Like many a young girl, I wanted to be a ballerina. Scratch that, I really wanted to be a figure skater, but there were no ice skating rinks where I grew up, and ballet was the closest I could get to the graceful athleticism of figure skating. However, financial limitations prevented me from officially studying ballet, so I ended up teaching myself what I could. I did this by checking out library books and renting movies and documentaries, and my obsession with dance-related media has never waned.
Nowadays, Netflix fills in my dance movie gap, in particular, dance documentaries—currently thirteen to be exact, ranging from classical ballet to senior dance troupes to exotic dancing. For my fellow dance geeks, I offer you a rated list of these documentaries because it’s my job. Jealous?
Directed by Wim Wenders
Pina follows the career of choreographer Pina Bausch, a modern dance legend who created Tanztheater, a form of dance theatre. Pina is lovely, for not only showcasing the creative genius of its source, but also documenting the grief of the artists who knew her, as Bausch died during the filming of the documentary. Watch it for the stunning and thought-provoking scene where a ballet dancer dances en pointe with raw meat in her shoes for an excruciatingly long time.
Rating: 5 Fouettes
Directed by Vicky Funari & Julia Query
Though less about dancing and more about labor activism for a stigmatized group of workers, Live Nude Girls Unite follows the efforts of sex workers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady to unionize to end unfair demotions, racism, and other unjust labor practices. These are unabashed feminist women who call peep shows “weird slumber parties” and give credit to the work of such feminist sex worker greats as Carol Leigh, a.k.a. the Scarlot Harlot. Watch it for the tension between the narrator, a third wave ’90s feminist, and her mom, a second wave feminist activist. Bonus are the cute animations, which will appeal to any comic lover.
Rating: 5 Feminist Fouettes (which is not a thing, but did lead to the discovery of my new favorite Tumblr)
Directed by Hilla Medalia
Pierre Dulaine, a Palestinian-British man and four-time ballroom dance world champion, goes back to his birth town of Jaffa in Israel to inspire elementary children and their parents to work through cultural differences via dancing. He implements a ballroom dancing program at a Jewish school and an Arab school and then has students pair up with students from the other school. This documentary shines for illuminating the human side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a unique way. Watch it for Noor, a young Palestinian girl, whose righteous anger and bravery is inspiring and identifiable.
Rating: 5 jazz hands
Directed by Saxton Moore
Funded by Kickstarter and narrated by Chris Rock, Dancing in the Light is not quite a documentary, but it features great animations and dance legend Debbie Allen. The short film tells the story of Janet Collins, a classically trained black ballet dancer who faced down racism in the dance world on multiple occasions in the mid-1900s. This short largely focuses on when she was accepted to the Ballet de Russe de Monte Carlo in 1932, only to be told that in order to participate she had to paint her arms and face white. Watch it because you should.
Rating: 4.5 releves
Directed by Katrine Philp
This Danish documentary follows a fifteen-year-old Russian dancer named Egor who moves to Denmark to compete with a new partner, fourteen-year-old Mie. It is a little weird to watch teenagers perform the requisite passion of Latin ballroom dancing, but even more intriguing is watching Egor, who displays a stereotypical Russian stoicism, negotiate the cultural differences of Denmark. Watch it for fifteen-year-old Egor’s intense expressiveness and the fake tan he has to rub on for competition.
Rating: 4.5 ganchos
Directed by Jody Lee Lipes
A quiet, contemplative documentary that follows the creation of NYC Ballet’s 422 ballet, choreographed by twenty-five year old corps dance Justin Peck. The quietness of this documentary allows room for witnessing the many artists involved in a wholly collaborative process. Watch it for Peck’s complex, fast choreography.
Rating: 4 Little Swans
Directed by Dori Berinstein
This documentary that follows the establishment of the senior citizen hip-hop dance team for the New Jersey Nets basketball team is a delight. Not only is it great to see a documentary focus on an age group so often ignored by the media, but the discussions among the female dancers about their bodies and sexuality is important to witness. To quote the team leader Betty: “60 year old people can be sexy.” Watch it for when the ladies go shopping to find sexier costumes.
Rating: 4 dancing “grey foxes”
Directed by Bertrand Normand
Ballerina follows five classically trained Russian ballerinas and is perfect for bringing out your inner little girl with dreams of being a prima ballerina. Watch it for how seriously the Russians take classical ballet.
Rating: 4 tutus
Directed by Bess Bargman
Another dance documentary about the world of competitive dance, First Position follows six young dancers as they prepare for the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix. Competitive ballet dancing raises all kinds of concerns for me about the borders between art and sport, but mainly watch it for Aran Bell, the adorable eleven-year-old boy from Italy who keeps dancing despite teasing and harassment much like Billy Elliot who Bell shares a resemblance to.
Rating: 3 Grand Prix medals
Directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy
This documentary chronicles the lives of several students of the esteemed performing arts school, Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. Thematically, each students’ life is explored based on similar themes: parental influence and pressure, the pressure to be “big” before even hitting eighteen, and most importantly, the importance of arts education to freaky performing arts kids who find a place at a school where they roll out a red carpet for Halloween. Watch it for the sequence featuring ballerina Grace working on her Juilliard audition.
Rating: 3 echappes
Directed by Joe Manganiello
Yes, that is Joe Manganiello of Magic Mike fame who directs this documentary about La Bare, a male strip club in Dallas, Texas. La Bare is interesting for exploring the gendered differences of male sex work versus female work, but some parts are best avoided. Like the near ten minutes from 36:00-45:00 where two bros overcompensate so hard it ends up overshadowing the rest of the guys who are interesting and thoughtful. Watch it for owner Randy, Master Blaster’s 78-year old mother who happily exerts her business prowess supporting her son.
Rating: 2.5 dancing dongs
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo
Mad Hot Ballroom follows a ballroom dance program at several NYC public schools that culminates in elementary children competing in a city wide competition. At times, the documentary feels like Kids Say the Darndest Things which some people find endearing, but I generally find dull. However, watching the kids fall in love with dance is pretty darn special.
Rating: 2.5 merengues
Directed by Nancy Buirski
Afternoon of a Faun follows the life of former principal dancer Tanaquil “Tanny” Le Clerq whose career was cut short when she contracted polio in 1956. Unfortunately, as a former wife of George Balanchine, the documentary ends up being as much about him (like most dance documentaries with Balanchine even remotely in its orbit) as Tanny, if not more. Watch it for the old video clips that demonstrate despite poor film quality that Tanny Le Clercq radiates dynamism and personality with every move.
Rating: 2 grand battements
Directed by Sue Bourne
I had to list this documentary about the world of competitive Irish dancing that is no longer on Netflix. This documentary introduced me to a world I didn’t even know existed and highlighted the weird way in which competitive dancing glamorizes young girls (like Dance For Me or even Dance Moms, if you want something to hate-watch). Obviously, the dancing is amazing, but unfortunately there is no information about the technicality of the form and how dancers are compared for purposes of judging.
Also, for the figure skating fangurls out there, Netflix has two documentaries. The Price of Gold (2014) revisits the 1994 Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan scandal: THIS WAS THE GOLDEN AGE OF FIGURE SKATING, Y’ALL! Second is The Fabulous Ice Age (2013), which is a lovely documentary documenting the history of traveling ice shows. Watch it for one of the few looks into ice skating that openly discusses race and sexuality in the field.