After seeing La La Land last week, one particular moment keeps replaying in my mind. It’s only about two seconds long. Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling, has just enjoyed a flirtatious impromptu dance with Mia, played by Emma Stone. While walking to their cars after a pool party, their conversation turns into a tap routine set against the backdrop of L.A. at dusk. After telling Mia good-bye, Sebastian walks toward his car, and then it happens: He pauses for a quick moment and then slyly scrapes the pavement with the toe of his tap shoe. They may annoy each other, but Mia’s growing on him—and that one move says it all.
It’s moments like these that make dance in film matter.
While Stone and Gosling (hey, girl…) are irrefutably charming in La La Land, a huge part of what makes them irresistible is the third main character: the dancing. Mandy Moore‘s choreography is not a few dance breaks that seemingly come of out nowhere and leave the audience scratching their heads. Instead, they’re essential to the film: propelling the narrative, amping up emotions, or setting the tone, as in the opening scene featuring 30 dancers who get out of their cars during a Los Angeles traffic jam. (Who wouldn’t prefer a gleeful dance party over gridlock?)
It’s hard to put a single label on Moore’s choreography for movie. There’s some tap, ballroom, contemporary. And the atmosphere it creates is part old-Hollywood movie musical, part 21st-century flash mob. Regardless, Moore’s moves feel delightful, breezy and seemingly effortless. Stone, Gosling and a large ensemble of dancers make the choreography look natural but with a touch of whimsy that echoes the movie’s theme of dreamers in L.A. You may even recognize a few familiar faces—like Dana Wilson, Galen Hooks, Melinda Sullivan, Kayla Kalbfleisch and Martha Nichols—in some of the larger numbers. Stone and Gosling, though, aren’t trying to look like professional dancers but simply people who are dancing.
While there is no choreography category for the Academy Awards (we have a bone to pick with you, Oscar), if there was, Moore would have undoubtedly snagged a nomination come January. Still, La La Land scored seven Golden Globe noms—more than any other film this year. It’s safe to say that the dancing played a part.
To get a peek at the making of that post-pool-party dance number, check out this “Anatomy of a Scene” video from The New York Times.