It’s just a jump to the left
And then a step to the right
With your hands on your hips
You bring your knees in tight
But it’s the pelvic thrust
That really drives you insane
I’m sure these lyrics are familiar to most of you, dear readers. With the surprising prevalence of The Rocky Horror Picture Show despite its cult status, even if one hasn’t watched the film, many of its (for lack of a better term) memes have stuck in the cultural consciousness. As a younger me, while watching this I wondered what the heck a dance had to do with anything, and honestly as an adult I still don’t know for sure–although I fully know that in this film, things don’t really have to make sense. It just comes out of nowhere. But thinking a little bit harder, maybe it wasn’t as out of place as I originally thought. After all, Rocky Horror isn’t the only piece of media utilizing the magic of dancing in the way it’s typically used: to signify a transformation.
Of course, the Time Warp isn’t necessarily the transformation that catches people’s attention. It signifies the subtle transformation of Brad and Janet into pawns of whatever the fuck Frankenfurter is doing rather than, say, the more outlandish transformations of the cast into cabaret dancers at the end, or Magenta and Riff Raff revealing themselves as aliens. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that as a narrative element, dancing is used as shorthand to denote some sort of change in characters. Take, for instance, one of my favorite tropes: the (masquerade) ball. Mask or not, dancing is used as a transitive state where one tends to be changing, be it by falling in love with someone or figuring out some piece in a nefarious plot. In most pieces of media, though, these changes are very subtle and mostly conveyed through meaningful glances and close-ups.
There are tons of other examples: so many more that the phenomena has a page on TV Tropes. If we’re looking at more conventional dancing, though, I can think of no better example than Beauty and the Beast. When thinking of the famous Disney flick, what’s the first scene that comes to your mind? Most likely the ballroom scene where Belle is in that big yellow dress and the titular song plays in the background. It is at this point where it’s made clear that both Belle and the beast have overcome their initial hostilities towards each other. They have essentially “transformed” into the couple that the film toted them as. For another example of this more conventional style, we can look once again to Labyrinth. Strangely enough, the so-called “magic dance” that asks “what kind of magic spell to use” doesn’t actually have anything to do with dancing. The scene we’re looking at is Sarah’s peach-induced dream (aka: the “ballroom scene”). It’s here that Jareth is trying his hardest to transform Sarah into what he perceives as her perfect woman, to lull her into complacency with fancy dresses and an implied romance. However, Jareth’s attempts fail and she wakes up, transforming her not into the woman of his creation, but a young woman whose resolve is strengthened enough to beat him at his own game.
Outside of conventional dancing, we have things that have a little bit more symbolism to them. Take, for instance, pretty much every magical girl transformation ever, but specifically Sailor Moon. While each scout has different elements in their transformation scene, many of them have them twirling around in whatever sparkle void this happens in. I mean, look at this:
Though this symbolism of girls changing into interstellar space warriors is fairly obvious. On the other hand, looking at Final Fantasy X we’re able to see a dance that is much more emotionally connected, to both the people watching and the person performing. Yuna’s sending dance is almost always somber, marking the final transformation of someone’s time on the mortal plane, to one who will travel to their final resting place on the farplane. Should this dance not be performed (by a sender), then the person’s essence will transform into a monster, stalking the earth until someone comes to slay it. In terms of FFX’s story, this is not the only transformation taking place. The first time Tidus watches Yuna perform the sending, he becomes more attuned to the hardships that people have to go through, especially Yuna. In this way, he himself is transforming into a more well-rounded person (and into the love interest). Taking a look at various other video games such as tactical RPGs, while their dances are not as plot important, they are usually connected with changing the status of an enemy (adding a confusion effect or weakening defenses) or the status of a party member (granting more “energy” or increasing strength).
I originally thought this trend may have its roots in paganism, as many branches of that spirituality and the religions that draw from it utilize dances in their rituals and celebrations. Upon researching, though, I couldn’t really find a connection between these dances and the idea of transformation in such defined terms—typically it seems as though their dancing is more for the preparation of change than the defining moment of change itself (such as the welcoming of summer vegetation via maypole or a simple gathering of energy during a meeting). While I could speculate on the roots of transformative dance, I think it mostly comes from a desire to find magic in otherwise mundane activities, or to give more meaning to an act that already holds some historical and symbolic importance (just look at any piece of media taking place in the Regency era). All I know is if the magic of dance was so easy to draw out, it would have made my gym class much more exciting.