vulture lists

24 Quintessential Urban Dance Movies

Clockwise from top left: Step Up 2 the Streets, Breakin’$2 2: Electric Boogaloo, Save the Last Dance, You Got Served.

We’re living in a golden age of the urban dance movie: From Save the Last Dance to You Got Served to the Fame remake, out today, the aughts have been littered with low-budget paeans to the joys of talented but troubled inner-city kids leaving it all on the floor and saving the day and reaching their dreams and beating the odds and stepping it up. In honor of what we consider to be one of the most dependably enjoyable subgenres in American cinema, Vulture charts the history of the urban dance movie, from Fame to Fame.

Fame (1980)
Features a loose plot structure for the subgenre: A group of talented kids are followed over four years at the New York High School of Performing Arts — but does include personal tribulations (abortion, loss of faith, illiteracy) overcome via dance (among other mediums) and, of course, an over-the-top finale. Variations on the stodgy, grudgingly-respected arts academy appear consistently over the next two decades.

Flashdance (1983)
A classic in any subgenre. Notably featured the “dancing wet” motif.

Breakin’ (1984)
Lots of themes emerged with this, the first break-dancing movie: street dancers vs. the classically trained, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks love story, and dance-offs. Also, characters named Ozone and Turbo. Still, it’s the sequel that’s better remembered …

Breakin’2: Electric Boogaloo (1984)
… for the subtitle that launched a thousand subtitle jokes. This time out, the gang has to save the teen center! They take a break to dance with sexy nurses and dudes in leg casts.

Beat Street (1984)
A crew of kids in the South Bronx embody early hip-hop culture, with break-dancers, graffiti artists, and one D.J. with, as the Times review put it, “a special gift for the rhymed improvisation that’s called rapping.”

Body Rock
Another break-dancing movie — but the only one that features future soap-opera legend Lorenzo Lamas as the rapping-singing-dancing triple threat Chilly D. What, you’ve never heard “Smooth Talker”?

Fast Forward
This Sidney Poitier–directed flick keeps the community spirit intact, featuring a group of Sandusky, Ohio, teenagers who travel to New York for a shot at the big time. The finale is ”the annual rock-group shoot-out,” the first appearance here of the huge, climactic city-wide dance competition where all bets are off and all things are possible, etc., etc.

Salsa (1988)
The late eighties to early nineties were a fallow period for urban dance movies, with the subgenre regrettably going more niche. After Salsa, there was the …

Lambada (1990)
Apparently, this dance was a big enough craze to inspire two movies, both opening on the same day, with the second being …

The Forbidden Dance (1990)
This time out, a Brazilian princess lambadas her way onto a televised dance competition in order to save the rainforest, or something. Also, don’t do the dance! It’s forbidden!

Swing Kids (1993)
Very loosely based on real events, Swing Kids features a young Christian Bale and co. as German teens in 1939, fighting co-option by the Hitler Youth and trying to save their scene. As these movies go, it’s pretty depressing. The lesson? No art form is safe from Nazis.

Dance With Me
What’s a Vanessa Williams ballroom-dancing movie doing here? Credit goes to Williams’s love interest, an untrained natural (“I’m Cuban, and so of course I can dance”) who infiltrates the uppity formal-dance institution.

Save the Last Dance (2001)
The golden age starts here. Julia Stiles is the ballet dancer with a painful past; Sean Patrick Thomas is the ambitious, streetwise love interest who can supply the hip-hop edge she needs to get into Julliard. Lots of quotably crappy dialogue (“let me see some s-e-x in those h-i-p-s”), a staple.

Honey (2003)
Little seen but widely mocked, this flick has Jessica Alba’s character having to choose between the shady, high-stakes world of music videos and her kindly friends in the old neighborhood, for whom she has to save the community center.

You Got Served
A throwback to the dance-crew battles of the eighties, only with — in keeping with the subgenre’s recent entrants — more intense, ridiculous choreography. The final face-off goes down at the Big Bounce, where the prize is $50,000 and a no doubt life-altering cameo in Lil’ Kim’s new video.

Mad Hot Ballroom (2005)
The subgenre goes highbrow, with an adorable documentary on New York City grade-schoolers prepping for a city-wide ballroom competition.

Save the Last Dance 2 (2006)
Yes, this exists.

Take the Lead
Dangerous Minds in the dance studio, with Antonio Banderas saving a class of imminent dropouts with his sexy, sexy dancing.

Step Up (2006)
Another wrong-side-of-the-tracks love story. Channing Tatum plays a janitor-turned-Maryland-School-of-the-Arts star; Jenna Dewan, the ballerina who loves him.

How She Move (2007)
Heroine Michelle has one chance to get the money for med school: putting it all on the line at illicit citywide competition Step Monster.

Stomp the Yard
The twist is that it takes place in the world of HBCU stepping competitions. But more important, the dance sequences uphold the subgenre’s tradition of ludicrous physical feats, most notably, the lead sliding across the floor on his hands while wearing his recently deceased brother’s fingerless leather gloves.

Step Up 2 the Streets (2008)
Flips things around a bit, with the female lead as the bratty outsider and the male as the institution-approved star. This time it all goes down at underground citywide battle the Streets. The rain-soaked finale is a classic.

Dance Flick (2009)
The ultimate validation: a Wayans Brothers feature-length satire.

Fame (2009)
The remake hasn’t screened for critics, which is usually a bad sign. But could any review capture the brilliance of enjoyably lame dialogue, intense dance-offs, and just plain sweet moves?

24 Quintessential Urban Dance Movies