In Dance Flicks, the Moves Evolve but the Plots Don't

Step Up Revolution: the latest attempt to apply the Saturday Night Fever formula to new fads.

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In 2006, motivational speaker and comedian Judson Laipply uploaded a six-minute clip called "The Evolution of Dance" to an upstart video sharing website called YouTube. The video, which consists of Laipply rapidly switching between popular dance styles from 1956 to 2004, became a viral sensation almost overnight. In the year of its release, "The Evolution of Dance" was the most viewed and highest-rated video in YouTube history. It has currently been viewed more than 200 million times and led Laipply to appearances on The Today Show, Inside Edition, and Ellen.

1990 saw *two* separate films about Lambada dancers released on the same day.

The unprecedented success of "The Evolution of Dance" spoke to a few truths: People like to watch dance, and dance changes over time. And indeed, the genre of movies featuring dance—a particularly contrived variation on the Hollywood musical—has proven more susceptible to fads than perhaps any other film genre in history.

The new Step Up Revolution—the fourth film in the Step Up franchise—features a plot ripped straight from the zeitgeist, as its characters attempt to become viral-video sensations by performing tightly choreographed dance routines in public places. (At one point in the film's trailer, a character actually says, "20,000 hits in five hours!" to the cheers of a crowded bar). By embracing the viral video market, Step Up Revolution is attempting to look contemporary—but it's hardly the first dance movie to pin its hopes on the latest trends in the dance world.

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Though dancers have existed on film for almost as long as film has existed, each contemporary dance movie can be traced to a single common ancestor. 1977's disco drama Saturday Night Fever represents the Alpha and the Omega of the dance genre, which would never again be taken so seriously by critics or executed so well by its cast and crew. The world was struck by Saturday Night Fever fever: John Travolta was nominated for an Academy Award for his lead performance, and the film's soundtrack quickly became the best-selling movie soundtrack of all time. It would eventually go on to earn more than ten times its production budget worldwide.

But for all its immense popularity, Saturday Night Fever also posed a conundrum for Paramount Pictures. The movie was packed with music, fashion, and dance sequences that proved incredibly popular with young people—but also featured an adult-oriented plot that included gang violence, drug abuse, and rape. The not-so-elegant solution? Releasing a bowdlerized, PG-rated cut of the film less than a year after the R-rated cut hit theaters, under the promotional tagline "because we want everyone to catch Saturday Night Fever." But the PG Saturday Night Fever wasn't made for everyone; it was made for kids, and its release set a precedent that most other dance movies have been content to follow.

Unfortunately, studios learned all the wrong lessons from the smash success of Saturday Night Fever. The film's successled to an imitator (Flashdance) and a sequel (Staying Alive), but Hollywood's rush to capitalize on the next big dance craze led to a long string of rushed, shoddy releases that played less like coherent films and more like music videos. 1984 saw the release of three movies attempting to cash in on the breakdancing craze. 1990 saw two separate films about Lambada dancers released on the same day. More recently, movies like You Got Served and Step Up 2 the Streets have tackled the au courant world of street dancing. But whatever the style of dance, the structure remained the same. Even the highest-brow dance movie in recent years—2010's Black Swan—earns much of its power by repurposing the basic tropes of the uber-conventional dance genre for horror.

If you've seen one dance movie over the past 30 years, you can probably fill in the plots of the rest of them: A troubled-but-talented young dancer, who dreams of going pro, overcomes (1) skeptical parents, (2) vindictive rivals, and/or (3) romantic travails just in time to perform (and perhaps be discovered) in The Big Show. But the "revolution" of Step Up Revolution—the idea that anyone with enough talent can be plucked from obscurity not by an agent or producer, but by the sheer will of a mass audience—is actually somewhat revolutionary (we can, after all, thank YouTube for Justin Bieber). It's worth noting that many of Step Up Revolution's cast members, including star Kathryn McCormick, originally hail from Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, a reality series that hinges on an open call-in voting process. And if audiences respond to the fake viral videos of Step Up Revolution as warmly as the real viral videos that inspired it, we can undoubtedly look forward to more Step Ups—revolutionary or otherwise—in the future.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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