Step Up Movie

I. love. The. Movies. No, really! To give you some perspective, I have seen over 30 movies in theaters within the last year. I have seen some movies that are awesome, and I have seen some movies that are not so awesome, but through it all I have started to notice a trend. Dance in film has become increasingly popular! You’re probably thinking, “Yay more - dance in the world!,” But, in my opinion, there’s a bit of problem with this trend. While I appreciate the general attention to the fine arts, there’s something that really irks me; where are all the actual dancers!? 

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The first time I really noticed this was back in 2011, when Black Swan was released. The intention was there, but let’s be honest, it is not Natalie Portman doing those 32 fouettes at the end of that movie. Now, being someone who spent years trying to nail consecutive turns on pointe, I feel like I am going to be physically ill when someone asks me: “How did Natalie Portman learn ballet so fast?” My answer is always the same. "Well, she didn’t." The truth is that most major films that include dance scenes use body doubles. To repeat (what you may already know): dance films do not usually cast real dancers as the main lead. Sure, there are ballerinas in the background, and the stunt doubles are always very talented dancers, but the main character is hardly ever a professional dancer. Still, don’t believe me? Let’s recap.

Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied in a scene from Black Swan - Photo: Fox Searchlight ©
Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied in a scene from Black Swan - Photo: Fox Searchlight ©

In Black Swan, the main character was Natalie Portman, and we've established she is not a professional ballerina (no offense Nat, because I really do like your other movies). In Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence plays the lead, and though the movie was not focused specifically on dancing - I am fairly sure she is not a ballerina. In Suspiria, the movie is very focused on dancing, and main character is Dakota Johnson (yep - the 50 Shades of Grey chick). Save the Last Dance was literally all about a dancer trying to get into her dream school, and Julia Stiles took that role (that final Juilliard audition scene is painful), Ballet Shoes starred actress (not dancer!) Lucy Boynton...the list could go on. And what do all of these ladies have in common? They all had body doubles to do the the more difficult dancing stunts. And it's not just ballet films! Let's talk about La La Land. Sure, Ryan Gosling is handsome, and Emma Stone is charming...but let's be honest - their "visible" dancing wasn't up to par and they used dance doubles for "less visitble" scenes.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

So why don’t directors and casting agents choose real dancers for a dance role on screen? One main consideration is that popularity tends to outweigh talent. A name that is popular amongst the crowds is going to draw in more ticket sales at the box office, and that’s just the honest truth. Even if the dancer was an amazing actress, she would need to be well-known amongst the general public to help draw in revenue. For example, Disney's The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has recently hit theaters, and they cast Misty Copeland for the role of the ballerina. While this is a step forward, one could argue that Misty has become famous enough amongst the masses in order to land the role on the big screen AND is is also important to note that she is not the main character, as ballet is not the focus of the movie.

Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin in The Nutcracker and The Four Realms - Photo: Laurie Sparham
Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin in The Nutcracker and The Four Realms - Photo: Laurie Sparham

It's easy to harp on Hollywood for not casting more dancers in movies. But there's another side of the coin to consider here. Are there dancers who are strong enough actors to carry a film? Sure, casting a dancer can seem to be a risky move - some may argue that the acting in the movie would suffer - we've seen plenty of bad acting by dancers in movies. But there are also many examples of dancers who are strong actors. Let's look at dance classic Center Stage. Zoe Saldana's dance training helped her snag the part; she was such a strong actress that she transitioned into acting full time, landing roles in films like Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy. Sofia Boutella also transitioned from being a successful fulltime dancer to acting in blockbuster movies. Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan totally slayed in Step Up, as dancers and actors! More recently, professional ballerina Anastasia Shevtsova played the main character in the French indie film Polina, Danser Sa Vie. Not only does Anastasia dance beautifully in the film, but she was also nominated for the César Award for Most Promising Actress.

Anastasia Shevtsova in final seen in Polina
Anastasia Shevtsova in final seen in Polina

So what can we conclude from all this? It seems that casting directors need to pick between giving a role to a strong dancer or a strong actor. But I think we can have the best of both worlds! Dancers can also act and truly deliver staggering performances on stage and on the big screen - it's just a matter of finding them.

About the author

Keira Whitaker is a dedicated teacher, performer, and choreographer, who has been dancing for the past 21 years. She recently graduated from the University of California Irvine with a BFA in Dance performance and a minor in English.