An old Hollywood story has it that when the legendary Fred Astaire was asked whom his favorite dance partner was — his choices included Ginger Rogers, of course, as well as names like Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell — the ever-gentlemanly Astaire responded, “Gene Kelly.” In considering the challenge of, as Ms. Rogers so astutely put it, having to do everything that Astaire did but “backwards and in heels” (think about what that means for a moment), it occurs to me that there are quite a few contemporary standout performances by women dance partners in film, all worthy of a solo spotlight. To wit:
Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. While it’s true that a remarkable dancer like the late Patrick Swayze could make almost any partner look good, Jennifer Grey’s “Baby” character matched his expertise — hip swivel for hip swivel — in this 1960s-era coming-of-age movie set in the Catskills. Sure, Swayze’s Johnny Castle taught Baby how to dance (among other things) and she taught him how to be a mensch. But mostly, when Baby took a chance and did the lift, women everywhere soared. And sighed.
Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair. When insurance investigator Catherine Bannon (Russo) lures art thief Crown (played by the devastatingly debonair Pierce Brosnan) into her net, things heat up with a dance scene at a Black and White Ball (to which Catherine notoriously shows up in black and red). Their dance can only be described as spontaneous combustion, from her dress, which leaves little to the imagination, to her moves, which leave the saxophones wailing for mercy. And leave Crown growling, “Do you wanna dance? Or do you wanna dance?” The only answer is, “yes.” Oh yes.
Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. John Travolta’s dancing prowess was well known by the time Pulp Fiction came out, so it was no surprise that his not-so-smart, gun-fumbling Vincent Vega was so smooth on the dance floor. But it was Uma Thurman’s Mrs. Mia Wallace who stole the show. Dancing to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” Thurman brought a level of cool to the twist that the dance had never seen before — backwards, sideways, and straight ahead. No heels required.
Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. The movie’s show-stopping finale, featuring bad girls Roxie Hart (Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) on stage, is a tour de force of song and dance for both. It razzles, it dazzles, and it’s brilliant, ending with their shooting the lights out, both literally and figuratively. It’s all that jazz.
Dancing chic to chic indeed.
©2020 Claudia Grossman