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TV’s Most Memorable Dance Sequences, According to Critics

From "Mad Men" and "Bunheads," to "So You Think You Can Dance" and "It's Always Sunny," these shows make the most of a moment.

"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"

“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”

FXX

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What’s your favorite dance sequence on TV ever?

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Rolling Stone

Look, there are surely more emotionally moving options than the one I’ve chosen. Mac’s interpretive dance about his sexuality from the last “It’s Always Sunny” finale was among the most remarkable and unexpected moments of recent TV. The year before, “Better Things” wonderfully concluded its season with Sam, her mom, and two of her daughters recreating the video from Christine and the Queens’ “Tilted” as a birthday present for Max. Anyone who votes for Sasha’s “Istanbul/Constantinople” dance from “Bunheads” here is absolutely right to do so — a great piece of choreography that was also revelatory about a character designed to be tough to love. There’s Pete and Trudy’s desperate Charleston on “Mad Men,” Carlton doing The Carlton, the “5 O’Clock World” cold open from “The Drew Carey Show” that quickly became that show’s new main title sequence, Nick Andopolis’ “Groove Line” disco meltdown in the “Freaks and Geeks” finale, and a lot more.

But come on: is there any way I’m not going to choose “Scrubs” surgeon Chris Turk dancing to Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison” here? In the 13-plus years since that episode aired, it is by far the TV scene I have watched the most, and shared the most, whenever I or a loved one was in need of something to smile about. Donald Faison’s limbs move so elastically, it can feel like a digital effect, and the interjections of Turk’s audience (Janitor: “He’s so… damn… talented”) only enhance his nimble genius. It is one minute of pure, televised joy so potent, Fortnite stole Faison’s moves.

Gwen Ihnat (@gwenemarie), The A.V. Club

“It’s Oh So Quiet,” an old Betty Hutton song later popularized by Bjork, is perfect for a blockbuster dance number (just check out the finale to woefully underlooked movie “Happy, Texas”). The dearly departed “Bunheads,” Amy Sherman-Palladino’s short-lived series about a California dance school run by the odd couple of dance vet Fanny (Kelly Bishop) and Vegas showgirl Michelle (Sutton Foster), went to that same well, but used it to show just how difficult dancing really is. In Episode 11’s cold open, Michelle is rehearsing “Oh So Quiet” (sung by Lucy Woodward) with her teenaged class, and the several years older instructor finds it hard to keep up as the number shifts from graceful ballet to enthusiastic jazz. But Foster’s exhausted wisecracks are hilarious (“Ugh, this is so hard. Why do you do this?”), and at the end we have new appreciation not just for the dance but for the clearly enamored teacher– as the camera pulls back and reveals that Fanny is watching a tape of the rehearsal. Kelly Bishop has a perfectly inscrutable look on her face, perhaps sad about the dance numbers she herself can’t pull off any more, and realizing that as much as she may be loathe to admit it, Michelle is a hell of a dance teacher. Damn, I still miss this show.

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

I could name several different but impressive dance sequences from The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — “Settle for Me,” “I’ve Got My Head in the Clouds,” and “Anti-Depressants Are So Not a Big Deal” all stand out as favorites, and all for different reasons — but if you think that I’m not going to spend this time highlighting literally everything about “Dance Academy,” you are wrong. However, I also refuse to choose a favorite dance sequence from this Australian import that is simultaneously both the greatest and the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life. From Tara’s performance where she slips on a bead (!!!!) and breaks her back to everything Abigail ever did, this show was packed with so much dancing and even more DRAMA. Also, I would just like to shout-out Zac Efron in “Bet On It” from “High School Musical 2.” It’s not the most inspired dancing but it is ART. Do not @ me.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

I’m not sure I have the exact answer here and I haven’t given a laundry list answer for a while. There are things that come immediately to mind. Nick doing disco on the all-time classic “Discos and Dragons” episode of “Freaks and Geeks.” Bert Cooper’s song-and-dance departure on “Mad Men.” Mac’s modern dance confession in the most recent season finale of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Sam’s graduation dance/gift in the second season finale of “Better Things.” Something from the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” musical episode, probably “Walk Through Fire”? Something from “Bunheads,” probably “Istanbul.” Then there are the Dennis Potter musicals that I feel like I have to mention because otherwise there’s zero chance anybody will, so I’m thinking “Dem Bones” from “The Singing Detective” and almost anything from “Pennies From Heaven.” Oh and because not all choreography and dancing has to be identical, I’d offer you the two-plus minutes of sweeping the floor that ended the seventh episode of Showtime’s “Twin Peaks.”

And so with all that out of the way, final answer is going to be Alex & tWitch doing a hip-hop routine to “Outta Your Mind” on “So You Think You Can Dance.” It’s the pairing of probably the show’s best and most versatile hip-hop dancer with possibly the show’s best overall dancer period that makes this number a model of hard-hitting precision and something more humorous and whimsical.

Alec Bojalad (@alecbojalad, Den of Geek)

Oh man. I’ve waited my whole TV Critics Survey life (like three weeks) for this question. There are so many awesome and awesomely gratuitous dance sequences in the TV world, particularly in the TV comedy world. There’s Mac’s touching dance from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” Season 13, the “BoJack Horseman” hallucination song and dance sequence from season 5, and “Scrubs’s” Alan Sepinwall Special: The Turk Dance.

For my ultimate answer though, I’m going to go to a recent drama with “Legion” Season 2, Episode 1’s dance battle. “Legion,” for all its fault (and in “Legion” Season 2 those faults are…well, uh legion), knows how to creatively stage a battle sequence. David Haller, the mutant at “Legion’s” core, has near God-like powers and as such his fighting skills must be hard to effectively depict on a cable TV budget. So “Legion” does the smart thing by not even attempting to. The heroes, villains, and antiheroes sing, dance, and even rap several times through “Legion’s” three-season run. It’s this dance sequence from the Season 2 premiere that is by far the coolest and best illustrates the show’s style of mind-dancing combat.

Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote

Yes, there have been great moments for dance in scripted shows, but in the unscripted realm, “So You Think You Can Dance” has had easily a dozen iconic numbers by itself.

One of the most moving? This incredible piece by Tyce Diorio, which Melissa and Ade performed:

Just try to watch it and not cry. GOOD LUCK.

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

Recent favorite: On a complex show I never comfortably settled into overall, “Legion” on FX in Season 1 featured an amazing dance number with Aubrey Plaza as Lenny Busker set to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” The sultry choreography perfectly captured the chaotic landscape of David (Dan Stevens) mind. Busker was an iteration of The Devil parasite living inside mutant David’s head, tormenting him. Lenny/Dr. Busker just levels everything as she dances and preens to this perfect song for the scene. This ex “Parks and Recreation” star just took her acting game to a whole new level in this series, and I bring it up because not long after this aired and season one wrapped, she was booked on the first season (on Viceland) of “Desus & Mero” and those guys totally woofed it with zero questions about “Legion” or this stunning role she had just turned in.

Days of yore favorite: “Batman” (circa 1966) The Batusi, hell yes! The Riddler and King Tut’s moll roofied Adam West’s Batman who “recited the multiplication tables backwards” to snap out of his drugged haze and continue his batty dance moves.

Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool

“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” has never been afraid to push boundaries — of genre, of good taste — but it’s always found ways to reinvent itself and burst forth with new ideas that keep it going strong even 14 years in. Never was that clearer than in the finale of Season 13, “Mac Finds His Pride,” in which Rob McElhenney’s Mac finally comes out of the closet after more than a decade of no-homo jokes to the most serious, stylized, and downright earnest sequence of the show’s history. A rain-soaked interpretive dance number Mac performs for his father in prison, it bucks classic “Always Sunny” tradition by being actually good – a yearning, emotionally-charged expression of self featuring an absolutely jacked McElhenney (the latest of Mac’s dramatic body transformations) undulating and swaying to Sigur Rós with professional ballerina Kylie Shea. Unlike the natural light and handheld camerawork of the show’s normal lo-fi presentation, this is dramatic, still, shot with dramatic floodlights against an inky blackness – you’d almost think you were watching “Legion” instead.

In a sitcom that features characters who huff paint and come up with schemes like “Kitten Mittens,” Mac’s dance shocks not only with its quality (it’s an incredible work of interpretive dance regardless of context) but its novelty. Mac’s dad leaves halfway through the dance, which brings Mac to tears; and yet, he keeps going, turning the seasons-long gag into the show’s one, rare moment of sincere, transformative beauty. “I get it,” Danny Devito’s Frank Reynolds whispers at the end; it’s hard not to feel just as shocked as he does at one of TV’s crassest comedies stepping up to the prestige plate.

Jacob Oller (@JacobOller), Paste Magazine

I don’t know anything about dance so at a certain level of expertise, it all begins to look like magic. That’s why my pick values narrative oomph over Olympic-level athleticism, even if it’s perhaps the steamiest Frasier ever got. Yes, I’m picking a dance from “Frasier,” specifically the first time that Niles and his long-pined-for love Daphne cut a rug during the third season’s “Moon Dance.” If you don’t get giddy about a romantic tango between two dorks that wouldn’t see their relationship blossom for another five seasons, you simply can’t be helped. The episode was appreciated in its time, winning an Emmy for writing (at an awards show that reenacted the event), but it was first-time “Frasier” director Kelsey Grammer who really helped David Hyde Pierce and Jane Leeves tap into the dance sequence’s sweet and sexy surprise. All it can take is one dance to put everything in a different light, even in a show as silly as “Frasier.”

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

This is such a tough one because I totally loved the TV show version of “Fame” (even when it was in syndication and all of the students were 33-years-old). But I also loved “Smash.” Both were more vocally oriented, only occasionally serving up full-blown dance numbers. So as much as I will always remember “Fame’s” “42nd Street” from way into its run, I am going with two “Smash” sequences because one was just amazing and the other was just insane. The first is Season 1’s “National Pastime,” featuring Megan Hilty’s Ivy as Marilyn Monroe and a bunch of jacked chorus boys in a blazing salute to baseball that was rollicking and fittingly athletic…especially for someone who doesn’t understand sportsball and usually thinks musicals are meh. It was the kind of number that I imagine my father would have adored if he wasn’t watching reruns of “M*A*S*H.” The second, as you may imagine from my earlier description, came later that season with the bonkers “Thousand and One Nights.” A Bollywood fantasy number alone is out there (although “Legends of Tomorrow” had some damn fun with the concept with Tala Ashe, who, fun fact, guested on this episode of “Smash”!), but when you add in Raza Jefferey and a slinky Katharine McPhee singing, Anjelica Huston’s Elieen and Debra Messing’s Julia barely hitting their marks and some seriously messy cultural appropriation, you get something that is embarrassingly, cheesily re-watchable.

 

Diane Gordon (@thesurfreport), Freelance

Allow me to be a broken record yet again and choose “Mad Men” for the many ways they found to incorporate music into the show and the careful selection of the songs that closed most of the episodes. Scenes featuring dance that stand out in my memory of course include Megan’s birthday dance for Don to “Zou Bisou Bisou,” but allow me to point out some others. Pete & Trudy taking over the dance floor at Roger Sterling’s summer party in the “My Old Kentucky Home” episode, which also featured Roger in blackface singing that song. Another favorite: Peggy twisting to Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” at a post-work bar gathering and after asking Pete Campbell to dance with her, he gives her a glowering look of disdain and mutters, “I don’t like you like this.”

On the more emotional side, Don and Peggy working on an idea and as they chat, “My Way” plays on the radio and after Don tells Peggy he worries a lot but not about her, they dance to the song and I dare you to watch this scene without tearing up. Also beautiful, the scene after Sterling-Cooper staff is told company co-founder Bert Cooper passed away just after the U.S. astronauts landed on the moon, Don walks back to his office and imagines Bert and a group of lovely ladies dancing to “The Best Things In Life Are Free.” I also adore Joan Holloway leading a conga line at the Sterling-Cooper Christmas party. And finally, though it’s not a dance scene, “The Phantom” episode of the show has one of my very favorite final sequences as Don walks from Megan’s commercial set to a bar and answers a personal question, set to “You Only Live Twice.”

Emily VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

For the end of its second season, the Emmy-winning cult hit sitcom “Taxi” pulled out all the stops. The show was sinking in the ratings but had been renewed for a third season, and the second season would win the Emmy for comedy series. But in that two-part season finale, the scruffy little show, set amid the working-class cabbies of a low-rent garage, would delve into the cabbies’ fantasies after one of them met Herve Villechaize from Fantasy Island. (Wouldn’t you know it — the two shows both aired on ABC!) The episodes concluded with Elaine (Marilu Henner) sharing her fantasy — a singing and dancing performance to “Lullaby of Broadway.” The series’ cast was full of stage actor ringers, like Judd Hirsch, Christopher Lloyd, and Danny DeVito (and okay Tony Danza, who couldn’t sing to save his life). The number is maybe not the best in the history of TV, but it’s always one I’ve enjoyed returning to over the years.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

…it’s like none of you even watched “Friends.”

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Succession” (four votes)

Other contenders: “Bachelor in Paradise,” “Baskets,” “GLOW,” “Good Eats,” “Lodge 49,” “Pose,” “The Righteous Gemstones,” and “The Terror: Infamy” (one vote each, one abstention)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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