Video Essay. Dance the Dance of Death

Dancing isn't always an act of joy: The cinema is full of macabre reminders that often our bodies are not our own.
Luís Azevedo

Dancing is an expression of joy. It goes well with an agreement of eternal love between two—preferably more—people. It’s perfect to celebrate the newfound manhood of a young Jewish boy. In some particularly water-deprived spots of the world, dancing is also the required and necessary course of action during a draught. For some, myself included, the idea of personal members flailing, heads bobbing, and muscles convulsing to the tune of Bruno Mars' “Marry You” is synonymous with pain, suffering and horror. It’s with glee that I’ve compiled this selection of accurate portrayals of dance scenes in the history of cinema.

I imagine that when filmmakers take the beautiful act of bodies in motion and pervert it to show something terrible, they’re trying to tap into the feelings responsible for the fake foot injuries plaguing the my history of wedding attendances. The fear is that if I succumb to the pressures of uncles, cousins and nieces, abandon my seat and join them at the scaffold, which they insist to call “ the dance floor,” my body will betray me. The left foot will go right when it should go left, the right arm will sag when it's supposed to lift, I'll cha twice instead of thrice, I’ll boogie when I should woogie. The bodies of these dancers of the macabre do exactly what I fear: they act of their own accord. In the most literal example in The Fits (2015), Toni’s seizures morph into dance before our eyes, her body spasming beyond her control. The child dancer of Possession (1981) is unable to stretch her body and mind any further, while her teacher loses control of her body when a child flees her womb. The ballerinas of Black Swan (2010) or The Red Shoes (1948) are controlled directly by external forces, while the men in Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Jacob’s Ladder (1990) are pawns in someone else’s tango.

The uncontrollable dream dancer of Eraserhead (1977), the unwanted touching in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), the sexual awakening of Raw (2017): these are all poignant reminders that our bodies are not our own, that we have limited control of what happens to our head, and feet, and hands, especially when Bruno Mars is playing at a second cousin’s wedding.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


VideosVideo EssaysNewsletter
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.