Nate Cope – The Time of Our Lives: Self-Discovery in the 1980s Dance Film

Creator’s Statement

This video essay explores how self-discovery is conveyed in the dance films of the 1980s, utilising the four most well-known examples: Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987), Footloose (Herbert Ross, 1984), Flashdance (Adrian Lyne, 1983), and Fame (Alan Parker, 1980). These films are notorious examples of the ways in which dance is used to reflect a transition from adolescence to adulthood, alongside predominant societal issues during this period in America that denote how the characters undergo a process of self-discovery. The essay uses montages, that are reminiscent of the montages seen in these films, combined with voice-over narration to illustrate how this is conveyed visually in the films. Susan A. Reed outlines key ideas in ‘The Politics and Poetics of Dance’ and I apply her work to these films in terms of how “dance may reflect and resist cultural values simultaneously”.

I explore the ways in which Dirty Dancing subverts the dominant male gaze and instead positions Patrick Swayze’s Johnny Castle as the object of desire as opposed to Jennifer Grey’s Baby Houseman becoming the object of male sexual fantasy and desire. Swayze is typically considered to be sexualised and an object of sexual desire to a higher extent than Grey, whose desiring gaze we see enacted through frequent point of view shots throughout the duration of the film as can be seen in the scenes I have chosen to include in this video essay. Visual and thematic connections are made between Dirty Dancing and Footloose here in terms of sexual freedom and self-discovery.

These joyful moments of expression found in the electric dance sequences represent shifting attitudes and a promise of social mobility that is reflected in the visuals of this video essay due to the use of montage. Characters that are otherwise marginalised are allowed momentarily to become rulers of their domain and split screen comparisons are used to illustrate this. My use of music is that of the soundtracks from the films in order to replicate and convey the energy seen within the narratives that the presence of dance sequences create.

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