The Best Ballet-Centric Movies Ever Made

The Red Shoes may have been the seminal film stepping into the ballet scene in the 1940s, but ever since, there have been several films centered around the athletic yet graceful dance form. Beyond showcasing the sheer amount of talent and discipline ballet demands, these movies dive deep into the backgrounds and psyches of performers who devote their entire lives to achieving their dreams.

This list is made of fictional stories as much as it is of biopics and behind-the-scenes documentaries. From rehearsing in the studio to performing on stage, they bring to screen every aspect of the world of dance, seen closely with the help of rich dramatic narratives and poignant character studies. Much like any other performing art, the internal and external pressures of ballet can create either an unmatchable drive or a complex decline in the performer’s heart, which is depicted in this film quite realistically.

Perhaps what’s best about the films on this list is how they celebrate ballet’s ability to inspire us and uplift our spirits. Featuring gorgeous routines and detailed storytelling, these films manage to find poetry in the craft. So whether it is a documentary, drama, or ballet-infused thriller, these little masterpieces are sure worth checking out.

10 Billy Elliot (2000)

Universal Focus

The 1980s may have had a heavy influence on pop culture and led many ambitious individuals to pursue dance and song, but little boys in northeastern England weren’t allowed to do the same. As a son of a conservative miner father, 11-year-old Billy takes weekly boxing lessons because that is what is expected of him. But one day, he stumbles out of the ring and into a ballet class and something inside him changes. His innate talent and passion for the dance form is recognized by the class’ exacting instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson.

Despite facing resistance from his working-class family and the miner community, Billy stays true to his dream and strives for freedom and self-discovery. Moreover, 1984 was the year of the coal miners’ strike, which placed great obstacles in Billy’s way to joining the Royal Ballet School. Billy Elliot not only features some of the most elegant ballet sequences but also places Jamie Bell on the international map by earning him the youngest-ever BAFTA Best Actor Award.

9 A Ballerina’s Tale (2015)

A Ballerina's Tale
IFC Films

Misty Copeland narrates and stars in this graceful and inspiring documentary, following her own historic rise to becoming the first African American female principal dancer at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. Copeland was obviously a ballet prodigy. Her sheer latent and perseverance took her to great heights. Not only did she garner praise for her art, but she also represented other African American artists by breaking stereotypes about the ideal ballet body.

A Ballerina’s Tale follows her story through injury and exclusion, told through her own words. It goes without saying that every artist goes through a phase when they are absolutely shattered. But what’s mesmerizing is to watch it all play out on a screen, lush with actual footage and first hand accounts from the people associated.

8 The Red Shoes (1948)

The Red Shoes
General Film Distributors

Setting gold standards for ballet-centric films when the emergence of swing music and country pop was heavy, The Red Shoes came out as a visually dazzling pioneer. The film dunks our heads into the all-consuming passion of a ballerina’s obsession with their art. Moira Shearer makes her first feature film debut and collaboration with the legendary director Michael Powell by starring as Victoria Page, or Vicky, an aspiring young ballerina who joins a renowned ballet company. Because of her phenomenal talent, she is offered a career-making role.

Related: 20 Biggest Movie Stars of the 1940s

But on the other hand, she’s dangerously fixated on her romance with a young composer. Vicky is torn in making a choice between her art and her love. The technicolor film delivers hauntingly beautiful ballet performances that only elevate the emotional tension between the characters. Also worth praising is the fluid camera world that makes The Red Shoes absolutely spellbinding.

7 Black Swan (2010)

Natalie Portman from Black Swan
Fox Searchlight Pictures

One of the darkest and most twisted ballet movies ever made, Black Swan sees Natalie Portman at her best. Plus, she won an Oscar for the performance. As a young dancer named Nina, she has just earned the lead dual role in Swan Lake, the most popular production from her controlling and stern instructor. Nina strives to bring technical perfection as the virtuous White Swan, but the role drives her so dizzy that she steadily declines into a paranoid place where her mental and physical health takes a toll. And yet, Nina exerts herself for the sake of artistic illusions. Set against the backdrop of a psychologically demanding world of a New York City ballet company, the film showcases an artist’s painful obsession with their art and how it leads them to lose their grip on reality.

6 Limelight (1952)

Charlie Chaplin and Claire Bloom in Limelight
United Artists

Inarguably the greatest silent movie star, Charlie Chaplin, was also, in the words of W.C. Fields, “the greatest ballet dancer who ever lived.” A golden era film oozing with heart that is also written and directed by Charlie Chaplin, Limelight is the story of Calvero, a former clown, and Thereza, an aging ballerina finding solace in each other. His graceful thespian pairs beautifully with Terry, whose health improves drastically in his company.

However, before they can turn their friendship into something romantic, Calvero steps back and lets Terry pick a young composer instead. Limelight may seem dates to some, but it is one of Chaplin’s most personal works and it lives in history as a film that retains the universal magic of ballet, romance, and cinematic poetry.

5 The Turning Point (1977)

The Turning Point 1977
20th Century Fox

We’re not that old yet, but we all have our share of regrets. Whether it is about missing out on an experience, choosing the wrong career, or not having the courage to pursue dreams, pondering over past choices comes naturally to the heart. The protagonist of The Turning Point, Deedee Rogers, is going through the same thing in the second act of the film. Based on Arthur Laurents’ memoir, this ballet gem explores her story as an aspiring dancer. But being pregnant left Deedee with no choice but to leave New York City, move to Oklahoma, and raise her daughter right.

Years later, Deedee’s former best friend turned principal dancer comes to Oklahoma and invites Emilia, Deedee’s daughter, to join her classes, which has the mother excited but also jealous and regretful. Anne Bancroft and Leslie Browne are stunning in their dynamic, fueled with their own complex passions.

4 Suspiria (1977)

A scene from Suspiria
Produzioni Atlas Consorziate

While Luca Guadagnino’s version of the film is more prominent in the Western market and is branded as an incredible horror film, the truth is, its inspiration, Dario Argento’s Italian supernatural original film is way better at giving you the sensory overload you so crave. By dismantling the body-horror-slash-folk-horror genre, 1977’s Suspiria tells the tale of Suzy Bannion (played by Jessica Harper), an American ballerina who travels to Germany to attend a prestigious ballet school.

Her arrival into the academy’s dark walls is delayed by a stormy night, during which time she witnesses the brutal death of another student, Pat. Bold colors, immersive set pieces, an unforgettable background score, and artistic gory murders make the film unparalleled in the genre. That said, Suspiria has a funny way of being a ballet-centric film and still getting under your skin.

3 The Company (2003)

Neve Campbell in The Company 2003
Sony Pictures

Directed by Robert Altman, The Company gives you a glimpse into what it truly takes to “make it” as a ballerina. A rare window into the behind-the-scenes verité follows Neve Campbell’s skilled heroine, Loretta “Ry” Ryan, whose great aspirations lead her to joining the renowned company of Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. While she deals with the competitive world of her art, she’s also developing a romance with the handsome Josh, who knows nothing about dance and what it demands.

Related: 12 Best Movies About Theatre and Dance, Ranked

Apart from Campbell and Dave Franco, the cast features real-life dancers from Joffrey Company, who all depict a certain rawness and beauty in their artistry. Moreover, the film highlights every achievement and failure of the company’s people with a bleeding heart, making you feel like you’re a part of the ensemble.

2 First Position (2011)

First Position
IFC Films 

Every ballet dancer that’s ever made it big in the eminent and distinguished art has started young. There’s no other way to achieve success. Bess Kargman created this documentary, First Position, with the principal aim of following the journeys of six young competitors preparing for the Youth America Grand Prix ballet completion.

Falling between ages 9 to 19, these young minds are locking horns for various prizes like trophies and awards, or fully paid scholarships and even contracts from companies. Their intimate portraits bring us into each dancer’s world, their diverse backgrounds and their common dreams. Through losses and wins, the documentary celebrates ballet as a vessel for personal expression.

1 Center Stage (2000)

zoe saldana center stage
Columbia Pictures

Center Stage is a teen flick that follows a bunch of individuals who emerge from varying backgrounds but share a similar passion for ballet. They audition for a spot at a fictional NYC ballet academy, and get it, moving one step forward in their dream of becoming a famous ballet dancer. However, there is conflict between the students, which soothes and erupts amidst infectious musical numbers and gorgeous performances.

Even though Nicholas Hytner’s has been called out for being a cliché, one can’t deny its balance of heartwarming narratives and rigorous ballet routines. Marking the fantastic debut of Zoe Saldaña, the film stars other teen heartthrobs like Amanda Schull and Evan Stiefel. Plus, its ‘90s soundtrack of Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Mandy Moore makes even tutus look cool.


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