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The Art of the “Escalating Dance” in Music Videos

Christopher walken

Tons of things can make a great music video. Epic drama, quirky graphics and animation, innovative camera techniques and coloring, elements of humor and even horror; these have all produced some memorable videos. But I’d like to talk about the most innately human, natural thing music makes us do — dance. However, watching people just dance, having a good time, is no fun at all for us! We’re not there, we’re not hanging out with Drake or Coolio or Khaled at some awesome house party!

The best way that dance can be featured in a music video is to play with unexpected drama, or humor, or the movement of the camera, or anything that interplays with the narrative in the music. In other words, dance is a most compelling tool when it can keep us on our toes, plays with our expectations. Let’s explore the devilish art of the “Escalating Dance.”

Now, I know you probably thought this was going to be a giant candy-colored celebration of the music videos of OK Go or something. Who talks about amazing choreography in music videos without mentioning OK Go, anyway?… This guy does. (Mostly…) The truth is that, while yes, they do incredible things, pretty much everything that could be said about them has already been said. Beyond which, there are so many ways to make even the subtlest gestures in choreography seem meaningful and grandiose in a video — you don’t necessarily need a free-falling airplane to make a huge impact.

Take for example, the early 20th century choreographer who actually inspired a lot of OK Go’s movement work, Busby Berkeley. The pattern complexities of his routines, as well as the studio’s rigging of the moving camera, just keeps getting more and more interesting as we watch on!

Doesn’t that also oddly kind of remind you of Daft Punk’s “Around The World” video?

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Fatboy Slim — “Weapon of Choice”

It is hard to argue that this video, which treats us to solo Christopher Walken choreography, is anything other than one of the most spectacularly glorious dance moments in music video history. It slowly builds until the kettle boils over and he just takes over every inch of space in this deserted hotel. Is he a ghost? Is he just pure magic? You be the judge.

Massive Attack, Tricky & 3D — “Take It There”

“Take It There” begins with the same sense of eerie, lonesome unease as Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice,” but retains and builds on that haunting aura. We’re unsure of where this narrative is going, as a drunken late-night wanderer starts his jilted maneuvers. Eventually, the harmony and sync increases between the performers and becomes deeply moving.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “5 Years of ‘Hot Cheetos and Takis’ and Why You Should Care”

The xx — “Islands”

This video takes looping movement to the next level. The degree of precision that these dancers are able to bring is incredible, and they use that precision to highlight the effect that the subtle shifts in each loop of their movement have on the characters in the video. Through infinitesimally tiny changes, the loops eventually cause the story to break down into a fiery ruin… And weren’t you waiting for that the whole time?

The Pharcyde — “Drop”

There’s something kinda weird about those dope moves… Made on a tiny budget, and playing off one great idea, Spike Jonze had The Pharcyde members perform the entire video backwards and then reversed the tape to make this jilted, surreal video. Watch this behind-the-scenes mini-documentary to see just what we mean…

Atoms for Peace — “Ingenue”

I love this video because there’s an expectation it’s going to turn out much like Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower” video, which doesn’t really build, but stays put on Thom’s jittery moves the entire time. Yet “Ingenue” does contain a narrative, and it’s quite compelling. Two performers, dressed the same way, execute tightly choreographed moves as well as looser improvised ones. They draw closer, depend on each other, then move apart, and eventually, they become each other.

Sia — “Chandelier”

I think every single person who watched this video for the first time had no idea just what Maddie Ziegler was capable of. Her performance here is a prime example of the unexpected crescendo. She enters strongly, but there’s a distance at first, she’s doing “kid things.” Then the dance takes a turn towards pure virtuosity, and we think, okay she’s seriously talented. But nobody expects it to get this real: explosive ballet movements executed to perfection, dramatic nervous ticks, performing with the space, all with powerful emotional realism.

… And no, even though we have a special place in our heart for Shia LaBeouf, we’re not going to list Sia and Maddie’s creepy follow-up video he stars in. Not a good look.

Missy Elliott — “WTF (Where They From)” feat. Pharrell Williams

This video posits and then answers the question, “What do we do if Pharrell can’t make it on the day of the video shoot?”

+ Read more on Flypaper: Understand how EDM beat producers use filters to manipulate your emotions in “So You Think You Can Dance Buildup?”

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis — “Downtown”

Here’s a recent favorite of mine. Go big or go home, and why not get the entire city of Spokane to sing and dance along in a good old fashion motorcycle parade!

If you’re into the moustachioed Eric Nally and his fall-to-the-ground dance moves, I urge you to watch this video from his former band Foxy Shazam.

And lastly… Just, this:

D’Angelo — “Untitled”

I mean…..

Got a favorite example of a music video dance buildup that we missed? Share it in the comments below!

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Jeremy Young

Jeremy is a music business guru and loves giving advice to young, emerging bands on how to make their tours more effective. He also plays guitar, publishes audiobooks, runs a record label, and is an artist working in sound media. He has performed and released material throughout Europe, Asia, the US, UK and Canada, mostly with his trio Sontag Shogun.

  • The Walrus Was Paul

    I recently saw the video for “Turn Down For What” for the first time.. It takes this concept almost to an obnoxious extreme. And I think that’s the point 🙂 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMUDVMiITOU

  • Jeremy Royal Edit

    Thanks for sharing Mr. Walrus!! this video is amazing!

  • ZYT

    Just thought of this one too, 24-hours of escalating dance… http://24hoursofhappy.com/

    • Jeremy Royal Edit

      true! duh!? Happy!

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