Stomp the Yard is an unassuming film about a young man, played by Columbus Short, who finds a family of brotherhood through stepping at a southern, black university. Stomp the Yard is a Dance Flick, but it isn’t only a Dance Flick. It’s a good dance flick; the best I’ve ever seen. When Stomp the Yard was over I realized the Dance Flick is an established genre in Hollywood with its own rules and requirements, much like the Scary Movie or the Romantic Comedy. What defines the Dance Flick, I wondered, and how did Stomp the Yard do it so well?
The Evolution of the Dance Flick
The dance flick has been big money for Hollywood for 30 years. When John Travolta strutted through Bay Ridge to the soundtrack of the BeeGees popular music and contemporary style merged in a visual way that blew bell bottom disco style out of Brooklyn and into the rest of the world. But Saturday Night Fever was more than a dance movie. It was a tale of post-adolescence told in the context of the lower-middle-class Italian American community of New York. Dance wasn’t the story; dance was the setting.
By 1987 Dirty Dancing came around and began to define what we now understand to be a Dance Flick. There was a love story, there was crossover between the music of the movie and the pop charts of the time, there were plot points and character arcs told explicitly through choreographed dance routines. Our contemporary understanding of Dance Flicks, however, didn’t begin to crystallize until 2001, following the Boy Band Explosion of the ’90s, when MTV Films and Paramount released Save the Last Dance. The story of Julia Stiles’ exile to the South Side of Chicago and her subsequent salvation through Sean Patrick Thomas and hip-hop dance established the basic themes and structure that all future dance movies would mimic.
Let’s play like Randy Meeks in Scream and break down the top 10 rules of the Dance Flick.
1. The protagonist must be forced to leave home and enter a hostile environment where they are somehow financially or socially deficient.
2. The protagonist must have a non-conformist attitude that sets them apart from the popular kids. The protagonist’s reluctance to fit in draws negative attention from those who benefit from the status quo.
3. The protagonist must be talented in something not valued by their new, current environment.
4. The protagonist meets a friend who introduces them to the dancing subculture of their new environment.
5. The protagonist challenges established norms by trying to break into this subculture.
6. The protagonist falls in love with someone within this community who is considered off limits.
7. The relationship threatens all the gains made by the protagonist.
8. The relationship falls apart due to some sort of misunderstanding or racial, class difference.
9. There’s a huge competitive dance climax for which the protagonist must appear, but something has happened and he/she will not be able to perform.
10. The love interest returns and whatever obstacle preventing the protagonist from performing during the climax is overcome.
You can recognize the above plot points in every dance movie from Save the Last Dance to Step Up 2 The Streets to You Got Served to Drumline to Footloose. At their core, they are the same movie. They are Dance Flicks. They are variations on a theme, a theme seemingly so limitless that it would appear that there’s no end to the number of permutations this formula can take on. Except there is. When one movie executes the routine perfectly, incorporating the best of all its predecessors into a cohesive product that makes future itterations redundant, the game is over. On January 12, 2007, the yard was stomped and the Dance Flick was over.
Stomp the Yard
Directed by Sylvain White, Stomp the Yard is essentially the same movie as either Drumline or How She Move. It might even be considered a mash up of the two. There is stepping and it takes place in Atlanta. Done. How She Drum. Except there’s more to Stomp the Yard. There is an understanding of hip-hop culture absent in most if not all previous examples of Dance Flicks. By telling a story that perfectly blends character growth with an exciting, innovative perspective on dance, Stomp the Yard has simply made the need for any future Dance Flick unnecessary. Here’s how.
From the get-go Stomp the Yard is visually different than any of its predecessors. Shot with a modified shutter, the opening scene is more Saving Private Ryan than Save the Last Dance. The strobe effect of that scene sets the tone for a film captured with shaky hand-held cameras, quick edits and dynamic lighting schemes. Even the ethereal scoring from music supervisor Tim Boland (not to be confused with Timbaland) evokes what Peter Berg did to the Sports Flick in Friday Night Lights. At other times Stomp the Yard even seems to be channeling that other unorthodox interpretation of the football movie, Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday. By immediately referencing movies about war and sports with his visual style, director Sylvain White was telling the audience, “Yo, this ain’t no ordinary Dance Flick.” Or maybe he was saying it like “Hey, this isn’t any ordinary Dance Flick.” Either way, you get the gross pointe blank.
Commentary on Dance
At no point in the movie does any character or plot point tell the audience where the action is taking place. When the film opens, the filmmakers leave it to the audience to deduce through the Krump moves of the dancers and the atmosphere of the setting that this is Los Angeles. Ingeniously, Sylvain White even cameos dancers from the movie Rize, the only other Dance Flick that could be argued as the paragon of the genre. The college campus to which the protagonist, DJ, travels to is treated with a similar degree of knowing ambiguity. The audience is expected to understand that the HBC depicted, as indicated through style of dress, film language, and Step culture, is located in Atlanta.
At another point in the movie, when DJ must prove his talents as a dancer, he battles by mocking the styles of dance of each geographic crew in the club. He mocks ATL with his “Laffy Taffy,” he mocks New York and their “B-boy” stunting, he mocks Miami and its Salsa influences. He only does this through a single dance routine. No words. The amount of story, the amount of character alienation, the amount of courage depicted by this single moment told only through action is single-handedly the most interesting use of dance I’ve ever seen in a Dance Flick. This was no montage; this was no physical interlude; this was visual story-telling in its most novel form.
Stomp the Yard also fulfills that necessary criteria of relevance – it advances the argument of dance. Like the best Dance Movies (including Bring it On), something wholly original emerges from the protagonist’s participation in the new environment’s established subculture of dance. In Stomp the Yard, DJ brings an element of hip-hop into stepping that makes the style more dynamic and fluid. As seen in movies like How She Move, stepping’s kind of boring on film. By allowing DJ to appropriate and change the style of step popular at Truth University, the filmmakers of Stomp the Yard showed us not only growth in a character but the growth of his surroundings as a result of his choices. Of course the climax of the movie is the national step championships, but the way the film grounds every dance move in the relationship of the main characters is positively evocative. Never before has a sliding elbow stand been so poetic. I’m serious. Never.
Stomp the Yard finds emotional roots in two places: the interpersonal relationships between DJ and his fraternity brothers and the personal relationship between DJ and the mission of his historically black university. DJ is a counter-cultural black kid from LA. He arrives in Atlanta with an attitude that conflicts with the stern gravitas of his uncle, played by Harry Lennox. DJ’s anti-authoritarian individuality collides with the institutional rules of higher education as well as the community aspect of black fraternity culture. By placing hip-hop in direct conflict with step, Sylvain White is commenting on the supposed monolithic nature of blackness. In a slightly hokey scene in Heritage Hall, DJ confronts the African American legacy of the Civil Rights movement in the South. The reason the scene works is because the film has taken the time to build DJ as a character and couch all his decisions in a web of several motivations ranging from a death in the family to the love of a woman. Simply put, no dance flick has handled the complex questions tackled by Stomp the Yard and no dance flick will do so again with the deft, entertaining grace of Sylvain White.
Don’t get me wrong. Stomp the Yard is not a great movie. It won’t be on any AFI lists or Criterion Collection DVDs. It is a melodramatic story intended for young audiences who spend their weekends at the mall multiplex. It is a Dance Flick, but it is a great Dance Flick. It’s the best Dance Flick made to date. It is the end-all-be-all of Dance Flicks. Stomp the Yard is the Dark Knight of Dance Flicks, and that, like the university in the film, is the Truth. Dance Flick? Consider yourself stomped.