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VOICE OVER: Emily Brayton WRITTEN BY: Jaye Beekhuis
These dance scenes in film were so complicated to pull off. For this list, we'll be taking a behind the scenes look at show-stopping cinematic dance numbers that were difficult to execute, tricky to capture, and some that are just so complex they'll leave you asking “How'd they do that?” Our countdown includes "West Side Story," "In the Heights," "La La Land," and more!

#10: Street Dance
“Fame” (1980)

With dozens of dancers clad in leotards and leg warmers, this number is truly an eighties classic. When Bruno’s dad plays his son’s electronic music outside of New York’s High School of Performing Arts, students stream out onto 46th street to bust a move to the song that would later give the film its title. However, the Oscar-winning tune wasn’t finished in time for production, so the dancers were actually grooving to Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff!” until the sequence was later re-dubbed. Shot on location, the production took over the Manhattan streets for three days, and the scene’s carefree chaos was all-too-real: the dancers were told to ditch the original choreography and freestyle around and on top of moving cars.

#9: “You’re All the World to Me”
“Royal Wedding” (1951)

In one of Fred Astaire’s most iconic dances, Astaire’s character Tom literally falls head over heels for fellow dancer Anne Ashmond as his love takes him dancing up the walls and across the ceiling. But how did Astaire so effortlessly defy the laws of physics? In order to elevate his already revered dancing to new heights, the set was built within a larger rotating cage and track. So as Astaire dances, the room rotates around his steps while the camera stays in place. All together, the combination of secured furniture, magnets, and precise edits work together to capture the perfect illusion of lovestruck weightlessness.

#8: Aphrodite’s Fountain
“Mamma Mia!” (2008)

Sophie and Donna’s island adventures are chock full of memorable dance numbers from beginning to end, and the final celebration after the long-awaited wedding is no exception. Both the first film and its sequel had large-scale showstoppers with huge ensembles, including but not limited to their performances of “Dancing Queen.” While “Here We Go Again”’s “Super Trouper” finale was colourfully choreographed, it’s the high-stakes performance of “Take a Chance on Me” and “Mamma Mia”’s title track that added quite the layer of complication, however: it saw wedding guests dance under an exploding fountain. The entire shot had to be executed in one go before everyone was drenched, so what you see in the film is actually a one-take-wonder.

#7: “Another Day of Sun”
“La La Land” (2016)

Opening on a famous Los Angeles sight, gridlocked highway traffic, the film’s distinct style of choreography brings each unique aspect of the city to life as a daily commute turns into a spectacular dance number. Unlike the Fred and Ginger-esque sunset tap dance in which the cast and crew only had time for four long takes to get the perfect lighting, “La La Land”’s opening scene required months of rehearsals, dozens of performers and 2 days of shooting Choreographer Mandy Moore described the scene as the most difficult challenge of her career as the choreography required perfect timing from rows and rows of dancers, skaters, stunt people, the camera team, and even the wind. Not to mention, another LA day of sun meant up to 104 degree heat inside some of the vehicles!

#6: “Singin’ in the Rain”
“Singin in the Rain” (1952)

It’s the film’s titular number and perhaps the most iconic Gene Kelly musical number of all time. Kelly splashes through the rain in a dance famous for its infectious joy and easygoing style. Yet the scene was far from carefree, as Kelly was running a high fever and the logistics were so complicated that it took several days of shooting to master. This isn’t the only account of difficult physical conditions on set, as the slapstick “Make ‘Em Laugh” choreography was reportedly so intense that Donald O’Connor was briefly bed-ridden post-filming . Whether it be rain, slapstick stunts, or stunning duets filmed in the illusion of an expansive sky, this film stands out because each number dared to take a step beyond ordinary.

#5: “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”
“Shall We Dance” (1937)

We’d be remiss to review any movie dance scenes without mentioning Fred and Ginger, who revolutionized everything from elegant ballroom duets across sprawling sound stages to compellingly casual tap dances as recently acquainted strangers. In “Shall We Dance”, Fred and Ginger are far from strangers as they fake their marriage for a publicity stunt. But when they begin to argue, they transition into a breathtaking partner dance - all on roller skates. Astaire was famously a massive perfectionist, and the scene allegedly took over 150 takes to get right. Though the scene has a comedic tone, the innovative artistry is undeniable, and the pain on the pair’s faces as they get up from the grass seems to indicate the previous takes were far from smooth or gentle.

#4: “When the Sun Goes Down”
“In the Heights” (2021)

This stage musical adaptation did not shy away from daunting dance scenes, beginning with its astounding opening sequence. (xref) However, nothing is as striking as Benny and Nina’s romantic goodbye, “When the Sun Goes Down.” Inspired by Astaire’s dance in Royal Wedding, this number features the pair commemorating their Washington Heights love by dancing up fire escapes. The scene was executed on a giant moving set where a vertical wall would tilt along with the camera and the harness-less actors had to constantly adjust their choreography as gravity shifted. The tedious logistics required a special VR rehearsal to ensure the illusion. The director, choreographers, and special effects teams worked tirelessly to make sure every detail from fake sun to final kiss was seamlessly timed.

#3: “That’s How You Know”
“Enchanted” (2007)

As Giselle brings her magical fairytale world to gritty New York City via a musical number about love, her infectious positivity and romance earn her an eager ensemble that follows in her footsteps. As she gathers eclectic elements from every part of NYC life, she forms a giant parade that dances their way through Central Park. The number took multiple days to complete. Between the logistical challenges of filming in a public park, serious weather delays, and over 150 costumed dancers and 300 extras, everything had to be meticulously rehearsed and choreographed with little room for error. But keep these older men in mind, because they were also background dancers in our next pick!

#2: “Dance at the Gym”
“West Side Story” (1961)

With choreographed battles from colorful ballroom clashes to seedy street dance-offs, this production was nearly as turbulent behind the scenes as it was on screen. Naturally, the dance numbers were no exception. Since some of the film was shot on location, the production supposedly had to hire actual gang members to keep the sets safe, and dancers developed injuries after wearing through their knee pads by repeatedly dancing on concrete in intricate gang fight scenes. The vibrantly complex mambo choreography of “Dance at the Gym” came at a cost as well. Co-director Jerome Robbins had Natalie Wood rehearsing over 15 hours a day and overworked dancers with endless takes until he was eventually fired for wasting both film and funding.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Final Dance, “Step Up” (2006)
The Group Showcase Beautifully Fused Multiple Dance Styles

Smoke Number, “Million Dollar Mermaid” (1952)
An Elaborate Performance Featuring Synchronized Swimmers & Effects

“No Dames!”, “Hail, Caesar!” (2016)
Tap-Dancing Sailors Galore

“Rewrite the Stars,” “The Greatest Showman” (2017)
Have Aerial Acrobatics Ever Looked & Felt So Romantic On-Screen?

“(I've Had) The Time of My Life”, “Dirty Dancing” (1987)
That Unforgettable Swayze Lift

#1: “The American in Paris” Ballet
“An American in Paris” (1951)

Gene Kelly celebrates the beauty of Paris with this unconventional merging of the ballet and the movie musical. The end result is one of the big screen’s lengthiest dance scenes ever, clocking in at 17 minutes. The ballet is so substantial that it boasts a budget of half a million dollars for the sequence itself and it’s even credited in the opening titles. Produced shortly following WWII, the film saw actress Leslie Caron struggle to keep up with the choreography as she was still recovering from malnourishment during the war. Despite the complicated sets, the intense choreography, and the sheer number of costumes, we’re glad Kelly and co. stuck to their instincts. The stunning revue is an icon of cinema, and for good reason.