In her bi-weekly column for Document, McKenzie Wark lists her favorite instances of on-screen dancing, from the rave in Zion to ’60s sci-fi fantasia

COVID put a dent in my dancing outings. Jenny got it, too. We ended up isolating in separate places. To pass the time, we watched movies. The cinema and the rave are opposite ways for bodies to be in space together. One is intensely visual; the other downplays the sense of sight. One encourages bodies to be still; the other to be moving. One offers a story and dialogue; the other a mostly wordless, rhythmic journey. Given their differences, it can be hard to portray nightlife, the nightclub, the rave, dancing, partying, on-screen. Good filmmakers love a challenge, however. Here are my favorite cinematic party scenes.

20. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
This came out when I was 16. The first movie to which I ever went with a date. John Travolta does moves stolen from Puerto Rican dancers, while the Bee Gees do grooves stolen from Black R&B.

19. Cruising (1980)
A controversial one. Came out as I was attempting to be a gay man, and some of the club ambience is relatable. You can almost smell the sweat, poppers, and kundle. Pacino’s wacky dancing actually kinda works with the track, originally “Lump” by Mutiny. It’s the funkiest groove of all time. A cinematic simulation of the scene, just before the AIDS pandemic, tore into it.

18. Dogs in Space (1986)
It’s the Melbourne post-punk scene—not Sydney, but close enough to the open-ended, creative, bohemian world that made me. Michael Hutchence doing his fey, androgynous thing as the lead singer. The camera hangs the back, taking in the spiky-haired, speed-fueled crowd of—as we say in Australia—“punters.”

17. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The movie is exhausting, but worth it for the rave in Zion at the end. Multicultural joy, conjured with the contrasting tempos of the slow-motion shots and the up-tempo track.

16. Dirty Dancing (1987)
Jenny got me into this one, which I didn’t clearly remember. It’s a very heterosexual movie, but the sensuality of the dancers lends itself to some mighty queer gazing. Love the early scenes, with their ’60s period music.

15. Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
A different kind of nightlife movie, where it’s the backdrop to cynical power plays. New York as Babylon, but as Burt Lancaster says, “I love this dirty town.” Bonus: Chico Hamilton filmed playing small group jazz, near its peak as a popular art form.

“The cinema and the rave are opposite ways for bodies to be in space together. One is intensely visual; the other downplays the sense of sight. One encourages bodies to be still; the other to be moving.”

14. Blade (1998)
The vampire rave scene, with its dancers showering in blood, is dance-as-death-drive perfected. The track, by the Pump Panel, is an absolute banger. The opening to The Hunger runs a close second.

13. La Notte (1961)
This is nightlife as space-of-power rather than play, with Marcello Mastroianni as the left-wing writer trying to decide whether to sell out. Relatable! Plus, Monica Vitti and Jeanne Moreau in gorgeous, simple black frocks.

12. Morvern Callar (2002)
Spoiler: It ends with Samantha Morton wandering about an Iberian rave, maybe in a bit of an ecstasy glaze. It’s all close-ups and strobing light—and cut to the Mammas & the Pappas “Dedicated to the One I Love.” A rare and effective choice, to give the scene a different soundtrack.

11. Elvis (2022)
I made Jenny watch this one, and it cheered us both up. It’s the myth of Elvis—sacrificed for love, to us, the mass audience. The part I love recreates Black nightlife in the Memphis of ’50s: Big Mamma Thornton and Little Richard pushing out the bounds of performing gender. I’d rather watch a whole movie about all that.

10. Basic Instinct (1992)
Sharon Stone kissing her girlfriend on the dance floor. Michael Douglas in a ridiculous shirt. The women retire to a bathroom stall to kiki with their plug. He follows. Sharon kicks the door shut in his face. No notes.

9. Wild Style (1982)
We are obliged to follow the white woman as she “discovers” the early Bronx hip-hop world. But once we get there, the scenes have a glorious intensity. Busy Bee on the mic. Grandmaster Flash scratching in his kitchen. Street style before it got captured and branded.

8. The Shanghai Gesture (1941)
It’s an absurd, orientalist fantasy. But it’s giving a luminous Gene Tierney as a self-possessed young woman, having her head turned by a nightlife where “absolutely anything could happen, at any moment.”

7. Shortbus (2006)
Sex clubs aren’t quite my thing. This one is staged as a kind of utopian counterpoint to repressive, post-Giuliani era New York. Justin Vivian Bond sings the finale—a scene of loving, queer reconciliation with the passing show of life. The orgy scenes on the DVD release are a bonus.

“The dance scene is the main event, rather than an interlude. McQueen gets it: that dance can be the only place some people get free.”

6. Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
Two contrasting kinds of party: the Tokyo version of a chaser club, where men acquire the attention of the Japanese equivalent of trans femmes. Versus a boisterous gathering of bohemians in the tiny office of an avant-garde film club.

5. Barbarella (1968)
Jenny thinks this one is “ridiculous,” but this ’60s sci-fi fantasia is one of my favorite movies. The evil alien city of Sogo looks like my kind of place. A man swims naked inside a giant hookah, from which a woman smokes. When asked what it is, she replies, “essence of man.”

4. So Pretty (2019)
Actually my favorite, as my friends made it. The dancing scene is at Bossa Nova Civic Club. The sensibility of the rave permeates this whole film, whose main achievement is its elegant choreography of the movement of the camera, in relation to the movement of bodies in space.

3. Shakedown (2018)
Leilah Weinraub’s documentary about a Black lesbian strip club. The extraordinary thing is how close the camera gets to the action, without seeming to disturb it. Black joy on its own terms.

2. Klute (1971)
A not-bad film about sex work, starring Jane Fonda. Late in the film, she gets high and goes to a club, where in a long take the camera dollies backwards through a scrim of dancing bodies. We watch her react to the scene, spilling into her own feelings.

1. Lovers Rock (2020)
The best film about the dance floor I’ve ever seen. Steve McQueen takes us to a West Indian house party in London around 1980, and we stay there for most of the film, watching characters use the space for a range of moods, pursuing their desires—not least of which, release from the white world. The dance scene is the main event, rather than an interlude. McQueen gets it: that dance can be the only place some people get free.

0. BoJack Horseman (2014-2020)
If I’m being honest, what I watched most while I was ill was this TV show—made back with Netflix actually took some risks. No matter how many times I see it, I never skip the party scene with which it opens: BoJack, miserable and drunk and fucked up at his own house party, staggering around and landing in the pool. We’ve all been there.