A Brief History of Dance Fighting

Fightland Blog

By Sarah Kurchak

When Chuck Palahniuk incited talk of the possibly forthcoming Fight Club musical again last week it got us think about dance-fighting. Not capoeira, the martial art developed by slaves in Brazil in the 17th century which combines elements of combat, acrobatics and dance, but the kind of choreographed battles that happen most commonly in musicals and music videos.

If Fight Club ever does make it to Broadway at least some of the film’s brutal physicality (as well as its existential angst) will need to be represented in the form of dance, which has left us wondering what exactly those moments will look like. Will they hearken back to the iconic rumble from the dance-fight pioneering West Side Story? Like one of the great dance battles of Michael Jackson’s heyday? Or maybe like the boxing glove-sheathed jazz hands of the Rocky musical? As we ponder these pressing questions, let’s take a look back at some of the high and low moments in the history of the dance-fight.

1957: West Side Story

In the words of Time Magazine, this Romeo and Juliet-influenced musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1957 and became an Oscar-winning film in 1961, “successfully [brought] together the two worlds of classical dance and gang warfare.” Put together by legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins, the musical and film’s rumble scenes became almost instantly iconic. And they remain influential to this day. They’ve been reenacted by Michael Jackson, pro wrestlers and geeky kids who want to argue that “We’re not fighting; we’re just dancing!” among many others.

1982: Beat It by Michael Jackson

A lot of people assumed that Michael Jackson and his director Bob Giraldi were referencing West Side Story when they released the gang warfare dance video for “Beat It” in 1982, but the concept was actually inspired by Giraldi’s own childhood in New Jersey. To add authenticity to the video, Jackson suggested hiring actual Crips and Bloods members to appear in it. They couldn’t dance (or dance-fight), though, so they mostly hung out in the background and watched the professionals do their thing.

1983: Love is a Battlefield by Pat Benetar

Bob Giraldi was so enthralled with dance-fighting that he revisited the discipline the following year, making love quite literally a battlefield for Pat Benetar. In this video, Benetar gets kicked out of her house, runs away to the city and becomes a dancer. When a pimp interferes with one of her colleagues, she assembles a posse and they dance-fight the shit out of him.

1984: Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo

If this completely bizarre and generally terrible sequel to the beloved and well-regarded Breakin’ is remembered at all these days, it’s mostly as a joke. But the beleaguered breakdancing film from Canon did gives us dance battles that featured nunchucks.

1987: Bad by Michael Jackson

This is the Michael Jackson video that was actually inspired by West Side Story. The King of Pop’s subterranean dance battle encounter, directed by Martin Scorsese (and featuring a young Wesley Snipes) was a modernized take on the musical’s “Cool” number. 

2008: Jitz! The Musical

In 2008, a young Brazilian Jiu Jitsu blue belt named Sarah Kurchak and her training friend Tara spent far too much of their time threatening to create a musical based on their training. It never really made it past the concept stage, but it would have been the greatest musical ever, given that it featured songs like “I’d Tap That” and dance numbers based on De la Riva guard drills.

2012: Rocky The Musical

Produced by Sylvester Stallone, Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko (seriously), the musical version of Rocky premiered in Hamburg, Germany in 2012, and made its way to Broadway in 2014. It wasn’t the first big musical to feature balletic pugilism (the stage adaptation of Billy Elliot and the Australian musical The Good Fight both had boxing numbers), but it did take the art to a whole new level.

2012: Try by P!nk

Directed by weirdo Canadian genius Floria Sigismondi and choreographed by the Golden Boyz, the harrowing 2012 video for P!nk’s “Try” sees the singer engaged in one hell of a physical and emotional battle with her partner.

2013: The Rooftop

If you’ve ever watched the Russian bath scene in Eastern Promises and thought, “This would be awesome if it only it featured music, whimsy, and more clothing,” then The Rooftop is the film for you. The 2013 Taiwanese film, written, directed, composed by and starring Jay Chou, has a martial arts-fueled dance-fight in a sauna. And even more martial arts-fueled dance-fights and celebrations in all of its other locations. It might sound strange and ridiculous – and it is – but it’s also completely delightful. It’s on Netflix, by the way. You should watch it.

2015: Elastic Heart by Sia

Released this past January, the video for “Elastic Heart” features a literal cage fight between Maddie Ziegler (of Dance Moms and “Chandelier” fame) and Shia LaBoeuf, who represent dueling facets of the singer/songwriter’s personality.

2015: Duck Commander The Musical

There was, for a very brief and regrettable moment, a Duck Commander musical. It ran at the Rio, an off-strip casino in Las Vegas, earlier this year, and it featured a bar fight scene. Robin Leach (of Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous, um, fame) called said scene “angrily riveting” in his review.


Check out these related stories:

Trent Reznor and David Fincher are Working on a 'Fight Club' Rock Opera

Shia LaBeouf's Interpretive Dance-Fighting