January 2013

Get Fit 2013: Dance in Pop Culture

Author: Courtney Hampson

And it was with those six words that teenage girls everywhere were figuring out a way to merengue with bad boy Johnny Castle. But long before our mid-eighties obsession with mid-sixties dancing, we were testing our first extra-curricular activity in pink tights and tutu—that obligatory first spin at ballet. “We’ll sign her up for dance,” Mom and Dad uttered. A couple pliés later, and most girls switch to soccer. I did.

Oh, I danced again. Awkwardly in the jazz class my sister and I tackled together. I still remember the song for our big number, Gloria Estefan’s “Bad, bad, bad, bad boy … you make me feel so good.” Really? We were kids; we didn’t know anything about bad boys or how they make us feel. But, we learned a whole heck of a lot about red and white polka dots with fringe. No one had the balls to point out to Miss Maryanne that we were in New Jersey and should leave the fringe to Texas for crying out loud.

One recital in polka dots and fringe, and I was out. Unfortunately, my school district’s seventh grade curriculum included a nice little segment on square dancing. I’m pretty sure I do-si-doed my partner into never wanting to dance again. And just when I thought the horror would end, I was faced with the eighth grade dance, the freshman dance, the junior prom, the senior ball. Truth be told, that time would have been better spent on a little math SAT prep.

But, it is all in preparation for that big moment: the “first” dance as husband and wife, father-daughter dance, mother-son dance. Believe me, nothing is more awkward at a wedding than watching those first dances and humming along to yet another version of “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” I mean if there was some wind—or any air flow in this VFW hall—you might actually move your feet, no?

But, truly it is the media we have to blame. Dance has been pervading our minds for nearly a century. So You Think You Can Dance is coming back for a tenth season in 2013, and according to their promotional materials, they have been “keeping viewers amazed and inspired as talented dancers skilled in everything from hip hop, krumping and popping to salsa, quickstep and jive compete to be named America’s Favorite Dancer.” My personal favorite is Dancing with the Stars. Are you really a star if Dancing with the Stars is the first acting gig you’ve had in 10 years? I say no.

But, before reality TV killed TV, real stars were singing and dancing their way into our hearts on the big screen. In 1937 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in the musical Shall We Dance. And did they ever; they even danced on roller skates. A decade and a half later, Gene Kelly, despite the bad weather and whilst singing, danced in the rain; but first he showed us his fancy footwork in An American in Paris in 1951.

From 1952 to 1989 American Bandstand aired in various versions and featured teenagers dancing to Top 40 music introduced by host Dick Clark. Musical acts ran the gamut from Jerry Lee Lewis to Run DMC, and said acts (admittedly) lip-synced their latest single live on air. Interesting fact that will get you nowhere in life: Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon holds the record for most appearances on the show at 110.

As disco became all the rage and before John Travolta got really weird, he solidified his Welcome Back Kotter fame and put the white leisure suit on the map, in the 1977 classic Saturday Night Fever. The soundtrack, featuring disco songs by the Bee Gees, is believably (no sarcasm here) one of the best-selling movie soundtracks of all time.

One year later, and still before he went weird on us, Travolta starred alongside Olivia Newton John in Grease. The year is 1959 and life is centered around T-Birds, Pink Ladies and the school dance, set to be broadcast live on television. Turmoil ensues as T-Bird Kenickie brings Cha-Cha as his date and audiences spend most of their time wondering if Cha Cha’s ta tas are going to stay in her dress. Turns out Danny (Travolta) and Cha-Cha were once boyfriend and girlfriend, and they perform together to win the dance-off as Sandy (Newton John) flees in tears. It’s an awful lot of drama for 1959, but all is well in the end as Danny realizes that Sandy really is “the one that he wants” (ooh, ooh, ooh), and they dance off into the sunset.

A few years later in 1983, and in an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt that somehow rocketed to fashion fame, Jennifer Beals “had a feeling” while doing a breakdance routine during a prestigious dance school audition. In fact, that feeling was pretty accurate as the song “Flashdance… What a Feeling” won an academy award that year.

In 1984, we found “Almost Paradise.” Kevin Bacon moves to a small Oklahoma town where dancing is banned. “Wait, wait, wait. Jump back. Are you kidding me? Dancing is against the law?” says Ren MacCormack, Bacon’s character in Footloose. And soon he’s shtupping the preacher’s daughter and quoting Bible verses at town council meetings.

“Aren’t we told in Psalm 149: ‘Praise the Lord. Sing unto the Lord a new song. And let them praise His name in the dance.” Now if anybody else brought their Bible, like I did, will you please turn it into the Book of Samuel, 6:14. ‘David… David danced before the Lord with all his might, leaping and dancing before the Lord.’ Celebrating his love of God and celebrating his love of life. With what? With dancing! That’s all we’re doing here. Ecclesiastes assures us, ‘There is a time for each purpose under heaven. There’s a time to weep. There’s a time to mourn. And there is a time to dance.’ And this is our time! There was once a time for that law, but not anymore. Thank you.”

Amen Ren. Amen! The movie was so beloved, it later made it to Broadway and then … believe it or not … it was remade in 2011 with one of the dancers from Dancing with the Stars. Oh the irony.

Also in 1984, breakdancing continued its run on the big screen in Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (because one just wasn’t enough). I’d venture to guess that all it really broke was the spirit and esteem of all of the middle school boys wearing Capezio shoes and Z-Cavaricci pants to school so that if they stumbled across a rogue piece of cardboard they could break it down on the spot with ease.

In 1987, a pre-McDreamy Patrick Dempsey introduced his entire high school to The African Anteater Ritual dance in Can’t Buy Me Love, after mistakenly tuning into the African Culture channel on television instead of American Bandstand. His dance moves helped to make him the most popular guy in school, if only for a couple weeks.

In the 1990s we were gratefully spared major dancing on the big screen; but Elaine Bennis filled the gap in ’96 with her own little “wacky dance” number on Seinfeld. It seems that the ’90s may have also been a decade of free expression as we got stuck with the Macarena and Electric Slide. Add these to the first dance and the chicken dance, and suddenly who wants to even get married anymore?

2000 brought us three teen movies. (Okay, I was in my 20s, and I watched them too, and I might have one on DVD. Ahem.) Center Stage focused on the struggles of the students of the American Ballet Academy, while Save the Last Dance starred Julia Stiles as a girl who wants to study as a professional dancer, but along the way gets a little side-tracked by the death of her mother and a very cute boy. The sexy Coyote Ugly cast balanced bartending with bar-top dancing, all in an effort to fight the moonlight.

In 2003, Carrie Bradshaw’s Sex and the City love interest was played by ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. He was no Mr. Big, but he made a big impact. Viewers spent an entire season trying to adjust to seeing him in pants, not tights.

In 2012, Park Jae-sang a.k.a. Psy introduced us to “Gangnam Style.” By late December his “style” which is essentially pretending you are riding a horse (gee, too bad no one thought of that before) surpassed the one billion views mark on You Tube and made him a multi-millionaire. I’m still not really sure how or why this is considered a dance, but I know that this pretty pony landed on the Today Show, which basically means that my nieces Erin and EmmaKate could easily score a slot sashaying with Matt and Al one morning soon. I’m serious. I’ve been to their recitals three years running, and subject to a dance party after every family dinner. They definitely have what it takes.

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