Cinedance, Dance in Cinema, and Dancing Cinema

by Cornelia Lund

1 Dancing Light, Dancing Forms, and Dancing Objects

2 Musical Films

2.1 The 1930s: The Golden Era of Dance in Film

2.2 Further Evolution of Dance in Film

3 Choreography for the Camera

4 Video Dance

4.1 Video Dance

4.2 Digital Cinedance and Video Dance

5 Dancing Cinema


The worlds of moving images and dance can come together in diverse ways. Film can be used to record stage dancing, but dance can also be created explicitly for or through film. One example of the latter is the dancelike motion of light, patterns, and objects found in the experimental cinema of the 1920s and 1930s. Another is cinedance, as created by Maya Deren in the 1940s, which contemplates the human body in movement but at the same time uses the camera, editing, and montage to create an authentically cinematic dance. In films featuring dance numbers or musical film — a genre that reached its pinnacle in 1930s Hollywood — dance routines are built into the film’s plot and from there can develop their own momentum. Nowadays, the development of software that enables real-time control is generating live-performance combinations of cinematic images, dance, and music. These events can also take the form of dancing cinema, in the sense that dancelike movements control what happens at the visual and acoustic levels. In other words, the dance does not just follow the music; the music may also be created through the dance.


1 Dancing Light, Dancing Forms, and Dancing Objects

Dance has been recorded on film since shortly after the invention of cinema. The first commercial film program screened in the United States (1896) included films depicting dance performances.[2] Narrative films featuring revuelike dance routines were soon produced in Hollywood. These films are not the type that Man Ray primarily had in mind, however, when he wrote, La danse est un sujet idéal pour le cinéma,[3] for he was more interested in another development. Dance, once it had been liberated from classical ballet d’action by Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan around 1900, became a model for the other arts. Fuller had virtually turned dance into an abstract art form by obscuring her body behind costumes and light effects, and it was that same abstract character that simultaneously allowed music to become a model for other arts such as painting and film. Dance and music were called on as models for the development of cinematic concepts, with the connecting links between dance and music (and ultimately film) being the concepts of ‘movement’ und ‘rhythm’.[4]

The three time-based art forms of film, music, and dance enter into a kind of circular reasoning in which each is often drawn on to delineate one of the others. Walter Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel Opus I (GER 1921), which sets abstract film images in analogy to music, was described by a contemporary as absolute dance,[5] for example, whereas dancer Valeska Gert saw Ruttmann’s Opus II (GER 1923) as the paradigm for her definition of dance. Oskar Fischinger’s Studien (GER 1929–1934) transpose popular dance music into a cinematic process usually termed form dance or choreography, given that the forms move across the screen (in rhythm with the music) like dancers in formation.[6]

Whereas German form dance often was developed through drawing or painting on the animation stand, in French experimental films objects and lights are more likely to enter into dancelike motion. Man Ray repeatedly made lights, forms, and objects perform turns — dancing par excellence[7] — in his work in order to give form to his cinematographic concept of non-narrative film, the cinépoème.[8] One of many examples is the collar dance in Emak Bakia (FR 1926). In Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s film Ballet mécanique (FR 1924), the link with dance is already apparent in the title, although this work mainly features filmed objects that are set in rhythmical motion through post-production editing and montage. Whereas the link to music is more implicit than explicit in these cases — established through the orchestration of rhythmic and plastic elements[9] — in the cinéma pur genre the relationship to music has been theoretically elaborated. In an endeavor to define film as art as early as 1922, art critic Élie Faure wrote the following about his concept of cinéplastique: … la cinéplastique tend et tendra chaque jour davantage de se rapprocher de la musique. De la danse aussi.[10] Germaine Dulac then repeatedly defines film in her writings on the concept of cinéma pur as musique de l’oeil,[11] which also possesses qualities inherent to dance. Even though in Thèmes et Variations (FR 1928) she uses parallel montage to unite the movements of light, objects, and plants with those of a dancer, for Dulac cinematic dance is in no way associated with the actual presence of a person dancing, but above all with rhythmical motion: J’évoque une danseuse! Une femme? Non. Une ligne bondissante aux rythmes harmonieux.[12]

Film experiments with combinations of music and dancing light, objects, and forms were carried out only occasionally after the 1920s, for example in films such as Tarantella (US 1940/1941) by Mary Ellen Bute or Free Radicals (US 1958/1979) by Len Lye.

2 Musical Films

The genre of narrative film with built-in dance routines developed in the 1920s and 1930s after the arrival of talking films. A distinction is made between films with interwoven dance numbers which are also about dancing, and musical films or film musicals, which can have any theme. However, the boundaries between the two have become blurred over time. Films showcasing dance, such as Saturday Night Fever (USA 1977, dir. John Badham), have been refashioned as musicals, and there are also screen adaptations of musicals about dancing, such as A Chorus Line (USA 1985, dir. Richard Attenborough). In accordance with traditional stage choreography, the choreographies in films featuring dance numbers and musical films are almost always based on an existing musical work.

2.1 The 1930s: The Golden Era of Dance in Film

Two trends can be identified in the films of the 1930s that feature dance. On the one hand, dancer Fred Astaire sums up his position very clearly in the statement: Either the camera will dance or I will.[13] He sees the entire cinematic apparatus as being at the service of the dance. He believes the camera should follow the dance in long shots with as few cuts as possible, and that the dancers should preferably be shown in full body view. The choreography set to a continually played musical work should also constitute a continuum. The distinctive properties of cinema are concealed in favor of the illusion of a stagelike performance.

Busby Berkeley, on the other hand, developed an approach that exploits the possibilities offered by certain cinematic techniques. For a start, the setting generally extends far beyond the architecture of the stage. But most of all, Berkeley breaks ranks with the monodirectional perspective of the theater spectator. Numerous cuts offer the viewer different perspectives, which at the same time are attuned to the rhythmic structure of the music. Berkeley’s trademark is the top shot — a direct overhead camera angle that shows the dancers in abstract formations, reminiscent of Oskar Fischinger’s figurative choreographies. One example is the water choreography for By a Waterfall in Footlight Parade (USA 1933).

2.2 Further Evolution of Dance in Film

The period after 1945 is characterized in particular by screen adaptations of numerous Broadway musicals, some of whose innovative choreographies have remained influential in the making of music videos (e.g., West Side Story, US 1961, dir. Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins). From the late 1970s onward, the genre of films featuring dance numbers received fresh impetus from films such as Saturday Night Fever, Flashdance (USA 1983, dir. Adrian Lyne), and Dirty Dancing (USA 1987, dir. Emile Ardolino). Musically, each of these films is characterized by a distinctive soundtrack on whose style the choreographies are based. In recent years, dance has featured in particular in documentary films (Rhythm Is It!, GER 2004, dir. Thomas Grube, Enrique Sánchez Lansch) and in fictional films in which it becomes an engine for social advancement (Take the Lead, USA 2006, dir. Liz Friedlander); sometimes the two elements are combined (Rize, USA 2005, dir. David LaChapelle).

3 Choreography for the Camera

From the 1940s onward, Maya Deren developed — both in her writings and in her films — a particular conception of cinematic dance. She distanced herself from earlier forms of dance in film because she believed that in most dance films the helplessness of the camera prevails.[14] Departing from previous film experiments, although still maintaining their post-production methods, Deren focused on the individual moving in space. Thus, in Ritual in Transfigured Time (USA 1946), for example, she used editing, montage, and loops to transform a social party into a kind of ritual ballroom dance which is not based on a performed dance choreography but rather is the result of a cinematic choreography. In addition to post-production methods, two further elements are decisive in Deren’s cinedance, which can be performed only on film:[15] the camera, which is principally responsible for the movement, and space. Cinematic dance can take place in different locations in sequence, which (for technical reasons alone) is much more difficult to realize in stage dance. The setting in Ritual in Transfigured Time, for instance, moves from the house to the garden, to outdoor scenery and, finally, into the sea. Moreover, editing and montage allow Deren to rupture the oneness of location and space. Thus, the dancer in A Study in Choreography for Camera (USA 1945) frequently initiates a movement in one spatial context only to continue it in another. For example, a movement shifts from an outdoor forest setting directly into the interior of a house. Later a movement commences in this interior space only to be continued in the atrium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Deren’s ideas are still fundamental today for a specific form of cinema as dance. Although music does not play a central role in Deren’s work, there are numerous examples of associations between cinematic dance and music in the work of her successors. Ed Emshwiller’s Dance Chromatics (USA 1959) features dance, painting, and music; in Pas de Deux (CAN 1967), Norman McLaren uses an optical printer to process shots of a ballet choreography arranged specifically for this purpose so that several different phases of a movement appear to be copied on top of each other. Maurice Blackburn’s music consists of a two-and-a-half-minute looped recording of panpipes combined with a harp. The dancer’s movements unfold like fans either in tandem with the harp arpeggios or along the melodic line of the panpipes. The original choreography is thus transformed cinematically so that at the beginning of the film, for example, the dancer appears to be dancing with herself.

4 Video Dance

4.1 Video Dance

The term video dance first appeared in the mid-1970s in association with Merce Cunningham’s video work.[16] The genre of video dance then began to gain currency in the 1980s and 1990s at festivals such as the Grand Prix Vidéo Danse and Dance Screen.[17] Video dance is broadly defined not only in technical terms — most festivals accept entries in both video and film format — but also in terms of the concept of the dance created with or for the motion picture. However, in most cases video dance is closely associated with the activity of dance and the human body.

In addition to the cinedance approach as understood by Maya Deren, dance productions for television, such as Hans van Manen’s Kaïn en Abel (NED 1961), represent another historical thread leading to video dance. Many video-dance productions are adapted stage productions, such as Merce Cunningham’s Beach Birds for Camera (USA 1992) and Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas (BEL 1997). Cunningham sees the camera as a moving element of the dance itself,[18] and thus identifies the essential element (in addition to the spatial separation from the stage setting) that video dance has in common with Deren’s cinedance approach.[19]

The aspect of sound does not play a significant role in most of the productions. As Claudia Rosiny points out in her study on video dance, its task is mainly, as in feature films, to provide background music.[20]

4.2 Digital Cinedance and Video Dance

With the advent of digital technology, the boundaries of video dance became even more difficult to define. Video dance is brought together with approaches from experimental film, music videos, and the processing of filmed images during VJing — areas in which the musical component plays a greater role. VJing, in particular, often explicitly draws on the abstract avant-garde cinema of the 1920s and 1930s.[21] Cinematic sequences are mixed and looped rhythmically to music either live or in the studio. The sequences are edited and assembled in time with the music; unlike commercially targeted music videos, the material rarely portrays the musicians and is frequently abstract. Not unlike the early avant-garde films, the result is a cinematic dance of abstract forms — a dance of graphics, objects, and clip sequences now created through the use of (digital) cinematic techniques. Dance can have an ornamental role in music videos, too. The kaleidoscopically edited bottom-view shots of the dancer in the video for The Zephyr Song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (2002) are reminiscent of the abstract chorus girls in Busby Berkeley’s work. But there are also digital video works that refer back more explicitly than video dance does to the tradition of cinematically generated dance and at the same time incorporate musical components. For example, in his video Au quart de tour (2004), Antonin De Bemels has his dancer perform a stroboscopic dance whose rhythm is based on a composition by musician Rob(u)rang.

5 Dancing Cinema

As early as the 1960s, in the context of the performance movement and expanded cinema, the amalgamation of film and dance became widespread in a variety of ways — through the combination of dance, film, music, and light in multimedia club performances (e.g., Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, 1966), and through the association of stage dance, film, and music (e.g., in John Cage’s Variations V, 1965, for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company) in such a way that the dance controls the film and the music (in this case using light barriers and antennae).

This type of union between film and dance in space is still a common feature of contemporary productions. Nowadays it is increasingly augmented by experiments with live-generated computer images integrated into the choreographies. Merce Cunningham, for example, has been working since 1997 with Character Studio software, which is used to create choreographies on the computer. In other words, movements are first generated digitally, and then the dancers must find a physical equivalent for these virtual movements. In the choreography BIPED (1999), dancers on stage are fused with computer-generated images. There are many software packages that enable real-time control of images and sound by dancers on stage. The dance group Troika Ranch from New York has been working for several years with Isadora software, with which images and sounds can be manipulated in real time by movements, with the result that the film is in a sense danced.

all footnotes

[1] Boris Lehmann, “Filmer la danse,” in Nouvelles de Danse, 26, Winter 1996, 31; Everything, absolutely everything, can dance in film. Images and people, objects and the camera. The dancing often takes place where one would least expect to find it. The more one shows dancing people, the less the film dances. — Trans. N.W.

[2] Cf. Sherrill Dodds, Dance on Screen. Genres and Media from Hollywood to Experimental Art (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001), 4f.

[3] Man Ray, cited in Jean-Michel Bouhours, Patrick de Haas (eds.), Man Ray, directeur du mauvais movies (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1998), 172. Dance is an ideal subject for film. — Trans. N.W.

[4] Barbara Filser, “Rhythmus-Bilder und Bild-Ballette — der Film als Tanz der Bilder in der französischen Avantgarde der zwanziger Jahre,” in Klaus Krüger, Matthias Weiß, eds., Tanzende Bilder. Interaktion von Musik und Film (Munich: Fink, 2008), 35.

[5] Wilhelm Diebold, cited in Gregor Gumpert, Die Rede vom Tanz. Körperästhetik in der Literatur der Jahrhundertwende (Munich: Fink, 1994), 216.

[6] Thus, contemporary critic and dance theorist Fritz Böhme entitles an article on Fischinger’s work Der Tanz der Linien (Fritz Böhme, “Der Tanz der Linien,” in: Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, August 16, 1930). William Moritz repeatedly refers to the concept of choreography in his article on Fischinger (William Moritz, “The Films of Oskar Fischinger,” Film Culture 58–60 (1974): 37–188, passim).

[7] Cf., e.g., the ecstatic rotation of the dancer Athikte in Paul Valéry, “L’âme et la danse,” in id., Œuvres complètes, Bd. 2, ed. Jean Hytier (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), 174ff.

[8] Cornelia Lund, Französische Lyrikillustrationen (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2002), 178ff.

[9] Barbara Filser, “Ballet Mécanique — Fernand Légers Manifest zur Kunst und zum Kino,” in Hans Belting, ed., Beiträge zu Kunst und Medientheorie: Projekte und Forschungen an der Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2000), 194.

[10] Élie Faure, “Une architecture en mouvement” (1922), in L’Art du cinéma, ed. Pierre Lherminier (Paris: Seghers, 1960), 75; Cinéplastique strives more and more each day to move closer to music. And to dance. — Trans. N. W.

[11] Cf., e.g., Germaine Dulac, “Du Sentiment à la ligne” (1927), in id., Écrits sur le cinéma (1919–1937). Textes réunis et présentés par Prosper Hillairet (Paris: Paris experimental, 1994), 88.

[12] Dulac (1927) 1994, 89; I am evoking a dancer! A woman? No. A line skipping in time to harmonious rhythms. — Trans. N. W

[13] Cited in John Mueller, “Watching an American Screen Original,” in Dance Magazine, May 1984, 132.

[14] Maya Deren, “Magie ist etwas Neues” (1946), in Jutta Hercher et al. eds., Maya Deren. Choreographie für eine Kamera. Schriften zum Film (Hamburg: Material-Verlag, 1995), 28.

[15] Deren, Magie ist etwas Neues (1946), 1995, 28.

[16] Cf. Claudia Rosiny, Videotanz. Panorama einer intermedialen Kunstform (Zürich: Chronos, 1999), 22.

[17] Cf. Rosiny, Videotanz 1999, 22.

[18] Merce Cunningham in Cunningham Dance Foundation, catalog Films and Videotapes, no place, no date, 4.

[19] In purely definitional terms, there is probably no difference between Deren’s cinedance approach and video dance. However, the actual practice of (analog) video dance shows that the specific methods used to work with motion picture are rarely exploited to their full potential, often in favor of the unity of body and space. Moreover, many video-dance works are adapted stage choreographies that were not originally conceived as dance for motion picture.

[20] Rosiny, Videotanz 1999, 200.

[21] Cf. the DVD Director’s Cut (2003) by Rechenzentrum, which features titles such as 35mm and lye. In 2007, the VJ collective Pfadfinderei held a VJ performance featuring remixes of Oskar Fischinger’s films.

List of books in this text

Ballet Mécanique: Fernand Légers Manifest zur Kunst und zum Kino
2000, Author: Filser, Barbara Publisher: Hatje Cantz

Dance on Screen: Genres and Media from Hollywood to Experimental Art
2001, Author: Dodds, Sherril Publisher: Palgrave

Der Tanz der Linien
16. August 1930, Author: Böhme, Fritz

Die Rede vom Tanz: Körperästhetik in der Literatur der Jahrhundertwende
1994, Author: Gumpert, Gregor Publisher: Fink

Du Sentiment à la ligne
1994, Author: Dulac, Germaine Publisher: Editions Paris expérimental

Filmer la danse
1996, Author: Lehmann, Boris

Films and videotapes
1987 [?], Author: {Cunningham Dance Foundation, inc. Publisher: Cunningham Dance Foundation

Französische Lyrikillustrationen
2002, Author: Lund, Cornelia Publisher: Aisthesis-Verl.

L’âme et la danse
1960, Author: Valéry, Paul Publisher: Gallimard

Magie ist etwas Neues [1946]
1995, Author: Deren, Maya Publisher: Material-Verl.

Man Ray: Directeur du mauvais movies [sic]
1997, Publisher: Centre Georges Pompidou

Rhythmus-Bilder und Bild-Ballette – der Film als Tanz der Bilder in der französischen Avantgarde der zwanziger Jahre
2008, Author: Filser, Barbara Publisher: Fink

The Films of Oskar Fischinger
1974, Author: Moritz, William

Une architecture en mouvement [1922]
1960, Author: Faure, Élie Publisher: Seghers

Videotanz: Panorama einer intermedialen Kunstform
1999, Author: Rosiny, Claudia Publisher: Chronos-Verl.

Watching an American Screen Original
1984, Author: Mueller, John

see aswell

  • Emile Ardolino
  • Fred Astaire
  • Athikte
  • Richard Attenborough
  • John Badham
  • Antonin de Bemels
  • Busby Berkeley
  • Maurice Blackburn
  • Fritz Böhme
  • Mary Ellen Bute
  • John Cage
  • Merce Cunningham
  • Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
  • Maya Deren
  • Wilhelm Diebold
  • Germaine Dulac
  • Isadora Duncan
  • Ed Emshwiller
  • Élie Faure
  • Oskar Fischinger
  • Liz Friedlander
  • Loïe Fuller
  • Valeska Gert
  • Thomas Grube
  • David LaChapelle
  • Fernand Léger
  • Len Lye
  • Adrian Lyne
  • Hans van Manen
  • Norman McLaren
  • William Moritz
  • Dudley Murphy
  • Man Ray
  • Rob(u)rang
  • Jerome Robbins
  • Claudia Rosiny
  • Walter Ruttmann
  • Enrique Sánchez Lansch
  • Andy Warhol
  • Robert Wise
  • Works
  • A Chorus Line
  • A Study in Choreography for Camera
  • Au quart de tour
  • Ballet mécanique
  • Beach Birds for Camera
  • By a Waterfall
  • Cain and Abel
  • Character Studio
  • Collar dance
  • Dance Chromatics
  • Dirty Dancing
  • Emak Bakia
  • Exploding Plastic Inevitable
  • Flash
  • Footlight Parade
  • Free Radicals
  • Isadora
  • Lichtspiel opus 1
  • Lichtspiel Opus II
  • Pas de Deux
  • Rhythm Is It!
  • Ritual in Transfigured Time
  • Rize
  • Rosas danst Rosas
  • Saturday Night Fever
  • Studien
  • Take the Lead
  • Tarantella
  • The Zephyr Song
  • Thèmes et Variations
  • Variations V
  • West Side Story

  • Timelines
    1920 – 2000

    All Keywords
  • Intermedialität (Chap. 3, 4.1, 5)
  • Simultaneität (Chap. 3, 5)
  • Verräumlichung (Chap. 3)
  • Verzeitlichung (Chap. 1)
  • Wechselspiel der Künste / Paragone (Chap. 1)
  • generative Verfahren (Chap. 5)
  • montage (Chap. 1, 3, 4.2)
  • rhythm (Chap. 1, 2.1, 4.2)

  • Socialbodies
  • Dance Screen
  • Grand Prix Vidéo Danse
  • Merce Cunningham Dance Company
  • Metropolitan Museum
  • Pfadfinderei
  • Rechenzentrum
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • Troika Ranch