Scene Spotlight: Best Ballroom Dance Scenes

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This week I’m breaking down scenes from two of Baz Luhrmann’s best movies — Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom. These are both required viewing if you want to write a ballroom dancing film.

I picked these scenes because not only do they advance the plot, but they also have conflict and character development. That’s a tall order– but these scenes manage to accomplish these and more!

Moulin Rouge: ‘Roxanne’ Tango

Not only is this a beautifully choreographed tango, but it also plays right into the parallel subplot of Satine’s night with the Duke.

Here are some of the points this scene accomplishes:

  • Externalizes Christian’s fear that Satine has deceived him, and that she doesn’t love him after all. “Feel free to leave me, just don’t deceive me…” Emphasizing his fear through this sequence ups the stakes and makes her betrayal later in the film that much more crippling. Christian truly believes that Satine doesn’t love him despite their time together because this scene sows the seed of doubt. “When love is for the highest bidder, there is no trust. Without trust, there is no love.”
  • Reflects back onto the love story. Just like the Spectacular, Spectacular production, this narrative thread (almost a subplot of sorts) also serves as a mirror that reflects another facet of Christian and Satine’s relationship. Can prostitutes really fall in love? Why would a woman chose someone without money? Each mirror plays on Christian’s insecurities and seem to make their love that much more breakable and delicate.
  • Increases the pace of this portion of the film and heightens tension. The tango becomes increasingly frenetic as our heroine finds herself in peril. The scene builds and builds, creating suspense through the pacing and the quickening tango steps.

Strictly Ballroom: Crowd-Pleasing Steps

This scene sets up the entire central conflict of the film. Scott wants to do his own moves, moves that aren’t strictly ballroom. But if he does these moves, he’ll let down those around him.

The scene that follows clarifies this conflict, as well as increasing the stakes.

Here are some more things this scene accomplishes:

  • Foreshadowing occurs with the Dad videotaping from the sidelines.
  • The interviews with all the minor characters quickly establish who they are and what they have to gain from Scott’s success.
  • Conflict established between the characters — the competition between the partners when Scott is boxed in, the conflict between Scott and his partner who wants to stay with regulation dance moves, the conflict between Scott and his mother.

Strictly Ballroom: Two to Tango

In this scene, we learn that unless Scott ditches his fancy moves, he will never win the Pacific Grand Prix. The stakes are heightened when it is made clear how much each character has riding on Scott’s success. Scott’s inability to follow their rules is also displayed here.

This scene is not only ripe with tension, but it’s also so entertaining! The clip cuts off one of my favorite exchanges. “What do you want?” “I want Les Kendall to walk through that door and ask me to be his partner!”

A few seconds later, Les Kendall walks into the dance studio and asks Liz to be his partner, which marks the inciting incident: Scott is partnerless, and the Grand Prix is on the horizon.

 

Takeaway

The difference between good ballroom dancing films and bad ballroom dancing films can be determined in how well the dance scenes advance the plot. If you’re writing dance scenes that stray from the narrative, remind yourself of your central conflict and see how you can explore it.

The reason why Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom worked so well is because they were very dense films. There were no superfluous sequences, and often dances were interrupted or weaved with other scenes in order to keep the plot moving.

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