Dance Numbers from Musicals

Robin Raven
Damn Yankees at Wagner College | Photo by Karen O'Donnell
Heart from Damn Yankees

Some of the greatest musical numbers from movies and plays feature elaborately choreographed dancing. When that dancing interprets the overall story and the specific lyrics of the song in just the right way, it elevates the production and makes it easy for the audience to become immersed in even a fantastical tale. Here are 20 such musical numbers that are individually remembered and loved.

1. One from A Chorus Line

As a musical about the private and public lives of dancers, A Chorus Line is an unconventional play with a faithful film adaptation. The performers sing One, which is often colloquially referred to as One Singular Sensation, during the extravagant dance finale. It starts with all nineteen characters dressed in identical, gold-colored costumes who give individual bows. Yet, as each dancer steps in line with the group, it becomes difficult to distinguish one dance from another.

Notable characteristics of this number are the gold top hats, the precision with which so many dancers all perform the same steps, and the seemingly endless shoulder-height chorus line kicks that complete the show. This dance number has audiences on their feet every time it is performed.

2. Singin' in the Rain (Title Song)

This Gene Kelly dance number from Singin' in the Rain is truly unforgettable. Feeling blissful after kissing the girl he fancies, Don Lockwood, portrayed by Kelly, starts strolling in the rain. As he bursts into song he starts a solo dance that's mesmerizing. It includes exuberant singing as he hangs onto a lamp post, fancy footwork, skipping down the lane, and splashing in puddles.

You're in good company if you adore this classic number. It has been recreated in some form in pop culture by artists like Usher, Robert Redford, and the cast of Glee. Ice skater Kurt Browning did an ice skating adaptation of the famous song and dance routine, and Tony Danza danced and hummed it for a brief scene in Who's The Boss?

3. Heart from Damn Yankees

Who can resist men in baseball uniforms dancing in unison to Bob Fosse's signature choreography style? The music is as catchy as the steps. As with all Fosse signature acts, the lyrics and story are flawlessly integrated into the dancing of Damn Yankees.

Heart, which is sometimes called You Gotta Have Heart because of the repeated lyric in the song, unfolds as the struggling players on the Washington Senators baseball team vow to do their best even through the odds are against them. The energy of the dance increases as they become more hopeful.

4. Skip to My Lou from Meet Me In St. Louis

The pageantry of this dance number is part of its charm. Rose and Esther, the oldest Smith sisters, have thrown a party, and this beautiful, upbeat, and fun dance sequence shows how their house party plays out. Esther, who is played by Judy Garland, has her eye on the boy next door, and her flirtations are obvious throughout the dance.

The Skip to My Lou dance number in Meet Me In St. Louis involves dozens of actors. The young women dance in sync with one another at certain points, while the young men are also in sync. That's before they are partnered off and dance around jovially together. There's also comic relief from a particularly shy young woman. Garland leads the numbers and shines with both her singing and her dancing.

5. Our Favorite Son from Will Rogers Follies

Helped by magnificent dancers and flashy costumes in Will Rogers Follies, this musical dance number seems to stop the show every time. It features fun hand-work while the dancers are seated and evolves into a big show-stopping production number.

Based on a short tune with a rapid beat, this chorus dance wows with its precision, bright colors, and high kicks. In a play that focuses on the life and times of the beloved performer and humorist, this big production number really stands out for its story and its choreography.

6. It's a Hard Knock Life from Annie

This is an elaborately choreographed and executed dance number from the movie and play adaptations of Annie that involves dozens of young girls. The film version has a young Aileen Quinn in the title role, leading the other orphans through a song that is very important to the story. After being caught awake in the middle of the night, Miss Hannigan makes all the orphans clean the entire place from top to bottom, and they break into this number to illustrate what their lives are really like in the orphanage.

Through this song and dance, the orphans get a voice to express how frustrated they are at the unfairness of their situations. They are exploited and mistreated, and they think it stinks. Dancing is artfully mixed with the chores that the young girls must perform. Acrobatics are performed on the fire escape as they plump pillows and throw out old dishwater. Walls are scrubbed while feet tap. The orphans cover the entire grounds of the orphanage throughout the elaborate routine.

7. I Don't Need Anything But You from Annie

Annie is just chock full of winning song and dance numbers, and that's a large part of why it's still widely popular decades after its initial release. There's just something about a father-daughter dance that warms the heart and puts a smile on your face, and this scene from Annie is certainly no exception.

Annie and Daddy Warbucks are united after she has happily agreed to be adopted by him, and they jovially tap dance, twirl, and do comedic dance bits together. While the dancing is rather simple in most productions, this scene is an audience favorite every time because of the emotions behind the dance.

8. The Rumble from West Side Story

Dramatic fight scenes sometimes tip over into the realm of dance, but West Side Story takes this phenomenon to a whole other level. The Rumble is a fight scene between rival gangs the Sharks and the Jets. Tony tries to stop the fighting at first, but it escalates.

The fight unfolds as an artfully choreographed dance in The Rumble. Full of award-winning choreography, the entire show is a dancer's delight. This scene, however, shines for its use of dance moves to portray a tense, dangerous situation, since the background music does not contain lyrics.

9. You're the One That I Want from Grease

In a playful back and forth struggle, Danny and Sandy admit their love for one another in this dance number near the end of the hit musical Grease. The song and dance were added to the musical when it was adapted for the silver screen, and were later used in several subsequent stage productions as well.

You're The One That I Want is a fun moment in the film. Danny reveals that he has a become a jock to impress Sandy, while Sandy appears to have taken a walk on the wild side to entice Danny. While the two main characters have had their fights throughout the show, this number gives them a chance to profess their love for one another and make a promise for a future together, all the while teasing each other. The song has a catchy tune that even amateur dancers can make into a flashy series of movements.

10. Don't Tell Mama from Cabaret

In the musical Cabaret, Don't Tell Mama is a really fun song with an excellent dance sequence to match. The musical is set in a German nightclub with cabaret dancers and musicians, and this song chronicles how the lead singer/dancer came to be dancing in a nightclub.

There is a grand theatricality to how Don't Tell Mama is performed. Many lines in the song feature fun anecdotes about the sexy nature of working as a dancer in a nightclub, and the dance is well matched to the song. It's sultry but also upbeat and fun.

11. Sixteen Going on Seventeen from The Sound of Music

Rolf and Liesl reveal their youth, innocence, and sweetness in this charming song and dance number from The Sound of Music, one of the most beloved musicals of all time. While the first couple of minutes of Sixteen Going on Seventeen are a bit stagnant on the dancing side, the song eventually explodes into lively dancing between the couple.

In the 1965 film version, the two teens twirl on benches and enjoy a delicate dance that finally leads to a sweet, innocent kiss. This song is a perfect example of lyrical irony since the 17-year-old Rolf boasts about how he is more mature than 16-year-old Liesl, when the opposite will unfold throughout the story.

12. All That Jazz from Chicago

As the opening number to another Fosse-choreographed musical, All That Jazz features mainly solo singing with a strong chorus of singers and dancers. It gets the show off to a bold, raucous start.

In All That Jazz, the dancing is dynamic and perfectly matched to the story unveiled through the lyrics that hint at things to come. Chicago is full of popular dance scenes, such as the Cell Block Tango and the puppeteer number We Both Reached for the Gun. For fans of musical dancing though, All That Jazz is the epitome of a successful song and dance number.

13. Shall We Dance from The King and I

One passionate, thrilling dance in musical theater is the high energy waltz of Anna and the King in The King and I. Their volatile relationship makes the lead-up to the dance especially powerful, and the story that is unravelled through the dance itself draws the audience in. An unmistakable chemistry happens between these two characters as they come together in the waltz.

The high energy of the dance, paired with the anger and passion that precede it, makes for an unforgettable love scene. This is a great example of a musical that shows as it tells. The fast waltz with wide steps reflects the rapid pace of their hearts as they have little room to wonder if their relationship is turning into a romance.

14. L'Chaim from Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof, a renowned film and play, has one of the most fun all-male dance scenes of any musical. In a village pub atmosphere the men celebrate all that is good in their lives. The dancing is traditional folk dance, and the link between the music and the dancing is so authentic that the audience is drawn into the number from the very first few notes and clanging of the glasses.

L'Chaim, which means "to life," is a high-energy, happy number, and the dancing is woven perfectly into the story. The reason for the celebration is the impending engagement of Tevye's daughter, and the joy is evident in both the song and the dance.

15. Greased Lightning from Grease

Greased Lightning is one consistent audience pleaser from a show full of dancing. For this song and dance routine, the young male members of the cast perform an ode to their favorite cars. Like in the pub scene in Fiddler on the Roof, the all-male cast of the scene demonstrate a jovial comraderie.

Grease is a musical with stellar singing, but the dancing is also full of energy and tons of fun. The lyrics of Greased Lightning are a bit raunchy, and that has made this number a bit controversial over the years. One thing that can't be denied is that the dancing in this scene is top notch.

16. The Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show

This cult dance number from The Rocky Horror Picture Show has enjoyed fame similar to Michael Jackson's Thriller dance. While the dance is very simple, the way it matches to the music makes it a fan favorite. The narrator sings and guides you through the dance moves and they are repeated several times.

Because many productions of this show encourage audience participation, the rapidity with which one can learn this dance ultimately makes it an instant hit with virtually all audience members. It's not unusual for people to get up and dance whether it's in a screening of the film or a production of the play.

17. I Got Rhythm from Crazy for You

This classic musical dance number features showgirl-style dancing with a precision that can't be beat. I Got Rhythm was a song with a lifelong before it was integrated into Crazy For You, but it fits seamlessly into this story. It's sung with great spirit as characters are celebrating the success of a show.

The catchy tap rhythms make for exciting wings, turns, and a final chorus line with high kicks. Fast-paced, and with an unforgettable rhythm, the dancing to I Got Rhythm is a real show-stopper.

18. Whenever You're Away From Me from Xanadu

Although the movie Xanadu was not a smashing success, the soundtrack was, and this tap dance number was beautifully orchestrated to play up the strengths of both Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly, in what was to be his last feature film role. It's a fantasy sequence where an older Danny McGuire, portrayed by Kelly, is imagining that he's dancing with a girl who inspired him in his youth.

Whenever You're Away From Me was choreographed by Kenny Ortega, who would go on to critical acclaim for his work on films like Dirty Dancing and shows like what was to be Michael Jackson's last tour. Recently, the film was adapted for the stage with irreverent, spoof-like twists. This musical number was preserved as a tap dance number that sparkles on stage as well as on film.

19. I Want to Be Happy from No, No, Nanette

With its rollicking tap dance, I Want to Be Happy starts out slow and sweet. As the scene progresses, it builds up to be an unforgettable dance number. Performed by Jimmy and Nanette, it explores what happiness means and reveals some truths about the pursuit of happiness despite some of its slightly silly lyrics.

Featuring a large chorus, this song from No, No, Nanette may seem like a sleepy song at first, which is all the more reason to enjoy the fast and furious ending. Lightning-quick tap steps are what characterize this fantastic dance scene.

20. Put On a Happy Face from Bye Bye Birdie

In the film version of Bye Bye Birdie, this dance number is exuberant, original, and a lot of fun. Dick Van Dyke portrays Albert, an agent and songwriter who is troubled when his star is drafted, but he keeps optimistic. He even advises his fiance, Rosie, to be optimistic as well, singing Put On a Happy Face to her. Rosie is played to perfection by Janet Leigh.

Albert sings and dances the song until Rosie has, in fact, put on a happy face. His sometimes over-the-top dancing is just right for the character and the scene. It really works, and the addition of animation adds to the fun of the number. You may find yourself tapping and humming this song for days.

Enjoy The Dancing

If these dances appeal to you, you might want to consider preparing for a career in musicals. The dancing is lots of fun, and the cast experience can be more varied than in a ballet company. A career in musical theater can be a rewarding dance career that goes on far longer than a career in ballet, due to the less physically demandng routines that musical theater dancers are required to perform.

Dance Numbers from Musicals