Top Five Dance Scenes in Historical Costume Movies

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5. The Dance at the Atlanta Bazaar in Gone With The Wind (1937)

No list would be complete with out with recently widowed Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) shocking the socks off the Atlanta elite by leading off the Virginia Reel. This clip packs a two-fold punch: First, is the shocking (shocking!) auction of ladies to the highest bidder (but because it’s for war bonds and Melanie Wilkes says it’s OK, it’s cool). Then there’s the fact that Scarlett is barely into her first few weeks of mourning after the death of her first husband Charles Hamilton, and rather than be horrified that Captain Butler would consider pledging $150 in gold to dance with her, she practically jumps into his arms at the suggestion. Crepe skirts go flying, there’s fainting, and of course witty banter.

 

4. “Play a Volta!” in Elizabeth (1998)

Time has mellowed my ire with Elizabeth and I’m now quite able to sit back and enjoy Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Elizabeth I. In this scene, Elizabeth and Dudley (Joseph Fiennes — remember him? What’s he been up to lately?) barely manage to contain their attraction for one another while dancing the exotic Spanish dance that was Elizabeth’s favourite.

 

3. Elizabeth & Darcy’s War of Words in Pride and Prejudice (1995)

This is the gold standard face-off set to music and choreography that has been recreated hundreds of times in movies before and since, but I still think it’s my beloved BBC Pride and Prejudice (1995) that gets the tension between Lizzy and Darcy as mortal enemies pitch perfect. He’s doing Lizzie a favour by deigning to dance with her; she’s having none of it. They spar fiercely with words all the while keeping perfectly in step with one another. Two bright stars, seemingly polar opposites, attracted and repelled and yet, in total sync. I still love Darcy’s expression as he sarcastically utters the line, “This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I’m sure.” These are not star-crossed lovers. These are two people who can barely contain their contempt for one another. It’s perfection!

 

2. Kitty’s Waltz in Anna Karenina (1997)

One of the greatest scenes ever shot on film, in my humble opinion, is Kitty’s (Mia Kirshner) entrance into the ball. Unfortunately, the only clip I could find of it online is overdubbed in some language, so just try to tune it out and focus on how glorious this entire shot is.

 1. Jane & Mr. Wisely Dance in Becoming Jane (2007)

Oh God, what can I say about this dance scene other than it is perhaps my all time favorite dance scene ever? Jane (Anne Hathaway) accepts a dance with her suitor, Mr. Wisely (Laurence Fox), whose attempts to woo her are putting her at odds with her feelings for another gentleman. I mean, we’ve all been there right? You’re at the dance with the guy you don’t really like, but who asked you and you felt you had no other choice but to accept, when all you’re really doing is scanning the crowd for that guy. The one you’re dying see. And, of course, he’s not there, so you make the most of it, as best you can, but your heart just isn’t in it … The resignation in Jane’s body language, the yearning of the music, the awkwardness of Mr. Wisely’s struggle to start up a conversation, and then the seamlessness in which it all changes … I love this scene, so you’ll just have to watch it.

 

I know there are more dance scenes out there, but these are just my top five. What’re yours?

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

29 Responses

    • mmcquown

      My fave romcom. A bit of comedy, a bit of mystery, a bit of romance…and yes, that’s a great paso doble. I did one for an exhibition when I was at Arthur Murray.

      Reply
  1. Mr Elton

    Great post! It’s a delight to actually dance ‘Mr Beveridge’s maggot’ (the Lizzie & Darcy-scene). Might add one dance to the list: the tango-sequence in Scent of a Woman.

    Reply
  2. Charity

    Emma and Mr. Knightley in the Paltrow version of Emma. I love how elegant they are together.

    I also love both dance scenes with Keira Knightley (… I know) in the P&P remake and in Anna Karenina, where everyone else in the background vanishes to highlight the intense eye contact between the characters.

    Reply
  3. Clara

    The dance scene from “The Leopard” is gorgeous. I also remember one teacher of mine saying “This is how all dancing scenes should be filmed” and I agree. (Though then, Visconti is my weakness)

    Reply
  4. Kathleen Norvell

    Regarding the “Volta” In “Elizabeth,” it would be nice if just once, a real historical dance choreographer would choreograph a Renaissance dance for a movie. I’m so tired of “interpretations.” Whatever they’re doing, it isn’t a volta. I’ve studied and performed 16th century dances, including a volta, and what they are dancing seems to be “canaries” (a Spanish dance) with a volta-ish lift or two. A volta is like a galliard and involves the gentleman lifting the lady by her busk, using his bent knee to support her and move them both a quarter turn around. Canaries involves stamping and posturing. I know there are historical dance experts in the UK who could do it right. Follow the link to see what a volta looks like.

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/dc/Robert_Dudley_Elizabeth_Dancing.jpg/360px-Robert_Dudley_Elizabeth_Dancing.jpg

    The English Country Dances in the Jane Austen movies are always a treat. The one in “Becoming Jane” is “Hole in the Wall,” the first ECD I ever learned. It seems to be performed at half speed (I’ve seen it done at various speeds). The version I learned started with the first couple going down the outside of the line, then coming back up the inside, rather than doing both down and up the middle. However, it’s a lovely flirting dance.

    Kathleen

    Reply
  5. mmcquown

    Does anyone actually know the steps to the Volta? I know it’s been referenced in several movies about Elizabeth.
    I’ve done the dance in “Becoming Jane,” but in a much less funereal tempo.
    “Strictly Ballroom” is my all-time fave romcom.

    Reply
  6. DannyJane

    Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner having a gloriously good time in “The King and I” to Rogers and Hammerstein’s Shall We Dance. Never on screen have two people portrayed as just having FUN! Kerr’s magnificent gown has never had an equal even to this day.

    Not a costume piece exactly, but Patrick Swayzie and Jennifer Gray heating up the room in “Dirty Dancing” is also a favorite.

    Reply
  7. Janette

    On of my favourite dance scenes is from the 1972 BBC War and Peace when Natasha first dances with Andre. The entire room is watching and one senses their heightened awareness at that moment. I still find myself holding my breath when watching it.

    Reply
  8. Susan Pola

    1. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Romeo & Juliet dancing the moresca, 2. Ingrid and Yul in Anastasia, 3. Cate and Joseph in Elizabeth (acting is superb, history is a failure), 4. Yul and Deborah Kerr in the King & I, 5. Kate & Leo in Titanic, 6. Darcy & Elizabeth in P&P (Colin & Jen).

    Reply
  9. Alyxx

    My favorite dance scene in any film ever is in the middle of Many a New Day in Oklahoma! 1955. 20-30 women in ribbon corsets and beautiful petticoats, and the choreography of Agnes de Mille is so beautiful it actually makes me cry every time I see it.

    Reply
  10. maren

    I love the dancing scenes in “Valmont” – there are two intimate scenes, one at the park in the afternoon and another one later in the evenening at home.

    Reply
  11. Hepziba

    I guess we should start up a top 10, that Titanic dance is also very awesome!
    My personal favorite is the proposal in True Women.
    Click the link and fast forward to 41.30 : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwoolyD2phw

    The story about Georgia (Angelina Jolie) is that she is 1/4 Indian, which must be kept a secret as they are driven out of the country. To make things worse, her best friend moved to Texas and she has been trying to go there for all her life, with no success yet. Untill…

    Reply
  12. mmcquown

    Hmmm — a whole new can of worms — the portrayal of dance in historical movies. I have always been annoyed by the balletic interpretation of Middle Eastern dance in H’wood movies. Even in the 50’s, there were a fair number of qualified dancers out there that could have done the job. And I’m sure the ancient Egyptians did all those releves and arabesques!

    Reply
  13. Saraquill

    Here are many faults with the movie “Heaven’s Gate,” but I admire the amount of work it must have taken to organize the roller skating dance scene.

    Reply
  14. Tiffany D.

    Ah! My heart skipped a beat with the Becoming Jane dance – the music and those two just grinning at each other – it was lovely!

    I also really love the Netherfield Ball dance between Darcy and Elizabeth in the Keira Knightley P&P. The way they cleared out the room so it’s just the two of them dancing was a little dramatic but it made the scene very intimate.

    BTW – I just discovered your blog and I’m in heaven! Keep up the great work!

    Reply
  15. Lylassandra

    I realize I’m a week late here, but I’m surprised no one mentioned the dance in Mask of Zorro! I loved that scene so much.

    I wanted to love the candle waltz in Crimson Peak more than I did, but my appreciation may have just been ruined by the sense of dread…

    Reply
  16. Andrew.

    A dance scene that I particularly like because it feels of the period and occasion is the English Country dance that occurs after the feast celebrating the marriage of Anne Lacey to John Fletcher in the first episode of the 1983 BBC mini-series, By The Sword Divided. Set in 1640 and the years immediatly afterwards, the series chronicals the fates of two gentry families: One rural and royalist. The other urban and parliamentary. The can be seen following the feast at the 43:40 mark here:

    Reply
  17. Chiara Offreduccio

    While the costumes certainly are not accurate, the dance scene from Ophuls’ “The Earrings of Madame de…” is well done.

    Reply
  18. Andrea Somerville

    I’m REALLY late to this post, but what about the gorgeous cinematography of the post-opera ballroom dance scene in The Age of Innocence??!!

    Maybe the actual dancing didn’t steal the scene, but the way Scorsese set up that scene & shot it from above still gets me to this day.

    The music’s great, too!

    Reply
  19. Alluria

    Jacqueline Bisset, & Christopher Reeve,(RIP) Anna Karenina (1985)

    The Mazurka! But it’s actually from Coppelia, a Ballet by Leo Delibes.
    (Act I: Prelude, from Minute 1:27 +).

    I think it’s the mixture of looks from Jacqueline’s mature “lets get this over and done with” to
    sly coquettish to pure exhilaration by the end and then of course the brooding looks of Superman that stood out the most.

    And of course the costumes and settings are posh – in short my fav AK adaptation!
    2nd is ’97 version, 3rd Garbo’s, and 4th the K.K. one – because of the theater feel of it.

    I agree, Andrea about the Age of Innocence, but the actors are so very wooden. I thought
    the book better, which is rare since reading most of Wharton’s pieces, that one had
    the best flow to it, imho.

    Otherwise, the list above top shop!

    Reply

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