Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Boys Will Be Boys: When Men Dance With Men on Film

This post is part of the Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon, now underway at FerdyOnFilms.com.

A man approaches a couple on a tightly-packed dance floor and asks to cut in; the lady agrees, but when she steps aside, the man joins her partner instead for a little man-on-man waltz action. Observing the situation, bandleader Al Jolson quips, "Boys will be boys!"

The scene is from the 1934 musical melodrama Wonder Bar (most likely you remember it from the seminal documentary on gay representation in film, The Celluloid Closet). But that was far from the first time two men danced together on the silver screen; in the famous Dickson experimental sound film from 1894 (which some scholars credit as the first ever motion picture with sound), two men unironically hold each other close as a violinist plays in the background.

And thus the image of -- and approach to -- men dancing together on film was (unintentionally) established with these two early examples, one comic, the other (pardon the pun) straightforward. And the boys have been doing it one way or the other ever since.

When one first thinks of men dancing with men in the movies, most likely the first thoughts are of such widescreen production numbers as those seen in West Side Story and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, wherein macho gang members and farm hands prove their manliness by way of elaborately choreographed ballets. On the flip side is the homoerotically charged "Y.M.C.A" dance routine in the camptastic Can't Stop the Music; the jocks on display here display their manhood in quite different ways than their predecessors, but the gist is still the same: "our testosterone levels are about to burst, so there is only one thing left to do ... gotta dance!"

Another instance of men dancing together is when they just want to entertain ... call them the "lets put on a show!" moments. Rooted in burlesque, it is no wonder that most of these tend toward the bawdy side, from drag queens (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) to strippers (The Full Monty), but if you want seriousness, then there is always the cat-walkers of Paris is Burning. They take their voguing very seriously.

Then of course, there is the instances of men not so much dancing with men as men dancing with men. Beginning in the 70's, out and out "gay films" became more common, and naturally, they often showed the guys getting their groove on (this being the 70's and all), whether in joyous group dances (The Boys in the Band) or popper-fueled bacchanals (Cruising). And even though disco died, the need to cut loose didn't, with similar scenes appearing in more recent gay-themed films, such as Edge of Seventeen and Trick.

But not all man on man dancing has to be on a crowded disco floor; more intimate, one-on-on pas de deux range from the sublimely comedic (Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot) to the bittersweet (Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in Philadelphia) to the achingly romantic (Glen Berry and Scott Neal in Beautiful Thing).

In closing, there is perhaps no better ode to the "men dancing with men" sub-sub-genre than Ray's Male Heterosexual Dance Hall, the Oscar-winning short film whose title says it all; a delightfully droll comedy of manners ... and you can dance to it.

For more of the Invitation to Dance Movie Blogathon, visit FerdyOnFilms.com.

1 comment:

  1. Kirby - I love this post! It's very informative about how unself-conscious men partnering with men on the dance floor has been, off and on, throughout film history. Thanks for this. And let me just add my favorite example of male dance partners - Rudolph Nureyev and Anthony Dowell as Valentino and Nijinsky in Valentino.


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