To bop, shimmy, tango, shake, wriggle; movement is the intrinsic lifeblood of the cinema, and from its earliest days it was physical motion that best exhibited the novel technology of the movies. Dance was one of the foremost of those visual pleasures, generally seen as escapist entertainment. This was even more the case as films blossomed into sound and the musical became de rigeur. Initially, dance was stage-bound and limited by heavy equipment required to record its subjects, but it didn’t take very long for song and dance numbers to reach a greater potential, especially under the auspices of talents like choreographer Busby Berkeley, with his dazzling geometric formations of chorines. In the forties, there came the wholesome vitality of MGM’s Freed Unit musicals. With their chirpy songs and rosy-cheeked pictures of good health, it’s difficult to detect any darkness in their depths.
Yet dance, like any art form, has as much capacity to be anguished as it does joyous. And cinema is full-to-bursting with instances where dance communicates pain and terror. Little illustrates this better than Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and this year’s remake by Luca Guadagnino. Both horror films focus on an American girl against the backdrop of a mysterious European ballet school that hides the demonic and supernatural within. In the original, Jessica Harper’s Suzy suffers fainting spells and a strange illness when she tries to dance, but Guadagnino is much more interested in the visual elements of the ballet rehearsals. Dakota Johnson, as the new Susie, is put through her paces in high-energy, avant-garde style for the ensemble’s upcoming performance of Volk.
Eventually, dance itself is transformed into something of supernatural horror; twirling bodies are snapped, bent, and broken in a devastating fashion. Theatrical though it may seem, there are real-world precedents and parallels: hysterical frenzies, epileptic fits, and spasms of rage parallel the angularity of dance. Take certain rare medical conditions; dancing plagues of medieval times; marathon dance contests of the 20th century that killed off hundreds through dehydration and exhaustion. Excruciating injury and certain mental health concerns are high-risk issues for professional dancers. Perhaps this is why dance has also served as a perennial metaphor for exploring issues of life, death, obsession, and mortality.
When the metaphoric usage of dance is called upon, Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell’s 1948 classic The Red Shoes comes to mind. Moira Shearer is a ballerina in a play where an enchanted pair of ballet slippers try to dance their wearer to death. Forced to choose between romantic love and a frantic dedication to her performance, the lines between character and performer seem to blur. The Red Shoes’ vibrant, lush color palette gives way to a more nightmarish element in much the same way Suspiria (1977) does, and both are centered upon the ambitious desires ofan ill-fated or self-immolating female dancer.
A pale ghost of The Red Shoes came in the form of Darren Aronofsky’s baroque psych-horror Black Swan (2010). The cartoonishly overblown story sees Natalie Portman’s obsessive prima ballerina losing her mind. She suffers pressure from an intense combination of lust and envy over a fellow dancer (Mila Kunis), their competition becoming combustible under the eye of an exacting, sleazy impresario (Vincent Cassel). In films like these, dance serves as a metaphor for perfectible female bodies and unruly feminine obsessions. A woman’s endless devotion to her art or career lead to self-destruction, so it’s not hugely surprising that most of these iterations of women’s harmful preoccupation with their own art are directed by men.
Similar suffering awaits the beautiful courtesan dancer of Lola Montes (1955), Max Ophüls’ decadent period tale of a notorious woman with a scandalous sexual history. The story is told via a series of flashbacks through the framing device of a circus performance about Montes’ own life. Ruination comes through her ambitious pursuit of career and social status over the more traditional feminine mores of the 19th century. Ophüls’ renowned tracking shots are used here to exceptional effect, gliding through its hallucinatory carnival environment. Lola Montes departs from post-war realism with verve and feverishness, presenting to us an independent, sexually precocious woman whose fame and bodily prowess—both on the stage and in the bedroom—is eventual cause for humiliation and psychic decay.
Dancing to your own demise, whether it’s spiritual or literal, is not reserved solely for films of surreal fantasy. In Sydney Pollack’s thoroughly realist film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969), Jane Fonda and her partner Michael Sarrazin take part in a Depression-era marathon dance contest, pushing themselves to dance for days out of desperation for a cash prize. The result is muted, wilted shuffling that gives way to exhaustion and collapse. Men may be just as likely to die on the dancefloor, but it’s women who bear the tragedy—they surrender to breakdown or self-harm in Pollack’s depiction of this strange historical moment. The pain and exploitation of their public ordeal is a cutting indictment of a rigged game. That it’s Jane Fonda’s failed actress Gloria who sees this with the most brutal clarity seems like no accident.
These films—separated as most of them are by era, nationality, and setting—share something. They carry a fascination with the link between the kinetic movement of dance and the psychological strain of obsession. These dancing women are both masterfully in control of their bodies—conditioning, stretching, rehearsing, pushing—and somehow still beholden to external forces. Whether those forces are the dark waters of the supernatural or the lecherous demands of the men around them, they often pay for their passion. Their ability to perfect their own bodies and shape them into tools for freedom of expression presents a certain threat to the male status quo. Thus the cinematic myth of the doomed dancing woman and her tenuous grip on sanity was born. In Wildean philosophy, “each man kills the thing he loves.” In films about women’s devotion to dance, that killing seems to be a mutual affair.