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A Spotter's Guide To Modern Dance Movies

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When Step Up 3D came out a while back, we published this guide to the recent spate of dance movies. With this week’s release of Step Up 4: Miami Heat, we thought we’d update the guide to include this new contender and other recent offerings. Since many of these films share a considerable amount of creative DNA, and since not everyone can remember which is which, we bring you a cut-out-and-keep guide for when you just gotta (watch) dance.

Starring: Channing Tatum, Jenna Dewan, Rachel Griffiths

Do I know these people? Tatum’s gone on to success in the likes of Dear John, G.I. Joe and the rather more highly acclaimed likes of Stop-Loss and A Guide To Recognising Your Saints. Dewan appeared in Take The Lead (see page 3) and also married Tatum. Griffiths you know from Six Feet Under, Muriel’s Wedding and the rest.

So what’s the plot? Tatum plays Tyler Gage, a street dancer and troublemaker who lands community service at the Maryland School of Dance after breaking in one night and vandalising the stage. Why doesn’t he get the usual kind of community service picking up litter along a roadside? Presumably the school is short on biceps and need to fill some sort of quota. There, he is called on to fill in as the partner of goody two-shoes dancer Nora (Dewan) after she spots him busting moves in the courtyard during a break from the mopping and dusting.

Heroically, she sees past his mumbling delivery and ugly overalls to the rock-hard tasty abs good soul within and, inevitably, love and killer moves follow. He teaches her to loosen up and enjoy life and she, er, looks really pretty and makes him a bit more responsible just by existing. Something like that, anyway. Cue a big final dance showcase for a place, in dance university or whatever, and a happily ever after (well, they’re apparently together at the start of the next film).

And the point? Class differences can be overcome if you’re both really, really, ridiculously good-looking.

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? Typical line: “Just remember that loser’s headed nowhere fast and you know it. Don’t let him take you with him” – jealous male dance student.

Starring: Briana Evigan, Robert Hoffman, Adam G. Sevani

Do I know these people? Evigan was in Sorority Row and Subject: I Love You. You may remember Hoffman from Aliens In The Attic. Or Shrooms. And Sevani you’ll spot in Step Up 3D (Spoiler! He survives this one!) but that’s about it.

So what’s the plot? Evigan’s Andie (no second name) is from the same “hood” (as the vernacular has it) as the first film’s Tyler Gage, and dances with an underground crew called the 410 who film their exploits and post them online. It’s trendy, y’see, because in 2004 online video was something of a buzzed about phenomenon. Of course, this film came out in 2008, making happy-slappy dancing – or whatever you call it – less cool, but never mind.

Anyway, a visiting, baggy-trousered Gage beats Andie in a spectacular dance-off, and in forfeit she has to go to dance school (in our day a likely forfeit was downing a pint. Clearly things have moved on). There, the demands of Andie’s new schedule cause her to be expelled from her ‘crew’, causing Andie and new rich-boy admirer Chase Collins (Hoffman) to form a new crew and win dance competition The Streets themselves. What’s The Streets? Why, it’s the super-top-secret dance competition that everyone’s been talking about the whole way through the film.

And the point? Class differences can be overcome if you’re both really, really, ridiculously good-looking. Also, while your lower-class friends may ditch you at the first sign of competing priorities, you can rely on the better-bred (if mildly eccentric) to stand by you.

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? Typical line:* “You realise with those competitions you are risking everything?!”* – Academy director Will Kemp. He’s an actual dancer, y’know.

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Rob Brown, Alfre Woodard

Do I know these people? Banderas is, of course, proper famous, as is Woodard (Primal Fear, Star Trek: First Contact). Brown starred in Finding Forrester, Coach Carter and most recently HBO series Treme. More amusing for fans of forgotten characters, Ramos here is played by Dante Basco, aka “Ru-fi-ooooo” from Hook! Yes, 15 years later he was still playing a teenager.

So what’s the plot? Ballroom dance teacher Pierre Dulaine (Banderas) sees teenager Rock (Brown) vandalising a car belonging to school supervisor Augustine James (Woodard). Strangely, rather than running away from the scary hoodie or tooling up to dispense vigilante justice, Dulaine goes in to James’ school to offer to help with the clearly troubled students.

James assigns Dulaine to the detention class (and gives him about five minutes’ life expectancy), and he decides to teach these ruffians dance in an effort to encourage them to all get along. After a rocky start, the class begin to see a value in strictly ballroom – particularly after a smokin’ hot tango from one of Dulaine’s regular students – and agree to enter a city-wide dance competition. With some totally heavy social problems – attempted rape, prostitution, petty theft and murder – this is a little less fluffy, but it loses points for being massively different from documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, which is based on the work of the real Dulaine but reveals him to look nothing like Banderas. Oh Hollywood, you and your habit of prettying people up. Next you’ll be telling us that her from Dangerous Minds didn’t look like Michelle Pfeiffer.

And the point? Inner city violence could be substantially reduced if we all just learned to tango.

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? Typical quote:*“Why you gotta be such a ballroom weirdo?”* – Classmember Kurd, talking to Mr Dulaine

Starring: Rutina Wesley, Dwain Murphy, Tre Armstrong

Do I know these people? Wesley’s gone on to a starring role in True Blood, but the rest have remained in obscurity.

So what’s the plot? Three years ago, Raya (Wesley) got a scholarship to a big fancy private school (or, for the English, public school), but now following the death of her sister from drug addiction, she’s returned to public school (or, for the English, a bog-standard comp). Seeking a way to fund her ambition to work as a waitress in a vampire-infested Louisiana become a doctor, she joins a “stepping” crew and prepares to compete in the Stomp Monster competition. But with her socio-economic peers proving somewhat hostile to her ambitions, and her otherwise-all-male crew reluctant to (metaphorically) embrace a girl, it’s all uphill.

Cue quite a lot of fighting to join crews, getting chucked out of crews, getting back into crews and general stressing before the foot-stomping finale.

And the point? Stomping is a realistic way to fund medical school.

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? *Typical quote: “It’s funny, isn’t it, how one moment can change a million after it.”* – Raya gets philosophical.

Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Nichola Burley, Richard Winsor

Do I know any of these people? Well, Rampling you should know from every cool film ever. Burley appeared in, er, Donkey Punch, and Winsor’s more of an actual dancer than an actor. In the background, British telly fans may spot such “Britain’s Got Talent” stars as Diversity, George Sampson and Flawless.

So what’s the plot? Any echoes of Step Up are purely coincidental, we’re sure. Carly (Burley) is a Northern lass with a job delivering sandwiches in London, who manages to impress ballet school headmistress Helena (Rampling) with her mad dance skillz (we understand that’s the technical term). Carly wants to win the StreetDance competition, but needs somewhere to rehearse. Helena offers her the space she needs – on condition that she incorporate snotty ballet students into the routine (Helena’s hoping to rekindle their love of dance, presumably killed by years of balancing on their toes and dieting).

As you may have guessed by now, things don’t go so smoothly between the aforementioned snotty ballet dancers and the keepin’-it-real street dancers. But soon everyone’s respecting everyone else’s talent, love is blossoming between Carly and hottie principal male dancer Tomas (Winsor) and feet are flying out of the screen, straight at your head, in glorious 3D.

And the point? Anything Step Up can do, Simon Cowell can do too. Hug a hoodie.

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? *Typical quote: “Letters of concern, worried that your street-dance experiment is unsettling their daughters’ training.”* – Things don’t go smoothly for our daring dance school headmistress.

Starring: Jessica Alba, Mekhi Phifer, David Moscow

Do I know these people? Two of them anyway – Alba and Phifer have had careers unblemished by appearing here. Moscow, on the other hand, you’ll only know from a bunch of films you haven’t seen. Last of the Ninth? Jack the Reaper? Well quite.

So what’s the plot? Honey (Alba) is a paragon of virtue. She’s gorgeous, she’s a sheet-hot dancer and choreographer and she spends most of her time either rehearsing or mentoring neighbourhood kids. Puppies gambol at her feet and she’s generally surrounded by a cloud of butterflies and shaded by rainbows as she walks down the street. One day, big-time record producer Michael Ellis (Moscow) offers her a job dancing in one of his videos – and Honey’s sheer brilliance soon transforms this job into a career in big-time music video choreography. Everyone loves her.

Aha, but that everyone includes Ellis, who’s confused love and sexual harassment and hits on Honey. She, being pure at heart and having a little frisson of attraction for her buddy Chaz (Phifer), turns him down, whereupon the evil Ellis fires her and probably kills a kitten (offscreen). Honey gets back to her roots, refocusing on her neglected community dance centre, the kids, and the lovely Chaz. But all’s well that ends well, when Missy Elliot turns up at the big dance fundraiser to demand that Honey work for her as well. Unicorns leap in excitement!

And the point? The saintly can prosper in the entertainment business.

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? Typical quote: “Honey, you got skills. And that's gonna take you places.” – Honey’s best friend Gina offers her assessment.

Starring: Columbus Short, Ne-Yo, Meagan Good

Do I know these people? Short recently turned up as one of The Losers and in the Death At A Funeral remake; Good appeared in The Love Guru (let’s draw a veil over that) and Saw V, and Ne-Yo is a popular recording artist, also to be seen in the George Lucas-produced Red Tails.

So what’s the plot? “Krumper” DJ (Short) moves from LA to Atlanta after the krumping / gang-related death of his brother Duron (Chris Brown). There, at Truth University, he falls foul of the Mu Gamma Xi (no relation to the Incredible Hulk) steppers after he runs through one of their routines and hits on the girlfriend of their arrogant leader Grant (Darrin Henson). Before you can say “punk-ass fool” DJ joins the rival Theta Nu Theta fraternity and signs up for history tutorials with the aforementioned girlfriend, April (Good).

But when the Gammas bring the school’s attention to DJ’s (unjust) criminal record, getting him suspended and barred from “stepping”, all seems lost! Only momentarily, however, with DJ finally getting the girl, connecting with his strict uncle and aunt, winning the respect of the college Provost and of course steppin’ all over all comers – and especially all Gammas – in the big competition.

And the point? Never trust a fraternity named after a kind of radiation.

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? Typical quote: “I done already schooled you once homeboy, how many lesson you wanna learn?” – We’re not sure what this means, but it sounds aggressive.

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tessa Thompson, Riley Smith

Do I know these people? Winstead appeared in Death Proof, The Thing remake and was Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Thompson you may remember from her role as Jackie Cook in Veronica Mars, while Smith appeared in season 3 of 24, but probably remains best-known for his role in Eight-Legged Freaks. So not very well-known then.

So what’s the plot? Lauryn (Winstead) just wants to dance, and auditions for dance school with a hip-hop routine. But no! Despite everything we’ve learned from every other dance movie about hip-hop being the way in to the hearts of these stuck-up dance academies, she’s rejected and told that they were hoping for a more “sensual and feminine” routine – as if any admissions board would ever say such a thing in the litigious American landscape. Why, they’d be up on sexual harassment charges before you could say “burlesque”.

Lauryn doesn’t want to go home and admit her failure, and thanks to friendly waitress Dana (Thompson) gets a job doing the accounts at a burlesque club. Soon she’s up on stage doing sexy routines that never involve actual stripping, and winning the affections of friendly barkeep Russ (Smith). On finding out that her brother back home is in financial difficulties, however, and that he disapproves of her cool new job, Lauryn heads home to sort out his accounts – but almost immediately comes back to pursue her dream and a happy ending. Hooray!

And the point? Accountancy is sexy!

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? Typical quote: “It’s rooted in burlesque, but the kind of dance we do goes way beyond the traditional stuff.” – Yes, right into the realms of PG-13.

Starring: Omarion Grandberry, Marques Houston, Jennifer Freeman

Do I know these people? Almost certainly not. Further down the cast list, however, is Robert Hoffman, who clearly buffed up his dance skills (and buffness) to land the lead in Step Up 2 The Streets.

So what’s the plot? Dizzingly complex by the standards of the genre, this sees David (Grandberry) and Elgin (Houston) lead a near-unstoppable dance crew on the streets of Los Angeles. Like something out of Michael Jackson’s Bad video, they roam the streets, taking on any Wesley Snipes wannabes rival dance crews that they find. After losing a double-or-nothing bet with a rich Orange County crew, however, and after Elgin is beaten up and robbed while David starts dating Elgin's sister, the crew fractures under pressure – and just before The Big Bounce and its $50,000 prize too!

It will amaze you to learn that they do indeed bounce back, coming together in the wake of tragedy in a last-minute dance-off against that OC crew (Mischa Barton not included) following a tie in the final. And – you’ll never guess – they win it too! Just as the drug dealer they’ve been running errands for goes to prison! Hooray!

And the point? The Wire missed a trick by not including more breakin’.

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? Typical quote: “You're just mad... 'cause tonight you suckas got served!" – Dancer Wade to defeated opponents, in the repartee typical of the milieu

Starring: Rick Malambri, Adam G. Sevani, Sharni Vinson

Do I know these people? Well, Sevani appeared as Moose in Step Up 2 The Streets, so he’s a returning character. While you might think you know Vinson, you’re probably just confusing her with the previous film’s Evigan. She did, however, appear in the DTV Blue Crush 2.

So what’s the plot? Luke (Malambri) has a shelter/warehouse where he trains with his crew, but he’s on the edge of bankruptcy and faces losing everything. His only hope lies in – you’ll never guess – an underground dance contest with a huge cash prize! But to win the World Dance Jam, he’s going to need the help of mysterious (and beautiful!) new girl Natalie (Vinson) and Step Up 2’s Moose (Sevani), now a college student torn between dance and his studies and the friend (Alyson Stoner) he may or may not have feelings for.

But it won’t be that simple, oh no! Far from being a poor girl in need of Luke’s help, it turns out that Natalie was planted as a mole by her rich, nasty brother, who runs a rival crew. Was she ever sincere in her love for Luke? (Well, yes, obviously) Will they win the contest and save the shelter? (Well, yes, obviously) And how many feet will fly at our faces in 3D? (All of them)

And the point? If it’s in 3D, there’s no such thing as enough high kicks towards camera.

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? Typical quote: “I was born from a boom-box" – Virtually everyone, as this is the motto of the film-within-a-film that Luke is making about his crew.

Starring: Katerina Graham, Randy Wayne, Melissa Molinaro

Do I know these people? Graham’s best known for TV’s The Vampire Diaries; you may remember Wayne from his Dukes of Hazzard prequel (No?) and Molinaro appeared in a Dolph Lundgren movie called Command Performance.

So what’s the plot? Maria (Graham) is just out of juvenile detention for a crime she didn’t really commit, and where she apparently spent her time – and we’re not kidding – break-dance fighting her fellow inmates. Now she’s working in the dance studio founded by the now-absent Honey of the first film (Alba does not return) and staying with Honey’s mother, trying to get her life back on track. Maria’s torn between her old crew, reality-show winners led by no-goodnik old flame Luis (Christopher ‘War’ Martinez) and her new one, led by slummin’ it college student Brandon (Wayne). Can she live up to the original Honey’s goody-two-shoes standards, win the contest with the right crew, find love with someone of a different socio-economic background and generally win at life? You’ll have to watch and see.

And the point? If you get sent to prison, make sure to brush up on your krumping first. That’s what you’ll be judged on.

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? Typical quote: “I’ll dance with you on one condition: we get on Battle Zone and beat the 718” – Maria presents the plot in a nutshell.

Starring: Falk Hentschel, Sofia Boutella, Tom Conti, George Sampson

Do I know these people? Sampson was very successful on Britain’s Got Talent, and Boutella was the star of that posthumous Michael Jackson song's video. Conti’s a star from way back, of course (see Shirley Valentine, for instance) but lead Hentschel is more or less unknown.

So what’s the plot? Ash (Hentschel) suffered a humiliating defeat when he attempted to battle dance crew Invincible single-handedly. Really, their name should have been a clue - and yes, their leader is called Vince. Determined to do better next time, Ash and new manager Eddie (Sampson) tour the instantly-recognisable national monuments of Europe to recruit an unbeatable crew of their own.

They promptly ignore said dancers in order to focus on salsa siren Eva (Boutella) and meld the two forms of dancing. She reluctantly agrees to tutor Ash, and romance blossoms (we know; you’re stunned). But with Ash suffering cold feet when it comes time to actually use those salsa movies, will it all go horribly wrong before coming right in the end? (Yes) Cue romantic complications, a baffling melange of accents, a Parisian showdown that takes place in a Roman arena in Nimes (other end of France, guys) and some of the same-old plot twists you’ve seen in every other film here. Also, in 3D!

And the point? Looking like a beefier Will Young is not enough to get you ahead in life. You’ll need a really hot girl who can teach you a new form of dancing as well.

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? Typical quote: “We could come up with a fusion of Latin and street” – Ash has a massively original plan.

Starring: Ryan Guzman, Kathryn McCormick, Peter Gallagher

Do I know these people? Guzman you may recognise from his modelling work; McCormick may be familiar to Americans who watch So You Think You Can Dance, and Gallagher, of course, starred in lots of things including The OC.

So what’s the plot? Sean (Guzman) is a waiter by day who leads a crew called The Mob, staging flash dance mobs (not to be confused with flashdance mobs, which involve more legwarmers) around Miami and putting the resulting videos online in an attempt to win a You Tube competition by getting more views than their rivals (mostly cats). Emily (McCormick) is a would-be professional dancer trying to get into a respected modern dance company. The two meet, they dance, sparks fly!

But when a property developer – who, gasp, also happens to be Emily’s dad – threatens the Mob’s local community, the two team up to try to stop him (and incidentally persuade him to support Emily’s career choice, or something). Cue politicised flash mobs of dancers, who seek to derail a billion-dollar deal with the power of brightly-coloured clothes and athletic jetées, as well as some help from a few returning faces from the franchise’s history. How can our business mogul resist? These kids are using bungee rope as part of their routine, for goodness sake! What’s capitalism next to that?

And the point? Occupy would have gotten further with better choreography.

Viewer's checklist:

'Street' dance meets ballroom or ballet? Class differences overcome? Rich kid and poor kid fall in love? Final dance showcase? Typical quote: “Enough with performance art; it’s time for protest art” – Sean gets political.