Born To Hand Jive: GREASE And The Unappreciated Art Of The Dance-Off

The classic celebrates its 40th birthday today.

Any time I mention the fact that I love movies about dance, and just dancing in general, I feel a little bit like Adam Goldberg’s character in Dazed and Confused - it may not seem like me, but it’s in there, waiting to get out. Saturday Night Fever is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I will evangelize (and have) about the Step Up movies to anyone who will listen. And unlike, say, with fight choreography, the people on screen are almost always performing the dancing themselves, demanding a minimal level of skill (or at least practice) that isn’t achieved through movie magic or other trickery; some people have natural rhythm and some don’t - and no matter how carefully they’re counting steps in their head, they simply can’t fake it.

Grease, another of my favorites, celebrates its 40th anniversary this weekend, and it’s full of people who, even if they can’t quite fake playing teenagers, can indisputably tear up a dancefloor. Obviously, Randall Kleiser’s film is not just a “dance movie” but a musical, an adaptation of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s stage show of the same name. But as the comparatively more family-friendly of two John Travolta movies that would eventually both become formative cinematic experiences, Grease exerted tremendous influence on my interest in dancing by delivering an adrenaline shot right to my shuffling feet through its most exhilarating sequence, “Born to Hand Jive.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah: “Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightnin’,” and “You’re the One That I Want” are all amazing. (Don’t mistake my personal preference for some sort of objective ranking.) But as a person with a temperamental attitude towards musicals in general, the scene that thrilled me the most as a kid was the high school dance contest, where the cast shut up and danced - and danced well. Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s effortless lariat swinging. Cha-Cha DiGregorio’s saucy can-can routine. Kenickie’s slide into a split as Rizzo shimmies around him. It’s all incredible. It wasn’t until later that I fully understood and appreciated the juxtapositions Kleiser made in the scene’s staging - encapsulating each character’s, and couple’s personalities, using the choreography to push forward the story, and reinforcing the larger themes of the film as Danny and Sandy, born from two different worlds, struggle to reconcile them. But the energy and flow and musicality of the scene - amidst others where these characters command the screen by singing in them - feels coherent and show-stopping all at the same time.

But the other thing that “Hand Jive” planted in my consciousness was a burgeoning appreciation for dance-offs, the beautiful, brutal cousin to traditional dance scenes. Though the difference seems negligible - just one year before, Travolta as Tony Manero spent the entirety of Saturday Night Fever’s running time trying to win a prize at a local dance contest - dance-offs are especially thrilling to me because the competitors are often face to face, or at least dancing against one another at the same time. Even scripted, it seems to force a different sort of creative dexterity out of a person or character than if they’re simply performing a routine; the call and response aspect of it demands escalation, and in all of the best cases, delivers. In Grease, we’re watching Sandy and Danny, Rizzo and Kenickie, Cha-Cha and Craterface, uh, face off against one another, showcasing their abilities and watching as their opponents - be they a consequence of the competition, dubious shared histories, or just mutual animosity - react to what they’re doing to and with their partners.

What’s also great about the scene is that while it’s funny, none of the choreography is just played for laughs; subsequent dance-offs either make fun of the idea or play up the fact that at least one of the people competing is somehow goofy or just plain awful, but even when, say, Rizzo and Kenickie are hamming it up for the cameras, Stockard Channing and Jeff Conaway seem totally committed to getting each move right. I feel like that sometimes discordant balance lingers more broadly today as the overall film’s central hallmark: its satirical take on ‘50s archetypes, problematically as some of them may be explored, are reenacted and sometimes razed with skill, dedication and sincerity, crafting a story to be enjoyed ironically or in earnest, and sometimes both at the same time. Written for the stage in the early ‘70s and adapted here in 1978, Kleiser wasn’t trying to engineer a sugary slab of counterprogramming for the decade’s decadence or cynicism, but use the source material’s subversive foundations to settle upon a fun, maybe slightly poetic synthesis between the two.

Of course, suffice it to say that the scene is just one small reason why Grease has endured as a classic for so many generations of moviegoers. But ultimately, as wonderful as are the scenes around this one, “Hand Jive” has a vitality, an anarchic energy that for me transcends the rest of the movie; it makes me want to be there, in the crowd, trying to watch, or maybe keep up, with these astounding, fearless “teenage” dancers - in the case of the ages of the cast, probably my classmates.