Big, splashy dance numbers are often the more memorable moments of a Broadway musical, so it’s no surprise that lots of showtunes pay homage to dance. These songs celebrated dance crazes, created new ones, or just spoke to the joy of dancing itself.
1. “Shall We Dance?,” from The King and I
Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam dancing the polka is probably the most recognizable and lasting image of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical The King and I. Coming at the work’s emotional climax, “Shall We Dance?” sees Anna teaching the King the polka, which requires men and women to be close to each other, touch, and work together—all anathema to the King’s tradition. The moment is the culmination of the pair’s romantic tension but is more importantly the first time the King treats Anna somewhat as his equal, making “Shall We Dance?” not only an audience-pleasing song but also representative of the show’s themes overall.
2. “Dance With You,” from The Prom
Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, and Matthew Sklar’s The Prom is not expressly about dancing, but rather centers on a lesbian couple who unwittingly become the center of a small town media circus after the school board rules they can’t attend their high school prom and a group of Broadway stars step in to advocate for a reversal. Emma sings “Dance With You” to girlfriend Alyssa about how she doesn’t want to be part of a huge political movement—she simply just wants to openly dance with her girlfriend.
3. “Born to Hand Jive,” from Grease
Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s love letter to poodle skirts, slicked-back hair, and everything else about being a teenager in the 1950s opened on Broadway in 1972 and became a mega-hit film in 1978. The score, made up of pastiche songs paying homage to real ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll hits, includes “Born to Hand Jive,” Jacobs and Casey’s answer to ‘50s dance songs like “The Loco-Motion” and “The Twist.” Radio DJ Vince Fontaine sings the song at Rydell High’s senior prom as the Burger Palace Boys and Pink Ladies dance their best hand jive, which more or less looks like a fancier and more energetic version of pat-a-cake.
4. “The Time Warp,” from The Rocky Horror Show
Like Grease, Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show pays homage to the ‘50s and ‘60s, though O’Brien chose to do so through the lens of raunchy and low-budget science fiction and horror films. Instead of writing a new song around an existing dance, O’Brien chose to write an original song for an original “dance craze.” Like many real-world dance craze songs, Rocky Horror’s “The Time Warp” includes choreographic instructions in its lyrics: “It’s just a jump to left, and then a step to the right. You put your hands on your hips, and pull your knees in tight.”
5. “The Lambeth Walk,” from Me and My Girl
This 1937 West End musical was best known at the time for the dance craze it inspired, The Lambeth Walk. The song gets its name from a street in working class London and was a love letter to Cockney culture that centered around a jaunty walking dance. One of the musical’s original stars, Lupino Lane, made The Lambeth Walk his career hallmark. The craze even crossed the pond to the United States, becoming a mainstay of posh nightclubs in the late 1930s. Me and My Girl would go on to become one of the West End’s most successful musicals.
6. “The Music and the Mirror,” from A Chorus Line
Telling the story of a group of Broadway dancers auditioning for a new musical, Marvin Hamlisch, Ed Kleban, James Kirkwood, Jr., and Nicholas Dante’s A Chorus Line understandably has lots of songs about dancing, but “The Music and the Mirror” stands out as the show’s most impassioned expression of love for dance. The song is sung by the character of Cassie, who’s back auditioning for the ensemble after working her way up to featured roles on stage but subsequently failing to break through in film and TV. When the show’s director asks why she would return to the chorus, Cassie sings “The Music and the Mirror,” about how dance gives her life purpose.
7. “Footloose,” from Footloose
This 1984 film and the resulting 1998 stage adaptation tells the story of a small western town that has outlawed dancing. The young and rebellious Ren McCormack works to overturn this ban. The title reportedly came out of a conversation between the film’s director, Herbert Ross, and star Kevin Bacon, and ultimately Kenny Loggins and Dean Pitchford wrote a title song that became more popular than the film itself. The song is an enthusiastic expression of the urge to dance, specifically as a release from a rigid society.
8. “Dancing,” from Hello, Dolly!
Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker is all about love; matchmaker Dolly Levi sets about getting Yonkers businessman Horace Vandergelder to be her husband, which involves an elaborate scheme that sees Vandergelder’s two employees finding loves of their own, and a night on the town in Manhattan. In preparation for their date, Levi has to teach the small town Cornelius and Barnaby how to waltz in “Dancing,” which ultimately becomes a tribute to love for the entire ensemble.
9. “Go Into Your Dance,” from 42nd Street
Based on the 1933 film, 42nd Street centers on young hoofer and Broadway hopeful Peggy Sawyer, who debarks her bus from Allentown, Pennsylvania in New York City and immediately gets to work becoming a professional dancer. She arrives at her first audition just after it ends, but befriends some of the dancers and one of the show’s writers, who push Sawyer to show off her tapping skills by singing “Go Into Your Dance.” Of course, director Julian Marsh happens to see Sawyer dancing, decides he has to have her in his chorus, and the rest is Broadway history.
10. “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from My Fair Lady
In Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, cockney flower seller Eliza is undergoing etiquette and diction lessons with Professor Higgins, who has bet that he can pass her off as a woman of high society. Progress is slow at first, until Eliza has a breakthrough late one night, suddenly pronouncing “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” in perfect upper-class English. The weary crew breaks into a dance of elation that Eliza can’t come down from, even when it’s well past time to go to bed. She sings “I Could Have Danced All Night,” My Fair Lady’s most enduring tune, as the household staff urges her to try and sleep.