Dancing has been a part of cinema since its early history. Al Jolson, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly; the list grooves on and on. It’s an inclusive activity to perform, and even more so to observe, spanning generations and cultures with rhythmic excitement. Of course, with everyone in the world strutting their stuff, there’s bound to be a few that suffer from tone deafness and two left feet. These special cases, more often than not, are oblivious to their uh… “unique” talent, and have come to create the tradition of funny dancing on film.
With good dancers, audiences get to marvel at the magic of precise steps and refined physical composition. But bad dancers? Not so much. Whether a dork, dweeb, or even a cool guy with clunky steps, the spastic body movements they release onscreen prescribes awe of a completely different color. It’s one thing to air guitar your brains out when no one’s home, but seeing movie stars let loose and wave their goofball flag is something we’ll never get used to or tired of. Here are fifteen times that flag was waved hilariously higher than most.
Here are Screen Rant’s 15 Funniest Dance Scenes in Movies.
15. Poindexter’s Thriller – Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
Long before McLovin geeked his way onscreen, there was the almighty Arnold Poindexter (Timothy Busfield). As one of the titular roles in 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, the aptly surnamed Arnold was a textbook example on how not to be cool in any possible situation. This included, of all things, a frat party with honorary invitee U.N. Jefferson (Bernie Casey), intended to prove that the nerds could be just as wild as the jocks. The resulting flood of dorky dance moves, aided by Michael Jackson’s signature song “Thriller,” gave fans a gut-busting confirmation of every uncool cliché in the book.
No nerd reigned higher than Poindexter in this regard, as his weed-induced thrusts make for a sight that won’t soon go forgotten. Director Jeff Kanew hones in on the character’s Elvis-like hip movement for what feels like a long time, and the sincere look of amazement on his face is matched only by some cringe-worthy arm action. If ever asked to emulate a bad dancer, this epitome of awkward thrusting would be the way to go.
14. The African Anteater Ritual – Can’t Buy Me Love (1987)
High school nerd Ronald Miller (Patrick Dempsey) gets the deal of a lifetime when popular girl Cindy (Amanda Peterson) agrees to pretend they’re romantically involved. The resulting madness that follows transforms Ronnie from zero to hero, and his oddball ways become mistaken for being too cool to comprehend. It’s a fun little premise, and it supplies Can’t Buy Me Love (1987) with a poignant silliness that seems pried from the John Hughes playbook. Unsurprisingly, the film’s most iconic moment occurs during a school dance, where the ill-informed Miller decides to debut the African Anteater Ritual alongside his date.
Thinking he pulled a dance from American Bandstand, the reigning heartthrob actually mirrors a PBS special – and his fellow students initially think he’s special in the process. But the hilarious oomph that Miller gives his convulsive ritual can’t help but win the crowd over, and soon every teen at the dance is stomping and shaking around! The film makes it look hopelessly fun, though it’s probably something that should be practiced in private. We aren’t all as cool as Patrick Dempsey.
13. Tequila – Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
A bar full of biker gangs would be intimidating for most people, but Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) isn’t most people. He’s a rebel, a loner, and, as it turns out, a pretty confident dancer. Waltzing his way into what could possibly be the least conspicuous place for a bow-tie sporter like himself, Pee-wee proceeds to cut loose to The Champs’ famed track “Tequila.” The big bad biker boys definitely do not feel it at first, but it’s not long before Herman’s uproarious antics have won them over. Breaking a few beer pitchers in defiance probably didn’t hurt, either.
Director Tim Burton has a ball staging this number, building up momentum with a glamour shot of Herman’s tall white shoes as a witty teaser. Cut to an intense close-up of the character as he hones his tempo, and the wide shot punchline delivers with tear-inducing results every time. Amazingly, this would only prove an appetizer for the real dancing gem in Burton’s body of work (more on that later).
12. Jump (For My Love) – Love Actually (2003)
David (Hugh Grant) has a gift for seeing the silver lining in life. As newly appointed Prime Minister, he informs the audience that when he does in fact get gloomy, he likes to go to airport terminals and observe others happily greeting each other. It’s a sweet sentiment, and one that goes on to permeate most of 2003’s rom-com anthology Love Actually. But sweetness is not why Sir David makes the list. This distinguished achievement rests solely on the good vibes he lends to the Girls’ Aloud cover of (“Jump (For My Love”).
Undressing after a long day and bobbing his head to the radio, David turns from weary to wired in a heartbeat, and busts out some truly hilarious moves. Legend has it that Grant was originally against doing the dance, feeling it reflected poorly upon the position of Prime Minister. Thankfully, after a talk with director Richard Curtis and a Jackson 5 song swap, Grant agreed, and gifted a scene that’s still being played a decade later.
11. Albert’s “Yeah!” Moment – Hitch (2005)
Sure, Albert (Kevin James) seeks out a date doctor for assistance, but if there’s one thing he’s not worried about, it’s dancing. At, least that’s what he tries to pitch to Hitch (Will Smith), who wisely requests a glimpse of these so-called “moves.” Clickity-clack, Usher’s club smash “Yeah!” comes on, and the portly player-in-training goes off with a hysterical mix of fictional moves. James shows off a spryness that would give Chris Farley a run for his money, while further killing the mood with phrases like “start the fire!” and “make the pizza!”
It’s self-explanatory notes like these that make the scene a bad dancing classic. Smith, impressively playing it straight, is forced to not only bear the barrage of butt-shaking and shuffling, but James’ out loud reasons as to why he’s doing each move. Not surprisingly, the slightest bit of a smirk shows up on the date doctor’s face, right after insisting his patient never do “that” ever again. Even if the hips are always going.
10. Ultimate Mambo – The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear (1991)
Knee deep in the mystery of The Naked Gun 2 ½ (1991) unflappable Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) trails Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley) to a society gathering. Lo and behold, the only way to get her attention is to cut in on her mambo with Mel Tormé and begin a good old fashioned dance floor interrogation. It start off quaint enough, with a few nifty steps on the part of Drebin, but comedy director David Zucker quickly escalates this exchange into a reckless display of every dance move in the book – and a few that aren’t.
Nielsen and Presley get world class props for refusing to crack a smile, while the succession of patty cake, cha-chas and whatever makes one look like an Olympic swimmer break up the banter. Between verbal gems like “dirtier than a coal miner’s underwear in January,” Drebin shakes the ever living out of Spencer, and puts a frantic spin (literally) on the most active exposition scene ever made. The man certainly doesn’t mess around.
9. You Make My Dreams – (500) Days of Summer (2009)
Getting with the girl of your dreams is cause for celebration, and Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spares no expense in this infectious morning-after blowout. Walking out to Hall & Oates’ happiness anthem “You Make My Dreams,” the hopeless romantic tears down the street greeting strangers and checking his hair in a nearby window. Who does he see looking back at him? Han friggin’ Solo, dapper as can be and a surefire sign Hansen is currently on top of the world. The insanity only escalates from there, as a full-on dance arrangement in the park brings about the scene’s biggest belly laughs.
Gordon-Levitt sells every silly aspect like a champ, and it’s his giddy excitement that makes randomly hitting a home run or being hoisted up by his entourage into comedy gold. Hall & Oates were scheduled to make a cameo that never materialized, but Hansen’s little shimmy by the fountain is more than enough to make this (500) Days of Summer (2009) scene a dancing classic.
8. Les Grossman Gets Low – Tropic Thunder (2008)
Everything Tom Cruise does in Tropic Thunder (2008) is funny. There’s something about watching a movie star get neck deep in the crazy pool that never fails to cause a few smiles and create a few quotables. And while Cruise’s vulgar Les Grossman definitely does both for the duration of his appearance, the real standout moments arise anytime he decides to get crunk. Most everyone else is focused upon saving a film crew from certain death, but the pudgy producer is more concerned with loosening up and getting down in front of agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey). Anyone guessing what a scene between these acclaimed actors would’ve entailed, and a trash talk session set to Flo Rida probably wasn’t high on the list.
Nevertheless, Cruise molds the exchange into a side-splitting display, dodging Peck’s questions with air-spanking and a bunch of nonsensical buzzwords. To make matters even more fun, each rattled off line like “I know you want the goodies” is punctuated by Bill Hader’s “Welcome to the goodie shop!” as if watching a hilarious rap track come to life – ad-libs and all. If this is the goodie shop, then membership is most definitely requested.
7. Day-O – Beetlejuice (1988)
Everyone looks sufficiently stuffy at the beginning of the Beetlejuice (1988) dinner scene. Draped in artsy attire and making polite conversation, the last thing these guests expect is for Delia Deetz (Catherine O’Hara) to hoist herself up and start singing Harry Belafonte’s Day-O song. Delightfully, she does just that, and hits the gas on this all-time great sequence from director Tim Burton. O’Hara is masterfully funny in her performance, playing both fearful for her sanity and hopelessly enslaved by the rhythm of the Maitlands’ (Alec Baldwin & Geena Davis) ghostly prank.
Her pinpoint lip syncing is one thing, but with a sly wink and a final shift, she gets the entire table involuntarily involved. Between Jeffrey Jones’ arm shaking and Dick Cavett’s napkin waving, the infectious number imports Caribbean spirit straight to this uncool clan, while Winona Ryder’s priceless expression makes us all the more envious we aren’t in her shoes. Picking the funniest moment is tough, but Glenn Shadix’s conversion of a champagne container into a tribal drum would have to take the top spot.
6. Stayin’ Alive – Airplane (1980)
Disco had pretty much spun it’s last record by 1980, but to the goofball tendencies of Jerry Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers, it was just another topic to tackle. The trio of filmmakers would actually shoehorn an entire disco number into their spoof masterpiece Airplane!, subsequently taking out the Bee Gees, John Travolta, and the rest of Saturday Night Fever (1977) in one fell swoop. Presented in the form of flashback, the scene shows the first time estranged lovers Ted (Robert Hays) and Elaine (Julie Hagerty) cross paths in a roadhouse bar.
Besides sticking out like two broken thumbs, the pair gravitates towards one another and quickly proceed to lay the funk. Depending on how high the saloon ceiling is, Ted even defies physics with a partner toss that should get him serious Olympic consideration. Not to be outdone by her polyester suitor, Elaine flashes some crazy leg strength with a spin that hysterically recreates a crucial scene from Fever. These two definitely owned the dance floor that night, though the sailor who got stabbed in the back comes in a close second.
5. Gutterball Hallucination – The Big Lebowski (1998)
Even with the oddities that precede it, the gutterball dance in The Big Lebowski (1998) still manages to push the envelope of… well, everything. Out cold after getting drugged, the titular Dude (Jeff Bridges) goes on a trip that’s equals parts Busby Berkeley musical and searing psychedelic symbolism. Not exactly a combination that one comes across on a regular basis, but Bridges’ strutting stuff is simply too fun to worry about petty things like logic. Set to the tune of Kenny Rogers’ “Just Dropped In,” the famed actor gets wild on those massive stairs, shimmering his way through a shiny set-up while dressed like a homeless carpenter.
The other elements in the scene, namely Saddam Hussein giving out bowling shoes and Viking woman Julianne Moore, only go to show how eccentric directors Joel & Ethan Coen can truly get. By the time Lebowski shoots down the bowling alley through a slew of ladies’ legs, it’s quite obvious that cinema has been taken to daring new heights. Heights, it seems, that include a jamming hippie and a massive selection of bowling shoes.
4. Try a Little Tenderness – Pretty in Pink (1986)
Who doesn’t love Duckie? The patron saint of all who find themselves friendzoned, Jon Cryer’s charming goofball all but ran away with the teen classic Pretty in Pink. Directly opposing wealthy nice guy Blaine (Andrew McCarthy), the witty hipster pines helplessly for the affection of Andie (Molly Ringwald), whom he also serves as best friend and closest confidante. Screenwriter John Hughes, who pretty much monopolized teen cinema in the 80s, tenderly shows Duckie’s inability to express himself – until, of course, an unlikely lull in the action and an Otis Redding record provide the perfect platform.
Under the spell of some downright lusty choreography (courtesy of Footloose expert Kenny Ortega), Duckie unleashes one of the most impressive attempts at affection ever portrayed on film. Cryer dropkicks caution out the window while writhing across the record store walls, pounding the floorboards as if the soul of Redding himself had blessed his attempt. Cryer would later brag about the iconic sequence, commenting how “nobody really anticipated that I was gonna go to town on it the way that I did.” How did Andie not take this guy to the prom!?
3. Old Time Rock and Roll – Risky Business (1983)
As good as he was in Tropic Thunder, there’s no denying that this is the scene that made Tom Cruise a star. Unlike Les Grossman, college kid Joel Goodson was a role that perfectly aligned with the actor’s persona, and his celebration through a parent-free house has since become the stuff of teen legend. Set to the tune of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll,” Goodson slides into frame sporting white briefs, a pink oxford shirt, and enough energy to open a brothel and take on “Guido the killer pimp.”
This combination tears a hole through the fabric of funny dancing; complete with lewd strutting and coffee table mounting. Shot over a full day, director Paul Brickman reportedly tried on a slew of variations to get the scene just right; including a take with Cruise bouncing off of a trampoline into frame (!?). But the simplest choice proved to be the best, and Goodson’s convulsive glee on the couch perfectly captures what it feels like to be unhinged from the worries of the world. Time of your life, huh kid?
2. Puttin’ on the Ritz – Young Frankenstein (1974)
Young Frankenstein (1974) has too many glorious moments to keep track off. From elbow rubbing and humps to temperamental bookcases and charades, this spoof of the famed Frankenstein tale is Mel Brooks insanity at it’s finest. The writer/director even finds time to revamp a Fred Astaire film performance and bake it into the DNA of his flashy centerpiece; tuxedos, top hats and all. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) books a local theater to show off his frightful creation (Peter Boyle), but teasing the crowd with motor skill tricks is nothing compared to the wackiest tap number ever captured on camera.
Playing to Irving Berlin’s classic “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” both Frederick and the monster flash an amazing amount of spryness given their lab bound lifestyles. It’s a coin toss as to which actor proves more hilarious; Wilder the crooning cheeseball or Boyle the lumbering freak show, but the latter’s call-and-response shrills just might give him the edge. You know a scene has staying power when it becomes the defining version of a song, especially when one of the performers is undead.
1. Canned Heat – Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Most dancers on this list have had the benefit of a group setting or perceived privacy. What earns Napoleon Dynamite (2004) its spot at number one, however, is the gall that places a wincing nerd in front of an entire auditorium. Napoleon (Jon Heder) doesn’t just “perform” a dance at the school talent show, he puts every odd quirk in his repertoire into a routine that probably damaged a few student psyches in the process. Thrusts, flips, and the major perk of moonboots also add to this stunning spectacle, proving that few guys could own their uncool like Napoleon and selected tune “Canned Heat.”
Heder, working alongside director Jared Hess, was allowed free reign to improvise his iconic moves, and the liberties even went as far as to include three different songs during filming. Hess eventually sifted through the footage and refined it down to one succinct version, in the process capping off one of the 2000s most quotable indies. When it comes to funny dancing, few can match Napoleon’s outrageous display– even if he ran offstage immediately afterwards.