The Doc Option: 3 Great Dance Competition Films to Watch Instead of ‘Step Up: All In’

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Dancing is a kind of performance that lends itself incredibly well to cinema. Both art forms are heavily steeped in movement, and a film allows the viewer to get closer to a dancer than they ever could in reality, to study and appreciate the remarkable physical capabilities possessed by any good dancer. In recent years, dancing has flourished in nonfiction media. Besides the numerous documentaries on the subject, there are multiple popular reality television shows involving dance competitions, such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars.

But in fiction film, dance struggles. We’re far from the heyday of Busby Berkeley musicals and the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films. There are a few exceptions to this, however, the most notable being the Step Up series. Each film in this franchise has proved financially successful, and Step Up: All In, the fifth installment, is poised to repeat that pattern when it opens this weekend. The 3D sequel acknowledges the current dance TV craze by centering around a competition-based reality show taping in Las Vegas.

Step Up: All In may showcase some true dancing talent on screen, but because it focuses on a fictional contest between fictional characters there’s not any reason for us to care who wins or loses. So, for this week’s Doc Option we’ve selected a few necessary nonfiction alternative that also form their plots around dance competitions, the stakes of which are genuine reality.

To one degree or another, these three docs are about how young people use their talents to build their prospects for what lies ahead in life. Whether dancing is an avenue to a scholarship, a prize, or temporary escape from pain, the films help the audience appreciate the beauty of performance by helping them empathize with how it uplifts its participants. This puts all of them in league with the Step Up series, in which the teenybopper protagonists fight for love or respect on the dance floor. Watching them all will expose you not only to a wide array of dance styles, but also to an even wider array of engaging personal stories.

First Position

This 2011 film by Bess Kargman features six young ballet dancers who have entered the Youth America Grand Prix, the world’s largest student dance competition. The youngest of them is 11, the oldest 18, and they come from regions as close as rural Maryland and as far away as Israel and Sierra Leone. While the Grand Prix forms the spine of the story, the doc is really about the incredible rigor that goes into practicing ballet. We are told that seeking professional experience as a child essentially means sacrificing childhood. These kids are dancing for long hours, practicing for longer hours and training longer still. And all the training and equipment incur significant expenses. We tend to think of ballet as a fragile, lightweight sport, but the fluid grace of the dancers actually requires tremendous physical exertion.

Stream it on Netflix

Mad Hot Ballroom

Marilyn Argrelo follows several elementary school students participating in a New York City dance program in this 2005 box office hit. The film hooks the viewer on the concept of inner-city kids performing ballroom dance, tangoing and foxtrotting and rumba-ing their way into your heart. But just like any other doc about school enrichment programs, it also demonstrates the value that extracurricular activities hold for children. These kids are getting a dose of cultural excitement that they likely wouldn’t get any other way.

Stream it on Amazon

War/Dance

The husband and wife team of Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine directed this Oscar-nominated doc, which could not be more different from the other two in terms of setting. The film follows the National Music Competition in Kampala, Uganda. Three teenagers of the Acholi ethnic group, all of them victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s terror campaign, are participating in the contest. For them, music and dance is a way to heal the traumas of their past. While the doc occasionally overplays its hand emotionally, with some scenes feeling way too set up or coached, it soars during the song and dance sequences, pure abandon in cinematic form.

Available on DVD

LA-based writer about movies, TV, and other assorted culture stuff. Work collected at http://danschindel.com/