Top 10 Non-Musicals Featuring Solo Male Dancing
Hollywood is still coming to grips with the male body. The female body it’s “fine” with, in the sense that, for generations, the cis-male-hetero “gaze” defined much of what was on the screen, which meant that overt sexuality and body positivity belonged to the female form. This certainly “streamlined” the aesthetic but it also created little boxes that gendered archetypes were expected to fit into.
Yet by setting up expectations, it enabled filmmakers to defy them. The greatest gift that stodgy, sexist Hollywood ever gave us was to make us angry enough to spit in its face.
We are here to examine the evolution of the image of the solo male dancer as a non-musical symbol. These ten films, ranked by the Flickchart Global Rankings, each feature some non-trivial screen time devoted to a man dancing alone, an image that (given the low and scattered rankings you see here) is an oddity, especially in comparison to its female equivalent.
Some of these films are “dance films”; they are “about” dance in some way, and those are important stories to tell — men who fly in the face of the typical Hollywood socio-sexual “norms” and, in the Dane Cook sense, just gotta dance. Their stories probe the inner life of a man that makes use of his ability to move his body t0 music, an activity which we “all” accept as a matter of course for women, but that for men can come across as a G.I. Jane-level gender subversion.
In other films, arguably the more interesting examples, a man is suddenly there on the screen dancing. Sometimes for laughs, sometimes as a plot device, but always intended as an expression of some strong emotion bursting through walls of desperate frustration. His body’s eruption into movement is unprimed and unexpected, a non sequitur that is somehow intensified by his gender.
In all of these cases we have opportunities to examine the power and strangeness of this trope, and by extension, the unusual roles that dance plays in the gender wars and our culture at large.
Global ranking: 5150
Wins 37% of its matchups
608 users have ranked it 8524 times
0 have it at #1
4 have it in their top 20
Savion Glover is perhaps America’s greatest living dancer, certainly the best practitioner of that loosely-defined subgenre “tap.” His feet embody the simultaneous apogees of technique and expression; his soul connects to the pain and joy of the modern experience by way of his (increasingly niche) art form.
So of course Spike Lee is going to build a film around him. Who better to articulate the Black artistic experience? The story is about a Black network executive (Damon Wayans) who attempts a Producers-like coup over his white superiors by staging a Black-cast minstrel show on live television starring Glover’s lightning feet. He hopes that it will be a big enough failure to make his true feelings about race in the entertainment industry clear.
So of course the show is a smash hit. In the final calculation, Bamboozled reveals itself to be more like a Black Network, laying bare the callow, unbridled power of the medium through the rise and ultimate downfall of one of its victims.
Throughout the course of the film we are treated to several Glover solo numbers, ranging from the sweet to the sickening, some intended to show how artistic expression can lift up the Black soul, some intended to show art as just another stick that the Man can hit with.
It is an exquisite irony that this film, about the inequities of Black- and white-driven performance, will be the only presence of Black dance in our list. All the other candidates of color (that I could think of; educate me in the comments) place too low in the Flickchart Globals to be in the top 10. This is due (no doubt) to some wicked combination of skew/bias in our user base and the fact that Black films frequently are not given the same chance to become as great (and thus high-ranking) as their white counterparts.
9. Magic Mike (2012)
Global ranking: 4841
Wins 42% of its matchups
1696 users have ranked it 27,911 times
4 have it at #1
29 have it in their top 20
Magic Mike is the kind of film that if the poster doesn’t turn you on then it turns you off. This unfortunate packaging (inevitable because of the subject matter) draws attention away from the sensitive story being told.
Channing Tatum plays the title character, an exotic dancer and overall odd-job man who burns for some greater purpose, some opportunity to achieve something like independence and self-determination, in a life that has so far been nothing but hustling. Unlike so many such characters in Hollywood, it is his very talent on the stage that is holding him back.
In the second act we see him perform a solo dance number at the club “Xquisite” which transcends the bare minimum abs-and-grind that the audience thinks they’re there for. With his body he tells us about yearning, and need, and frustration, and explosion, and control, all of which can be very sexy, or very sad.
Mike’s talent is in an art form that lies on the fringes of mainstream culture, with preconceptions and stigma hanging off it like icicles, every time he engages with a “normal.” The tragedy is that it is his very desperation and unsatisfaction that makes him so good at it. As with an almost identical character in The Wrestler, being good, or even great, at something doesn’t mean you’re happy.
But it is the joy and exuberance of Tatum’s performance (both on and off the floor) that prevents this from becoming a heavy soul-searcher like Wrestler, and its best moments are when it’s just him on the screen doing his magical thing.
8. Footloose (1984)
Global ranking: 2623
Wins 38% of its matchups
7853 users have ranked it 70,041 times
7 have it at #1
88 have it in their top 20
Perhaps the ultimate male 80s dance movie, released the year following Flashdance, Footloose also deals with dance as a metaphor for frustration, and it takes the discussion wider to the interaction of dance with social conservatism. What does dance mean to a modern society? What role, if any, does it play in adolescence, sexual and gender dynamics, and the finding of a young person’s place in society?
Okay, it thinks it’s asking these questions, but frankly Dean Pitchford’s unfocused script doesn’t come as close to providing answers as it thinks it does. Chicago-native Ren (Kevin Bacon) moves to SmallTown, USA where he chafes at the town’s prohibition on drinking and dancing. So of course he falls for the daughter of the preacher whose idea it all was. Ariel’s father (John Lithgow) lost a son to drunk driving which in the distorted logic of this kind of thinking, means that dancing must be the real problem, the true gateway drug.
As the second act is peaking, we are treated to a solo dance number by Bacon in an abandoned flour mill, set to “Never” by Moving Pictures. As he dances (somewhat spastically, literally as if no one is watching), he flashes back to his many frustrations and humiliations so far in the film. The implication is that dancing is how this character processes deep emotions (instead of, say, Luke staring off at twin sunsets, or Batman doing CrossFit). The prohibition on dancing is prohibiting Ren from being in touch with those emotions, and thus from being fully himself.
Overall the movie seeks to be another volley in the 80s’ assault against parents, using dance, personified by 25-year-old Bacon and his limby gesticulations, to represent the color and the freedom and the “life” that the younger generation found so lacking in the old. ‘Twas ever thus, of course, but the 80s certainly knew how to make this point with flair.
7. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Global ranking: 2412
Wins 33% of its matchups
7708 users have ranked it 66,462 times
2 have it at #1
88 have it in their top 20
Dance operates on (at least) two different levels in the now-notorious disco melodrama Saturday Night Fever. At one level, it functions similar to how it does in Footloose, as a visual expression of post-adolescent male frustration, a space in which a man finally has all the control and ability and connection that he seems to lack in the other areas of his life.
But on another, more practical level, dance represents a vehicle of escape. For several characters, including Tony (John Travolta), the idea of becoming, in essence, a professional disco dancer, earning money from dance contests and discos who need flashy fellas to fill out the dance floor, seems like a very attractive and very real possibility.
For Magic Mike, dancing was a job that happened to align with certain talents and proclivities. For Tony, dancing was the pinnacle of what it felt like to be himself, and idea of becoming good enough to get paid for it, was literally a dream come true.
Tony’s initial dance in 2001 Odyssey let’s us watch as those dreams and ambitions take root and flower. Everything else in his life (we learn) is desperate and hopeless, doomed to misfortune and victimization by the smog of male egos, including his own. But through the medium of dance, we see his genuine desire to see something, and to be something, beautiful.
6. Billy Elliot (2000)
Global ranking: 2353
Wins 39% of its matchups
8842 users have ranked it 76,653 times
16 have it at #1
200 have it in their top 20
I love that the Globals put Billy Elliot right next to Saturday Night Fever, because so much of what you can say about dance in Billy is similar to what Fever has to say: Dance as a weapon of class struggle, confusion of gender integration with artistic expression, the working classes of two countries ten years and an ocean apart but no better at orienting young men towards a more meaningful life. And Billy Elliot takes place the same year as the release of Footloose. The whole of Western culture was chewing on this question (and is still doing so, hence this article).
Billy (Jamie Bell) is the son of a Northern coal miner who, on his way to a boxing class, stumbles into his destiny as the world’s greatest ballet dancer. Unlike for Tony, Billy’s culture does not embrace dance as an expression of masculinity, nor is a home life dealing with the UK miner’s strike and a mentally ill elder parent very conducive to the pursuit of the fine arts.
But for Billy this is only conceivable path forward, and that is a maddening thought. As the second act peaks, as Billy’s teacher wars with his family, Billy is driven out into the street to dance an almost apoplectic routine, whipsawing between primal childish movements and refined tap technique. All of the incomprehensible, atavistic socio-economic forces that torture his life get compressed and alchemized into this new element.
The fact that Billy is cis-male drives the plot, but interestingly, this does not factor into the dancing itself. While for Tony in Saturday Night Fever dance is (among other things) an expression of his sexuality, pre-pubescent Billy has no sexuality to express, nor really anything that can be called conventional “masculinity.” He dances in spite of his maleness, not accepting or rejecting it, but instead instinctively seeking a third way, an expression of feeling that is unfettered by the gender bullshit that grips so many in society around him.
5. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Global ranking: 1683
Wins 4% of its matchups
86,255 users have ranked it 640,828 times
434 have it at #1
9,489 have it in their top 20
The film’s tag line is “He’s out to prove that he’s got nothing to prove,” and it is in that uncanny valley between pride and shame where Napoleon’s climactic dance lives.
Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) does his best to navigate the intersecting power fields of high school, but even he can see that he’s not winning at the game that everyone seems to be playing. The hero’s journey in this film is him trying to find a game that he can win, and he finally finds it with the help of his similarly outcast friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez). Together they learn that by working together they can lift each other up, to learn to succeed in their own eyes at least and to know that that is enough.
And so when he learns that Pedro must present a “skit” as part of his campaign to become class president, Napoleon sees that he must fall on yet another grenade of public humiliation. Fortunately, for perhaps the first time in his life, chance has given him help instead of hindrance: D-Qwon’s thrift-store instructional dance tape has given him the fundamentals and his brother’s girlfriend’s cousin just happens to be Jamiroquai.
These ingredients combine with Napoleon’s nothing-left-to-lose dedication to this precious friendship, resulting in a solo dance performance that completely wins over the student body. They finally see, as we do, that there is no greater achievement than audacious creativity in the face of impossible odds.
4. Risky Business (1983)
Global ranking: 1615
Wins 41% of its matchups
9168 users have ranked it 84,242 times
4 have it at #1
85 have it in their top 20
The bottom five films in this list feature dancing done by characters for whom dancing has been established as a character trait. The dancing done on screen is somehow contributive to a dance-oriented plot.
But starting with Napoleon Dynamite we have entered into a much weirder realm, where the act of a male character suddenly starting to dance has been weaponized into a metaphor-laden non-sequitur. We must struggle to parse why this thing is happening on the screen; what possible “purpose”, dramatically, could it serve?
In the case of the classic 80s sex comedy Risky Business, when Joel (Tom Cruise) dances in the first act, the point being made is about him breaking out from a shell. He sheds the clothes of his sheltered, conservative, high-achieving life, and he tries on, innocently at first, what he imagines the life of a free and independent adult must be like. Because the ultimate myth of the 80s was that quote-unquote conventional achievement and a quote-unquote good time were mutually exclusive.
Joel’s dance signals to us that the message of the movie will be a reinforcement of this myth. His first taste of “freedom”, that is, disconnection from the normal modes of Western behavior, becomes synonymous with the primal urge to celebrate with music and dance.
Joel is certainly correct that being an adult involves a lot (a lot) of dancing in your underwear, but what’s more important that the fidelity of his imagination is the film’s choice to use dance as a non-verbal signifier of a very specific worldview, one that will drive the plot of this film as well as an entire decade.
3. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Released the same years as Back to the Future, this legendary Tim Burton–Paul Reubens collaboration provides an interesting counterpoint vis-a-vis dance to that film, as well as its picaresque future-echo Napoleon Dynamite.
In Big Adventure, Pee-wee happens into a desert biker bar to use the phone and, wouldn’t you know it, makes faux-pas after faux-pas. The bikers decide that an educational beat-down is in order (culminating in a threat of pseudo-sexual violence from none other than Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson).
But Pee-wee appeals to playground rules of engagement, and with his “last request” proceeds to perform the apotheosis of the “non sequitur dance break.” Whereas Marty cavorts on stage in celebration, Pee-wee dances to save his life. But he does not dance in fear; like Napoleon, it is Pee-wee’s (apparent) fearlessness that wins over his audience.
Pee-wee’s choreography is weird, infantile, and a little disturbing at times (is he repeatedly pointing at his penis and anus?). But he seems to know exactly what he’s doing. He has (we imagine) practiced this very routine in his room jumping on his bed, perhaps with a blanket-cape tied around his neck.
And, just as for Napoleon, it all pays off. The Pee-wee universe obeys the laws that a child thinks should be how the world works. And so of course, dazzling dance moves are sufficient to quell any interpersonal dispute.
Whether Napoleon’s universe behaves the same way is up for debate. Napoleon is an unreliable narrator; the events on the screen sometimes represent what should have happened instead of what actually did. That is, while Pee-wee inhabits a wholly fantastical universe which he happens to fit perfectly into, Napoleon lives in our world, but puts his dreams of a better one on the screen.
Crucially, in both scenarios, there is something magical about a man-child’s dance in a stressful moment, something that seems to hold the power to resolve the unresolvable and achieve the impossible.
2. Love Actually (2003)
Global ranking: 1284
Wins 46% of its matchups
51,753 users have ranked it 423,302 times
272 have it at #1
4683 have it in their top 20
While our #3 pick echoed our #5, #2 echoes #4.
Hugh Grant plays David, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who, after a difficult day in Number 10, turns up the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump” and cuts loose with a boyishly exuberant dance like we would only expect from Hugh Grant. Reportedly, the scene so cringified Grant that he refused to rehearse it, and what director Richard Curtis got on film was Grant jumping in with both feet. The sense of abandon and casting off of rational thought comes through in every frame.
Just like Joel in Risky Business, David, having just been elected, is experimenting with life in a new social role. Like Joel, he dances as a way to feel his whole body being in this place in this moment. What at first glance seems like “childishness” is simply a primal reaction to massive shifts in social and emotional forces. Like Joel, David wears an unbuttoned dress shirt and dances to ubiquitous music of no clear diegetic source.
These men are dancing as a show of resistance to the constricted modes of life they are used to. They dance to remind themselves that they are still their own men.
1. Joker (2019)
Global ranking: 1065
Wins 59% of its matchups
3098 users have ranked it 57,875 times
73 have it at #1
376 have it in their top 20
Throughout all of his various media appearances, it is the horror of the Joker character to pervert anything that should be joyful into an aspect of death. The clown’s painted features become markers for madness. Brightly colored clothes, on him seem like a poisonous butterfly’s dire warning. Laughter becomes a thing to be feared instead of desired.
So it is no surprise that he finds a way to twist dance into yet another expression of the opposite of what it’s supposed to. The Joker is a character who is very much “in his body”; in all his incarnations, he tends to be consistently portrayed as a person who really knows how to own the space. He is a gallavanter, a cavorter, a full-body gesturer; part harlequin, part pixie, part reaper dancing the Danse Macabre.
This is the perfect film to wind up at the top of our list because it features several different modes of dance already discussed. We see Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) dance several times: a few times in the Bamboozled mode, as part of the craft of an entertainer; most famously of course down the Bronx Highbridge steps, a one-man celebration of (what feels like at the time) self-actualization, which is very much in the Love Actually vein.
But the film’s most remarkable dance is in the parks-and-rec public restroom, after Arthur (who has not yet fully become “Joker”) commits his first murders. Accompanied only by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s lightly orchestrated aria for solo cello (the cello uses only two notes throughout), we see our “hero”, finally, after so much pain and humiliation and misfortune, experience something like peace.
But not just peace. “Peace” is a still thing, a neutralization of forces. Arthur feels something that makes him want to move his body, to do something to luxuriate in that moment, to find a way to take joy from the experience of being himself.
And all this cost was three human lives. Arthur’s dance communicates, so much better than in words, that he will do whatever is necessary, pay whatever cost, to feel like this again.
In a sense, this is the Footloose mode; Arthur’s feelings are too profound for words. But while Ren danced in the flour mill out of frustration, Arthur dances in realization, a full-body “Oh hello there, I never thought I’d find you”.
All these men in this list are realizing something, and helping us realize it. Through the medium of dance they learn how to transcend the rational boxes of society and gender and intellectual expression, and these films are the ones brave enough to give them the frame alone as they do so.