Genre Studies: How to Write a Ballroom Dance Film

Genre Study

My interest in ballroom dance films stems from the fact that I am a ballroom dancer. When I’m not writing screenplays or interacting with you lovely people, I’m getting my Samba on. Over the past few months I’ve been learning Samba, Waltz, Salsa, Cha-Cha and Rumba. Next on my agenda is the nonsensically fast-paced Viennese Waltz and the energetic Jive.

My writing partner and I are currently writing a ballroom dance film. We’re keeping it under wraps until it’s done, but I thought I’d share what our process looks like and share some of the research we did concerning the ballroom dance subgenre.

how to write a ballroom dance film

The ballroom dance subgenre focuses on partner dances. The ones you see most often include the Tango and the Waltz. Some dances — such as the merengue! — are overlooked in favor of more theatrical dances like the Paso Doble (seen in a great turning point of Strictly Ballroom).

The most successful ballroom movies are ones that not only embrace beautiful world of dance, but have a strong emphasis on using the dance sequences to develop characters, establish conflict and advance the plot. Don’t let your characters break out in dance for the sake of dance!

 Notable Ballroom Dance Movies

In order to write a ballroom dance movie, it’s critical that you’re aware of what’s come before you so you can create something new instead of retreading old cliches. There are a lot of movies that populate this happy little subgenre, from kitschy thrillers like Assassination: Tango to documentaries such as Mad Hot Ballroom.

I’ve picked out four movies that will help you in your quest to quickstepping right into your screenplay. Here they are!

Strictly Ballroom (1992)


I devoted nearly an entire post to the critical darling that is Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom. The film is flashy, gaudy, and brilliant. The characters are fantastic and each dance sequence advances the plot in an engaging way.

Strictly Ballroom is an excellent example of a ballroom dance film for several reasons:

  • The dance scenes are weaved into the plot in a realistic, comedic way
  • The premise is constructed perfectly
  • Great characters that have goals and arcs

Strictly Ballroom is considered the best film out of Luhrmann’s Red Curtain ‘Trilogy’ (Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet being the other two films) although I think the tango scene in Moulin Rouge is skillfully done.


Shall We Dance (1996)


This Japanese film was released on the heels of Strictly Ballroom, and served as a critique of the restrictive Japanese society. It’s about a Japanese accountant on his way home from work who catches sight of a beautiful woman in a dance studio. He enters into the world of dance after visiting her studio, and he finds himself in the expressiveness and freedom through dancing the Rumba.

This movie was an award-winning hit in Japan, and the 2004 American remake met success as well.

Shall We Dance is a warm, entertaining movie with lovable characters who undergo great transformations. Take note of how the growth of the characters develop over the entire movie, because their insecurities and attitudes toward dancing anchor the entire film. The dance scenes are less flashy than anything you’d see in Luhrmann’s films, but the scenes emphasizing the perilous quickstep add a sense of suspense whenever the characters step on the dance floor.


 The Forbidden Dance and Lambada (1990)

These two films serve more as a cautionary tale rather than as examples.

Back in the ’90s there was a lambada dance craze. Lambada is a dance that originates from the Brazilian dance cumbio, and is nicknamed “The Forbidden Dance.” Why? Well, this partner dance is known for being quite dirty– although even the most racy lambada moves pale in comparison to what you’d see at any Los Angeles club.

Anyways, two rival movies about the Lambada premiered on the same day. The Forbidden Dance is about a princess of a Brazilian tribe who comes to LA to bring attention to the deforestation going on in her homeland, and decides to enter a lambada dance competition to bring attention to herself and her cause. (The script was written within in ten days, if that says anything about the plot.) The other movie, Lambada, was considered the better of the two, and the plot of that movie is something along the lines of illicit-student-teacher-romance except the teacher lives a double life and outside of academia he dances the lambada.

Takeaway: If you’re going to devote an entire movie to one style of dance, you might as well pick the lambada. It’s obscure enough that’s it’s not cliche (audiences have seen tangos and rumbas grace the big screen many times before, but not the lambada!) and it’s exotic and appealing. However, the rushed production led to the downfall of these movies — if at all possible, spend a little more than ten days on your screenplay. Story always comes first, even with films such as these that seem to be automatic crowd pleasers from the get-go.



Scene Spotlight: Best Ballroom Dance Scenes


featured photo by peptic_ulcer via Flicker CC 

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