From Red Boots to African-American Roots: Footloose as a Modern Dance-Movie Musical

Curator's Note

Footloose 2011's opening celebrates the 1984 original by mimicking its cultural reality as a reproducible myth. Footloose '84's opening isolates "Footloose" to the soundtrack set to a purely music-video style montage of dancing feet prior to any story world drama.  The 2011 party, announced by a disc-jockey over the production company logos, evokes the way real teens have related to “Footloose” as a shared cultural text:  something to dance and sing along to, watch, and perform as or like a staged musical (1998). But this Footloose sells out real teens as privileged and irresponsible for dramatic pretenses of realist, to-the-bone blues reform.   

Both versions use MTV-style editing, pop rock and hip-hop infused songs and dancing, and a classical folk narrative to reconstruct the musical into a modern form more familiar to contemporary audiences (Jane Feuer).  But Footloose '11 constructs a mythic perspective upon cultural division in the rural south through a discourse that substitutes nostalgia with mourning. Footloose ’84 mimics the freestyle culture of break-dancing exhibited with the athletic pop of Gene Kelly musicals.  Footloose '11 portrays hip-hop as modern folk to legitimate its pastiche to class politics of 1980s dance-movies but amplifies the drama artificially in black and white stereotypes.

Ariel acts out her sexual deviance through hip-hop dancing.  Ariel’s transformation from red boots to passive femininity in a prom dress signifies the reconciliation of working class and elite community. But the film completely isolates the youth and working-class black men from the elite at the myth-made cotton gin prom.  In the original, Ariel’s parents surreptitiously watch over the prom from a visible distance and reflect upon their own courtship, "almost dancing"; nostalgia is their own song. I think audiences and the stage show negotiate similarly a nostalgic courtship with Footloose through recognizable songs that easily transcend the film.

Footloose '84 rehearsed resistance to deindustrialization by making professional song technologically-stable and everyday-dancing performative. Reverend's use of the bible parallels Ren’s own, but Ren does not preach from a legitimate stage. Ren rehearses what Moore does as a preacher for political purposes. This somewhat is the essence of modern dance-movie-musicals. They allow audiences to experience the musical in a way that admits the technological distance of film from reality/liveness.  Footloose '11 kills the empowering sense of celebrating entertainment as/in everyday reality (from a real distance).  It uses everyday dancing as a mythical realm for professionals to legitimate entertainment as real instead.



Hi, John--I see that Gene Kelly reference in there (woot!), but really, I wish you'd spent the entire post discussing just the opening of the film!

First, I'm curious to know more about how the opening "evokes the way real teens have related to 'Footloose' as a shared cultural text." (I assume you're refering to the song here, and not the 1984 movie; the title is both in quotes and italicized here, so I'm not 100% sure)? 

Second, what do you mean that the remake/adaptation "sells out real teens as privileged and irresponsible for dramatic pretenses of realist, to-the-bone blues reform"? Are you referring to the focus placed on the car crash?

Thanks! Looking forward to hearing from you...

Hi, Kelly. Thank you.

Teens in the opening share a familiarity with Footloose both as a song and film - admitting Footloose has a history beyond the remake within its own story world. The film flaunts this kind of relationship in various ways, such as Ren's restoration of the "original" yellow Volkswagen beetle (an exact replica) and his reference to the physical Quiet Riot album.

"Footloose" is a shared cultural text because it is portrayed as something that can be reconstructed - a work of representation. The stage musical, unlike the film and the song, is a text made for reproduction as a live performance.  It has become the musical of choice for high schools since its origination in 1998 on Broadway. 

Footloose as a live performance has provided teens a more semi-legitimate context in which to celebrate Footloose as a film/song; they have a real audience when they perform the show. High school productions of Footloose are not professional and lack the profit orientation of professional production.  This is what the 2011 film exploits. It sets up teens as mythical subject and audience for the film. Then makes their death (as characters) the narrative purpose for restoration of Footloose in a reformative sense. It is through the cultural problem of race and working class that the film negotiates their reform through politics of race and class.

In the original we do not see the car crash. The kids of Bomont explain it later to Ren to signify the personal basis of Reverend Moore's convictions.  The original opening is an inversion of the recent remake - as soon as the title song and credit sequence ends the film cuts to peaceful and quiet exterior shots of Bomont, introducing the audience to the town (that we and Ren have both just arrived). Then, it cuts to an interior shot Reverend Moore preaching about moral corruption of modern music and literature in the name of the safety of "our children".  Lithgow’s performance is excessive and over the top to counter the performance of music - his stage is called out as a "stage" of performance in the 84 film. Performance is both the subject and the critical significance of the original.


I find the opening of these two texts cultural significant for their relationship to their eras. Footloose 84 was tied into the nostalgic tendencies of 80's films to return to simplier times before supposed excessive government interference seperated society ... in this case represented by dancing as a Senior Prom. In the end, both the youth and parent are joined as even the Moore's dance together again outside at a distance. The dance hall is a place of safety. In Footloose 11, the reason for the laws are closely tied to the shock of the accident; a strong post-9/11 response to tragedy. Something terrible has happened and society needs to pass any (even possibly excessive) law necessary to prevent loss of life. But instead of a youth and parent joined in the end in a shared dance ... Footloose 11 gives us a conflict; ex-boyfriend shows up to fight over girl. In the end, even when we party, you still have to be vigilant.

Hi, Michael. Thank you for commenting. I had not considered a post-911 analysis of the way tragedy is handled in Footloose '11. It seems like the post-911 significance transcends Footloose. Judith Butler wrote a wonderful essay, "Global Violence, Sexual Politics" that addresses the politics of memorializing, silence/not naming victims- it reminds me that much of the dance movie cycle is often thematically engaged with questions of visibility. I think Ren says something like "I don't want to be invisible" when talking to Ariel in the abandoned train car. Also Alex in Flashdance refers to disappearing when she dances.  I am interested in queer readings of dance movies, especially because the achievement of dancing is related to subjectively expressing song and often againts dominant standards for that practice - dancing one's own steps.  I have to think more about all of this..

I also wanted to point out that there is quite a bit of violence Footloose '84/ the fight scene prior to the dance does occur at the end of both. However, in the remake the black working class men come out to assist Ren in his fight. I've always found the violence of the original takes me back a little, especially when Ariel gets into the fight with Chuck. It was heavy stuff for a PG movie, and things were just starting to tighten cenorship-wise in teen films as the AIDS epidemic escalated. Doherty writes about this in his book Teenagers and Teenpics.

I think the DJ - indentified with the production compnay logos also subordinates Reverend Moore's voice to the that of the filmmakers - as the amplified voice of reason.  The car crash is intended to shock us the way Reverend Moore's sermon's did - to make us see the real reason dancing has been outlawed. The 2011 film exploits its power to show us everything, to be the moral voice of the story. It is realist because it qualifies entertainment/Footloose as more gritty and real because it supposedly takes the issues evoked by the original more sersiously: it shows them to us through the power of their own technological medium of film - a medium that is an illusion of reality.  Footloose '84 is about recognizing that ideas are constructed as well, and that texts used to essentially define boundaries are subject to those who perform them, not the written word (the song). This to me is an empowering lession achived through Ren's indication that the bible supports dancing (which he does beyond the church, at the town council meeting in a political forum). The film rehearses this relationship for teens. Its good that they can rehearse this lesson themselves, which is what they do why they enact the film on their own terms. Footloose is not essentially one thing either. It is not only a product of the producers.

Ah, so you're saying that "Footloose has a history beyond the remake within its own story world"? Does that mean, then, that the teens in the 2011 film know the song and Kevin Bacon's Footloose?

I understand that the remake/adaptation "flaunts this relationship in various ways" such as the VW beetle and the Quiet Riot album. In fact, we see this in virtually every frame, which is the main reason I was so frustrated by the entire thing:

  • Ren and Ariel's prom clothes (same maroon jacket/bowtie, same pink dress except cut about a foot shorter)
  • Willard learns how to dance with some little girls and to the song “Let’s Hear It For the Boy.”
  • Ren wears a jacket and skinny tie when he appears before the town counsel; Ariel flashes her “Dance Your Ass Off” tee.
  • Before beating the crap out of her, Chuck tells Ariel she’ll “wrap those skinny little legs around anybody.”
  • Even the actor who plays Rusty looks like Sarah Jessica Parker.
  • And on and on... (I compiled a list of this on my blog, if interested.) 

In other words aside from the actors, depiction of the car crash, and a few black people thrown into the mix, virtually nothing has changed from the original. But you read these similarities as homages within the diegesis that the characters are in on and not, like me, as an utter lack of originality on the part of Brewer and co.? *ducks and runs the other way for knocking your fav, Footloose 

However, I do enjoy the mimicking of the original from a stylistic/fashion standpoint. This to me is critical value of the original. And I am entertained by the dancing in remake. It is in fact more exhibition-like - but all of this is contextualized by Ren and the Reverend's reconciliation over death - the Reverend's son and Ren's mom (who did not die of cancer in the original). The remake exploits mimicking for contradictory purposes. Instead of the bible being negotiated by Ren and the Reverend in the remake - it is Ariel. It is her body that is at stake as source of interpretation - as sexual or romantic. Ren helps the reverend (and the audience) see her differently. I loved the empowering way the original represented Ariel's sexual independence - she could love poetry and song (classical) and still wear red boots (modern). It's how she chooses to represent herself that matters. She is given the agency that teens in the remake are robbed of.

Students, interestingly, mostly do not like the original as much as the remake because they say the remake is more believable and that the original is "over the top". I say the car crash is over the top.  They don't get it that the film is the only real historical property of their experience, not the story. They are resistant to critical reflection and interpretation.

John, I've really enjoyed reading your original post and all of the comments. Really, there's so much there, both in the film and in your post, to unpack! I was highly entertained by the remake and enjoyed the homages/references to the '84 version, which to me were more than just lack of originality (though I'm sure that played a part too). In this clip specifically, I felt like it was an attempt to both honor the original (use of the original 80s version of the song, quoting specific dance moves and camera angles, etc.) and also one-up it--particularly in that fact that it ends in a spectacular, fiery car crash! Take that, original! This film WILL go there!

But, also, I found the remake's representations of gender, race, and class extremely problematic, to say the least. You mention this in a few places in the original post, and I'm sure you could write a whole chapter about this (and you probably have), but if there's anything else insightful you've noticed about these representations, I'd be interested to hear them. Like the "homages," is there any way to redeem the film's representation of gender, class, race, or is it another case of entertaining movie with despicable politics?

Hi, Tanine. Thank you for your comment.

I think "originality" is the problematic relationship that makes the question of Footloose's status as a Modern Musical a challenging matter.  I don't adhere to notions that the original work is always the best or the most original.  The remake is more creative, actually.  I do value creativity as something to strive for. And I feel like I'm walking a difficult line of making the discussion about arguing why the original Footloose is better than the remake. In fact, I want to use them both to define the dance-movie as a modern musical, as different from the classical musical. And it has something to with the negotiable boundary between reality and myth, between the subject and the text, between song and dancing.

Footloose 2011 qualifies working class and African-American as more "real" than the elite class. But real is expressed as an aesthetic value from the point of view of the production. This is contradictory to the musical as a genre. But even more offensive is the aestheticization of African-American working class on these terms - their cultural practices and history are used to siginify the film producers own, other meaning of real - which is a matter of art, not history and politics. But the discourse of the film speaks as though that is their purpose and achievement.

I think the 80s break-dancing films were similar. They do not work as dance movies because of the contradictions between production and subject. In fact, the characters and situations of fllms like Breakin' seem like caricature. The inclusion of breakin via the one public break dancing scene in Flashdance negotiates that history with Alex's final performance of modern musical performance/  we can see it is not Beals doing the dancing.

Finally, Kevin Bacon and Jennifer Beals do not do a lot fo their own dancing. Ironically, I think this is what makes the films significant rather the value of professional dancers, like Hough and Wormald, to legitimate a dance-movie. In fact, its their celebrity that holds more power than the culture of dancing beyond the film lives on beyond the film/media.

Tanine, I don't think politics is in the film, either the original and the new version. But Footloose and Flashdance changed things - and their own history resulted in an opposition between critics and audiences. Audiences loved the films in spite of what critics said. The films as historical cultural events reflected the cultural oppositions represented by the films.


I have really enjoyed reading first the post and how you have developed/justified with your added comments.

What approaches did you use with this work?  I would like to know if you have done any form of audience study as I feel it would be interesting to see how modern day teen audiences react to a text which frankly could be considered by the youth of today as naff and something their mom might watch?

That said, I am also intrigued to see if you have any more insights about the use of editorial rhetoric with the remake as the MTV aesthetic within film musicals of today is very evident and sometimes neglected in academic work.

A great piece, is it available in full form?  If you can't already tell I am a newbie here! 



Hey, Saeed!


Thank you. Your comment got me thinking about my conceptualization audiences. I'm wondering if my reference to a teen audience for Footloose 2011 is not mythically over-determined by its marketing or is not situated enough by knowledge of the audience-makeup for this version. My process relates to this, as my attempt to conceptualize the significance of Footloose as a modern dance-movie musical began with drawing attention to the films by describing and comparing their representation of musical (genre) practices under the assumption that the modern significance of the musical has been founded by the ways in which the audience change for musicals can be understood in relation to industrial shifts - the disintegration of the studio system, television competition and its emphasis of the audience as a public, the transcendence of pop music from radio to soundtracks, and the general conglomeration of the culture industries.  These changes have diffused the implied audience for popular culture to a set of subcultures based on style, tastes, identity, and generation; yet that does not mean that audience is not wider than any pop cultural text may imply. 


I'm attempting to develop an understanding of genre determined by subcultural practices, specifically social dancing - its history, forms, and representation, particularly the discourses (the way it is/has been communicated) that have made it comprehensible as a dramatic subject. Primarily the discourse of dance movies has been one of achievement (see Angela McRobbie's influential essay). Although there are films, music videos, television shows, web series, and YouTube videos that represent social dancing, they all in some way or another reproduce the practice of social dancing as dramatic exhibition for entertainment. Even if it is not commercial, it presupposes an audience and therefore some professional basis for its cultural value.  -Cont'd... 


Jane Feuer conducts a critical analysis of the teen-musical according to industrial shifts and MTV aesthetics in her post-script of the 2nd ed. of The Hollywood Musical. This is the basis from which I've conceptualized the ("post") modern musical as a reconstruction of the classical Hollywood musical.  I extend my analysis in association with Feuer from music to dancing, which has taken on a more stable existence, like song, through the proliferation of a social dancing in commercial culture and its own band of celebrities. Dancing transcends differently than song and confuses social with star/professional more seamlessly. I think this is at the expense of elite standards of cultural practice and an imagination of a mature audience. This is ok - in spite of how Footloose '11 attempts to mature the subcultural history of the modern musical by restoring it according to a moral imagination of the effects of a history economic depression, racism, and industrial decay on youth. 


Accessibility to decaying public sites as a result of deindustrialization pushed the elite from the center of cultural production and made their institutions vulnerable to cultural revitalization from below.  Film, M/TV, and the Internet have brought us as close as possible to the origination modern cultural practice, i.e. hip-hop in the early 80s. These forms counter elite economic standards for exclusion as means of applying value to cultural products. Footloose '11 reinstates exclusion as a value for the sake of paternalism - MTV and the Producers have subordinated subculture as a "powerful" (technological/industrial) source for entertainment. I think I'm seeing a kind of commercial elitism. This is important to the significance of the dance-movie. The struggle between elite/popular is what these stories have been about. Whereas classical, professional film musical narratives sought an audience to make professional performance and the mass audience folk (see Feuer), modern dance-movie musicals posit the subcultural/semi-professional class achieving a mass audience beyond cultural institutions (stage/the movie theater) within public spaces. Now the hard part, for me, in my work is getting outside of - transcending - these dichotomies.  My intuition tells me (or my intuition about the history of Cultural Studies) the possibility may be achieved by establishing a space (for myself) between history and culture to perform/fashion a critique that allows me to reach a public audience or to change how they imagine themselves as consumers as well as producers.

Thanks, again!

 I agree with many of the points you clarified above and have enjoyed reading these insights since much of my research has been concerned with the spectacle of dance and performance on screen (especially within British Cinema) 

If it helps I myself had problems around the whole idea of audience/ who exactly engages with the performances on screen.  I took it back to basics and had to bear in mind ‘there comes a point when looking at a dancer, for example the lead female dancer in Save the Last Dance (2001), becomes an exercise of digging for Africanist presences and the mixture of Africanist presences with European (or other nationalities) becomes a statement of being “all up in each other’s other”’ (Huntington 2007:167) which helped me immensely when conceptualising who the audience I would refer to exactly was.

I would love to read this piece in full when you revise as you had provided scope to an under addressed issues associated with the performance of dance on screen that I feel many others often ignore.

Best of luck with it all!  

Thanks, Saeed!

I appreciate the example. I don't know the Huntington reference but I will look it up.

For some reason, I think audiences are especially important to the dance movie, even more so than in the musical. I keep wanting to say that these films are really about the audience... but I need to work on this relationship more to define better what I mean by that in a critical sense.

I'm happy to hear that you're woking on a simila project as well. I'm writing my dissertation this summer. I would be happy to share work in the future, and I would be interested in learning more about your research and writing as well - in the European context but in the American context as well.  Save the Last Dance definitely fits here. I'm also interested in the Step Up/Legion of Extraordinary Dancers film and series. I saw that there is a similar British 3D dance movie cycle that I need to see.

Best wishes to you in your work.


 Hi John,

Yes, there was a Britsh version in 2011 "Street Dance 3D" which had a follow up of "Street Dance 2" released this Summer.  That was what my work was around for an undergraduate module I did this year, exploring how performance was highlighted as significant through dance and the ways in which an Urban British youth audience connected to these performances.  The British versions were a great source as they used stars associated with dance that already had prestige such as winners of Britain's Got Talent and the Sky One show Got To Dance.  It is somwting I am continuing with through my MA research this year and am just glad that there is current research both here and in the states that are addressing the issues of dance on screen.  The audiences are a tricky aspect mainly because these films have such large appeal but I suppose that is where we as academics have to focus and refine the approach we want to take.

Good luck with it all, you never know we may end up at the same academic conference presenting our work one day! :) 



Dear Tim,

I much enjoyed your post and look forward to reading your dissertation. Studying the development of dance in teen pics might help answer the question of how much the music video, the musical, commercials, horror films, iPod culture, and the rest have contributed to today's audiovisual turn. I had a nice thought while reading the posts this week. Film, media, and sound scholars have had to fight for a place in the academy. We may now want to carve out a space for specifically audiovisual work. "Audiovisual studies" might involve specialists and scholars collaborating across disciplines.

I'm currently co-editing two Oxford Handbooks, The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics (Claudia Gorbman, John Richardson, and Carol Vernallis), and The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media (Carol Vernallis, Amy Herzog, and John Richardson). We're working with roughly 80 contributors. While OHNAA draws on many who are well-established in the field of audiovisual studies, OHSIDM has such audiovisual scholars as well as people working across many disciplines – from performance video art to contemporary, classical music. To our knowledge, such a major transdisciplinary approach has not yet been attempted. Some of our essays are co-written by scholars in different disciplines, and in some cases a scholar is writing in a complementary discipline for the first time. We think of our handbooks as contributing to a diversity of approaches to sound and image in the digital era, and even the beginning of a new field.

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