly magical happens.

“The Girl Hunt Ballet” is an extended musical number set in a noir world narrated by Astaire. The Band Wagon (1953) was made a decade after the heyday of film noir, so the set and story are intentionally campy and nostalgic. That doesn’t detract from the powerful chemistry between Astaire and Charisse.

The Band Wagon is often eclipsed by Singin’ in the Rain, which premiered a year earlier. It’s one of those musicals that played with the “let’s put on a show” trope. Astaire plays an aging star trying to revive his career. He’s paired up with a spirited ballerina (Cyd Charisse) in a modern musical comedy production of Faust.

If the extended ballet scene looks eerily familiar, that’s because it was the inspiration for Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” video.

Dirty Dancing

For women of a certain age, the final scene of Dirty Dancing is the best dance number of all time. Sure, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” was pure 80s and therefore a couple of decades too late for the movie’s setting. Yeah, the choreography has a whiff of “We made it to the third episode of Dancing with the Stars.” And it’s true that Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray really didn’t like each other.

None of those things change the fact that generations of fans love this movie—and, specifically, this scene. Fun fact: Kenny Ortega, the director of Newsies, High School Musical, and Hocus Pocus, choreographed this number. The screenplay was based on writer Eleanor Bergstein’s experiences at similar Catskills resorts when she was a girl. Bergstein and producer Linda Gottlieb has to fight for several years to get the movie produced. Good thing they persevered!