TV | June 24, 2022 6:45 am

What’s With All the Dancing on TV Nowadays?

It seems as though characters are spontaneously busting a move more than ever

Amanda Seyfried in "The Dropout"
Amanda Seyfried in "The Dropout"

Noted American director and choreographer Bob Fosse once said, “The time to sing is when your emotional level is just too high to speak anymore, and the time to dance is when your emotions are just too strong to only sing about how you feel.” 

We are all familiar with the art of dance. In movies, we have seen it used frequently and in a number of creative ways over the decades. It is ingrained in cinematic history. Musicals have dominated Hollywood and international cinema, particularly in their heyday from the 1930s through the 1950s, and are still being churned out today in the form of reboots and adaptations. 

However, it seems nowadays that we are seeing more and more unexpected dancing appear in our TV shows — especially in dramas.

That’s not to say that we’re not used to seeing dance as part of our small-screen experience. Heck, reality television has firmly integrated dancing as part of its phenomenon with shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing With the Stars and Strictly Come Dancing. But what we’re seeing lately is a different kind of dancing on screen. 

In one of the most recent creations born of the true crime adaptation wave, The Staircase, the son of Colin Firth’s Michael Peterson is in Cabo. Todd, played by Patrick Schwarzenegger, is showing a fancy rental house to some attractive girls. With a bottle of booze in his hand, he turns on the expensive stereo, flicks on “Slow Motion” by Juvenile and begins to sway slowly and smoothly through the house. The camera follows him from behind as he leaves the others in the kitchen. He seems to almost forget about them, losing himself in the music. There may not be anything notable about this gesture at first glance, but he moves with a lightness — a carefree attitude that you wouldn’t expect from someone who is now responsible for financially administering his father in prison (who, incidentally, is in there for supposedly killing Todd’s stepmother Kathleen). With this context, the unexpected and unexplained burst of dancing might seem a little more odd. Those who have seen the show will also know that later in the series we watch Todd spiral into alcoholism and struggle to cope with the events that have upended his family. Whether this scene is indicative of Todd’s future or not, one thing is for sure — it stops everything dead for those few moments that he sways across the room. 

Another example is Hulu’s recent series The Dropout. There are multiple scenes in which we are made to watch Amanda Seyfried’s Elizabeth Holmes dancing strangely and/or awkwardly by herself throughout the show. One of the most memorable examples is her robotically bopping along whilst lip-syncing to Lil Wayne’s “How To Love” as she enters her boyfriend’s office, green juice in hand. It’s awkward to watch as she exudes little fluidity or confidence, and the whole performance seems purposefully stunted and cringeworthy. Her movements are jerky and stiff. We move with her slowly and steadily in the frame, unable to look away from her scarily wide-eyed face and too-big gilet. It’s a dance that encapsulates her character’s lack of awareness and unsettling aura.  

In the teen angst-aestheticizing Euphoria, music and theatricality are tools consistently used to shape the essence of the show. One notable scene in season two is one in which Rue, played by Zendaya, dances around her room whilst crooning along to “Call Me Irresponsible.” She cavorts around the room, using her pillow as a substitute dance partner whilst the camera swings and moves around with her, trying to keep up. In the grand scheme of the show it’s hardly the type of fantastical style we’re used to, but we’re certainly given a lot of time to sit and watch Rue prance around the room dramatically in the midst of otherwise a very dark and melancholy season.

We’ve seen dancing on television before, albeit in a usually humorous or exaggerated manner. We’ve all probably seen (and tried to imitate) Monica and Ross’ brother-sister dance routine on Friends or Carlton’s dance from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The aforementioned recent and more serious scenes seem less like something you would want to learn and recreate, and more like something that leaves you feeling a little weirded out. These aren’t so strictly choreographed as you might see in a musical or dance-centric story. These dance scenes are usually unexpected, typically over quickly, and bring everything else going on in the episode to a halt for a moment of levity or, opposingly, to create a sense of unease.

We’re also familiar with seeing dancing used in movies to either break tension or turn it up to maximum levels. We all know the image of Michael Madsen shimmying across the warehouse floor to “Stuck in the Middle With You” as he taunts the gagged and bound police officer before cutting off the latter’s ear in Reservoir Dogs, or Oscar Isaac tearing up the “fucking dance floor” in Ex Machina as Domhnall Gleeson watches the choreographed sequence taking place in the blood-red lit room before him, completely baffled and horrified. Maybe even Mads Mikkelsen dancing in the street, leaping and prancing under fountains of shaken champagne bottles before diving into the sea in Another Round, leaving us unsure as to whether he is throwing himself into the abyss of alcoholism or setting himself free from a constrained life.

Another more recent example is Hulu’s Fresh, the cannibal horror-comedy movie starring Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones. A scene shows the two dancing together in a slow synchronized boogie so atmospheric and deliciously stylized that it’s already started to make the rounds on TikTok

Is there some deeper meaning behind the increased use of dance in television? Is it perhaps a reference to some greater societal need for emotional expression? Most likely, no. The lines between television and movies have become more blurred over the decades, with TV becoming more cinematic in its own right. The above movie scenes, all memorable and arguably the talking points of their retrospective works, have solidified themselves in the cultural zeitgeist. It makes sense that dancing has started to creep onto television, perhaps in an effort to recreate the same kind of water-cooler, social media-circulating moments. 

It seems only natural that as the scope of TV expands, we start to see more narrative and stylistic choices appear that we are usually used to seeing on the big screen. At its most basic level, it is at the very least an entertaining stylistic choice. We could also likely associate the timing of this wave of dance in television on the movie musical boom, which has arguably made dance and theatricality more frequent and, therefore, more palatable to television audiences.

Showrunners are catching on to the fact that dance can be one of the greatest tools when it comes to character mentality and narrative. As Elizabeth Meriwether, showrunner of The Dropout, has said of the awkward dance scenes in the series, “It became, for me, a way to show the character grappling with emotions…because I think she, the character in the show, is not great at getting her emotions out.” 

She even explains the origin of the idea for those scenes, referencing the original podcast series on which the drama is based: “The music ended up becoming such a big part of the show and it started with the anecdote in the podcast about Elizabeth Holmes dancing in her car alone.”

In the case of Rue’s dancing in Euphoria, it’s a stylistic choice to place us in the character’s mindset. “It seems that her most blissful moments are aided in some way,” Zendaya said in an interview. “I think those moments remind us of why she does it in the first place. I think it’s her way of dealing with life and coping with it and trying to stay above water and be happy in the only way she knows how.”

Dancing in television, particularly in drama, can be strange and unexpected. It might feel out of place — a weird blip in an otherwise sincere plot. But it serves a purpose just as it has always done, whether that purpose is showing joy in the story and to showcase the talent of the performers, or more internal and narrative-led such as revealing a character’s inner workings or to play with tension.

When Fosse said those thoughtful words about dance, he was most likely talking about musical theater given that his life’s work centered around the genre, but the sentiment remains relevant today. Dancing is one of the most powerful forms of expression. We will likely see more of these unexpected dance scenes appear on our small screens. After all, it’s the way to reveal our feelings when words just won’t do. When we don’t know what to say, it then becomes the time to dance.