“I’m sorry. It’s just… ya’ll are talking about dancing like it’s rocket science or something.”
It would be easy, when asked what my film guilty pleasures are, to say B-movies. After all, they’re kitsch, stupid, badly made, and often hilarious. The problem is, they’re really not a guilty pleasure. They’re interesting, quirky, entertaining and imaginative. They’re also rather trendy to like, and the fact that the focus of my PhD is badfilm makes it clear that, even among academia, they’re increasingly viewed as relevant and worthy of further examination. Today, there’s nothing embarrassing about saying you’ve seen Plan 9 From Outer Space more than you’ve seen Citizen Kane. So here it is, the real truth. My guilty pleasures are dance movies.
This admission, however, comes with one important footnote. My appreciation for the genre does not mean I’m blind to problems. Nor does it mean I’m incapable of distinguishing between the good and bad examples. Step Up is a film somewhere in the middle – neither especially good, nor terrible, it is entirely unremarkable in all respects except one: its legacy.
Made in 2006, Step Up is not the first dance movie to combine street style with ballet. To my knowledge, the first was Center Stage (2000), which is part of my collection and, coincidentally, the first film of its kind that I’d ever seen. One year after Center Stage limped into cinemas before being largely forgotten, Save the Last Dance (2001) more overtly addressed the cultural differences associated with “high” art and street dance. The problem was, however, that Julia Stiles was cast as the lead and asked to convincingly portray a ballerina. The result was mundane in terms of dancing, with routines filled with crafty edits that attempted to disguise the fact that viewers were watching Stiles’ head and someone else’s far more talented feet.
Step Up rectified this error, casting two leads who could both dance. Channing Tatum, in his breakout film role, is Tyler, a poor foster kid who’s fallen in with the wrong crowd. During a bout of vandalism in the Maryland School of the Arts, he nobly lets himself get caught so that his friends can escape. Sentenced to two hundred hours of community service in the school, he encounters Nora (Jenna Dewan, now Tatum’s real-life wife), a privileged rich girl determined to impress everyone at the school’s showcase so that she can continue to pursue her dancing career and win her mother’s respect. Nora’s a conservative dancer, Tyler a loose-limbed freestyler, and together they can inspire each other to greatness.
It’s the plot of what now seems like a million movies. The dance film has become so generic, so formulaic, that it’s barely necessary to reveal the story. Naturally, there’s a subplot about Tyler abandoning his impoverished, ghetto roots, and turning his back on his friends and their criminal activities so that he can become a person of substance. Of course, there’s some feeble reason why the final dance is jeopardised, but it is safe to assume it will all work out in the end. It’s a narrative convention that has been repeatedly exploited, from Save the Last Dance, to Step Up, to Take the Lead (also 2006). But people don’t watch dance movies because they’re expecting a nuanced, complex story; they watch them for the dancing.
In this respect, Step Up is a mere shadow of the films that precede it. Now a hugely successful franchise that has spawned a number of its own imitators, notably the surprise British hit Streetdance 3D, it isn’t until the second movie that the Step Up series truly realised what would get audiences excited. The first film is more conventional, more focused on developing characters and providing a rounded narrative arc. Its dance sequences – presented in now obligatory montage sequences – are often short and non-descript, as they are almost all just rehearsals for the last showpiece. In contrast to the rest of the series, this saves most of its dancing for the finale and, while it may have been innovative at the time, it fails to leave much of an impression when viewed today.
Despite his fame today, Tatum is little more than an adequate leading man; his character is bland and predictable, with a chip on his shoulder and a fear of failure that makes him likeable but rather immature. He is also entirely unconvincing as a teenager – towering over everyone, he looks not a day under twenty-six, which, coincidentally, is how old he was when this was made. His dance moves are messy but it is clear he can move; it goes without saying that they are a distinctly PG version of those displayed in last year’s male stripper fantasy, Magic Mike. As Nora, Dewan can indeed move gracefully and professionally, but neither her routines nor her performance are anything more than decent.
For me, the really great (modern) dance movies are those with truly mind-blowing dancing. Step Up is probably the best of the franchise in terms of acting and narrative, but its soundtrack rarely excites, its dancing is uninspiring, and the carjacking subplot is irritating and stereotyped. While it can be credited with kick-starting one of the most prolific and successful franchises of recent years (the Fast and Furious and Marvel series notwithstanding), it is really the second instalment, Step Up 2: The Streets, that provided audiences with what they really wanted to see: non-stop, constant, innovative dancing.