There’s an abyss-sized hole in my heart during weeks when So You Think You Can Dance doesn’t air, and in case that feeling is communal, I’m prescribing a round of classic TV dancing to heal us all. Accordingly, here are my picks for the ten greatest moments of dance in TV history. I’ve excluded things like music videos because they lack the immediacy and specific showmanship of live TV, comedy, and drama. Let’s move.
1. Elvis’ waist-up mania
The Ed Sullivan Show didn’t want to unleash Elvis’ pelvis on puritanical America, so it filmed Mr. Presley from the waist up to prevent sexual hysteria in the lower 48 states. Joke’s on Ed Sullivan: The censored version felt even more carnal, and the screeches of female audience members let the nation know just how much thrusting was going on beneath the lens. Legendarily hot.
2. Michael Jackson moonwalks over Berry Gordy’s congregation
With the exception of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, I can’t recall a single time I’ve ever seen a TV audience as enraptured and dazzled as the one that watched Michael Jackson perform the Moonwalk for the first time at NBC’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. After Michael reunited with his brothers onstage for a medley of Jackson 5 hits, he unleashed a performance of “Billie Jean” that became the template for his signature performance style. He threw his fedora, worked the sequined glove, and ignited a frenzy with his backward gliding. It was so smooth and electric, the audience didn’t even notice that the lip-syncing was pretty subpar.
3. Steve Martin and Gilda Radner’s footwork is ready for primetime.
I warn you, if you ever revisit the first five years of Saturday Night Live, you’ll find that a lot of the material simply doesn’t hold up anymore. The Killer Bees? The Blues Brothers? Samurai Delicatessan? (Did I mention I really dislike John Belushi? And really love Jane Curtin? Anyway.) There’s really no joke in those sketches. That said, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players often served up timeless whimsicality, and in one of the series’ greatest moments ever, trusty guest host Steve Martin and the unforgettable Gilda Radner wordlessly waltz, stumble, and ultimately limp their way through a schmaltzy dance interlude. Gilda’s insane legginess makes the clumsiness all the funnier. Is it wrong that I love the funky jam that plays at the beginning and end too?
4. Alex Wong and tWitch go hard on So You Think You Can Dance
While we’re a big group of SYTYCD zealots here at AfterElton, it can’t be denied that Cat Deeley’s sublime danceteria is one of the most underrated reality shows. Hell, it’s one of the most underrated shows ever. No reality series is more difficult for its contestants, and the show’s judges, host, and choreographers are, hands down, the greatest on TV. We needed to include an SYTYCD number on the list, so why not pick the gnarliest one? Alex Wong and tWitch were eye-poppingly bad-ass in this 2010 NappyTabs hip-hop routine that featured all of the show’s assets: exhausting choreography, a kitschy theme (a therapy session), and great chemistry between two dancers who seemed like polar opposites. It’s an astonishing performance, and at the end of the season, Ellen DeGeneres visited the show and performed a modified version with tWitch while injured Alex watched from the crowd.
5. Happy Days gets down
Henry Winkler made the Fonz seem like an effortless role, but the Yale-educated actor routinely brought unforeseen dimension to the jukebox-awakening hoodlum. In a squeaky-clean version of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Fonz and Joanie enter a dance contest at Arnold’s, and in a triumphant final moment, the Fonz emerges in a kickass dance that wowed the Cunninghams and even Weezer, who reference the dance in their fabulous music video “Buddy Holly.”
6. Madonna lets them eat camp at the VMAs.
My favorite thing about Madonna is that she’s the only star who truly wanted (and wants) it all — not just a Grammy, not just an Oscar, but utter deification, immortality, and her own place on Mt. Olympus. It’s performances like this, her 1990 performance of “Vogue” at the MTV Music Video Awards, that validate her ambitions. In full Marie Antoinette regalia, Madonna sashayed and fanned herself among a throng of scantily glad male dancers. The grandeur is insane, the haughtiness is genuine, and the execution is flawless.
7. The Soul Train Line is right on time.
It would be impossible to pick a single episode of Soul Train to highlight here, but surely the history of killer dancing on TV is incomplete without a mention of Don Cornelius’ climactic exhibition. Whether it featured a young Jody Watley gyrating towards the camera or any number of afro’d swingers jiving down the aisle, the Soul Train line is just about as funky and cool as TV ever got.
8. The Cosby Show says goodbye with a romantic slow dance
The Cosby Show featured an alarming amount of choreography, and I’ve stolen most of my own moves from Tempestt Bledsoe’s opening sequence shuffling. But the most poignant moment of movement occurred during the series finale, when the naughty Cliff and Clair Huxtable boogied from their living room and (essentially) into the live studio audience. It’s a brief but great dance moment, a signature moment of parental joy from the show that feasibly could’ve gone on forever.
9. Buffy dances once more, with feeling.
The “Once More, With Feeling” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is staggering not just because of its amazing music and choreography, but because it plays on the series’ many wonderful notes. It’s contemplative, kickass, quippy, and cool. And in the episode’s best dance, Buffy gets so worked up and dizzy that she emits smoke. “Something to Sing About” is both an upbeat and melancholy song, and Sarah Michelle Gellar brilliantly captures both energies.
10. Elaine Benes erupts in a horrible pseudo-dance.
Revered though this Seinfeld moment is, it’s very brief. Elaine Benes’ awful strutting/convulsing/kicking set the standard for embarrassing dancefloor behavior, and it’s part of the reason Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the defining sitcom actress of her generation. She can deliver extreme physical comedy as much she can sell a nervy one-liner, and here, she proves she’s as shameless and cool as other SNL lady greats like Gilda Radner, Molly Shannon, and Tina Fey.