TODAY IN DECLINE: Dancing Edition and the gifts of John Travolta

Urban Cowboy is a movie starring John Travolta released in the spring of 1980. It was the third movie that featured Travolta as a great dancer even though his dancing is peripheral to the story. In the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, Travolta plays Tony Manero, a Brooklyn club kid who is the absolute king of the disco dance floor. Travolta’s performance was a star turn for him and also a boost to the disco era and club business. His next dancing role was as Danny in the film Grease. Danny is a sort of west coast version of Tony from the 1950s and Travolta excelled in the dance styles of that era as well.

And then, in 1980, Travolta turned south and was cast as Bud, a refinery worker who frequents a massive honky tonk called Gilley’s, (which was a real place that sadly burned to the ground in 1990). Bud wants to make as much money as he can in the big city and return to the country to buy land.

At Gilley’s, he meets Sissy (in another star turn performance by Debra Winger) and marries her though they barely know each other. Bud has very traditional ideas about the role of women in a relationship and Sissy is hard-headed and defiant, and soon, they are separated and involved with others. Bud goes for Pam, a rich socialite from ‘Houston proper’ and Sissy goes for a recently released convict. Their paths could not be more divergent, but in the end, they are reunited.

Debra Winger’s other ingénue performance in An Officer and a Gentleman was released a couple of years later, in 1982. She was paired with Richard Gere in a story about a blue-collar aspirant to be a naval officer and fly jets for his country. Winger was cast as Paula, a local girl who wants to marry an officer in the same way Sissy and the girls at Gilley’s all want to pair up with “a real Cowboy.” And while Richard Gere’s character, Zack Mayo, doesn’t dance, he displays his martial arts skills at critical moments in the film. Both men are defined by action and skill.

Also both movies, Urban Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman, follow the ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back’ plotline. The final moments of An Officer and a Gentleman are tough to beat as an ending for a film of this genre. Mayo puts on the pure white officer uniform and literally carries Paula out of her factory job while her femme fatale best friend must watch.

The world is still full of dancers and dancing but it has clearly declined as a casual social act that demonstrates a cultural style. Dancing was a way to get the men and women together for fun and flirtation and was not an athletic event or a showcase for athletic talent. Men and women faced each other and touched at certain points in defined ways. One had to know the dance to participate in it. Knowing the dance and doing it was well a proxy for a whole bunch of things, including physical health and vigor as well as sex appeal and allure. A good dancer made the dance his or her own in subtle ways.

Dancing is dependent on social roles, and the social order that made the dances of Urban Cowboy is in deep decline. Across Houston, one can find men and women dancing in the same styles, but many are older. Most men and women do not dance at all and if they dance together, they face each other and move as they see fit. Dancing is not a defined cultural ritual, it’s just a thing you do. Most men hate to endure it.

Latin cultures still have defined styles and traditional roles. Salsa, for example, has a defined gender role and a cultural style. Few dances could be more defined than the Tango, which persists, but it seems unlikely that a refinery worker in Argentina would also be a great Tango artist.

The decline of dancing follows the broader pattern in the decline of all things related to human activity outside of the minds or detached from our screens. In 1980, guys like Bud had no screens other than their tiny TVs. The tag line for the film says it all: “Hard hat days and honky tonk nights.” One would assume Bud was not a stellar student in high school and had no interest in higher education, but he could work, and he could dance. How less ‘civilized’ was he to a contemporary person who can’t dance or fight but lives through a tiny phone screen? Dancing was a civilization form shared by all, and we’ll know that humans are recovering from the assault of technology when every dance floor is full of young people acting in concert. Dancing is not dead but it requires us to put away the screens and see each other for what we are. Dancing reinforces gender roles and that is not always a bad thing. Dancing brings joy, and one can see the joy in all of Travolta’s characters from his dancing days.

For more on the amazing human body and dancing, check this out in the BIG IDEAS series:


There are so many great things in this clip. First, there is the part where Sissy asks Bud if he can do the two step, he says yes, but doesn’t ask her to dance She finally has to phrase what she wants in terms he’ll understand, so she says “What to prove it?”  Also note that he has a beer in his back pocket.

Wanna prove it?

Later in the film, he breaks free for a solo dance in a style that surely goes back to the highlands of Scotland.

Saturday Night Fever… All of these movies were mocked and copied, but they were stunning in their time:

Disco couples dance:

The confidence and exuberance of post war USA in the hand jive sequence from Grease:

Finally, Quentin Tarantino revived Travolta after a long decline by giving him a new dance role in Pulp Fiction:

This never gets old: