When Netflix released Work It, directed by Laura Terruso, on August 7th of this year, it joined the rich canon of teen dance films. From Save the Last Dance and Step Up to Another Cinderella Story, Footloose, and, of course, Dirty Dancing, these movies are embedded in our cultural lexicon — for better or worse. In Work It, a rhythmless high school senior named Quinn (Sabrina Carpenter) starts a dance team called TBD, apparently made up of “misfits,” in an attempt to gain admission to her dream college. According to Netflix’s early marketing, Work It is meant to subvert the tropes of the dance movie subgenre — but what does that mean, exactly?
Historically, teen dance movies have been a (somewhat unlikely) arena for the discussion of topics like social hierarchy, class inequality, cultural devaluation of art produced by Black and brown communities, and the bizarre gendering of hobbies and art forms. Dance films are often cheesy, but many also start conversations with their young audiences, some of whom may never have seen these issues reflected in the media being offered to them before.
White ballet dancers like Nora (Jenna Lee Dewan) in Step Up learn to appreciate — and, some argue, appropriate — hip hop, courtesy of heartthrobs such as Channing Tatum. Is Tatum an accomplished dancer and a joy to watch? Absolutely. Might it have been better to have a Black dancer serve as the film’s main connection to an art form that arose from Black communities, particularly because that film could be introducing a portion of its Nora-adjacent viewers to hip hop for the first time? Absolutely. Other teen dance movies also blunder their handling of the issues they raise, and as a result come across as shallow, out of touch, or harmful.
So, where does Work It land on this spectrum? Well, it opens with a dance number, which is always a good sign. Some films that are ostensibly about dance feature precious little actual dancing, and some hire actors without any training, propping them up with a combination of dance doubles and willfully suspended disbelief. At times, the teams behind these films are also dishonest about how much of the performance comes from a dance double, leading to an erasure of the work of professional dancers (like in the case of Black Swan). Work It, by contrast, clearly makes a point to feature the skills of its talented cast as much as possible. Highlights include an elaborate number that opens with Jake (Jordan Fisher) playing the piano, an impromptu show by a group of disabled dancers at a skatepark, and romantic improv sessions between Quinn and Jake.
The opening number introduces us to The Thunderbirds: the reigning champs of the eponymous Work It dance competition. They are led by Isaiah, played by dance media veteran Keiynan Lonsdale. We don’t meet him as Isaiah, though: he spends most of the film going by Juilliard as a nod to his dream school. Early in the film, when we are introduced to Quinn’s best friend, Jas (Liza Koshy), Quinn notes that Jas “isn’t too worried about grades because she’s gonna be a professional dancer,” and therefore doesn’t need to be concerned with academics. Professional dance is Isaiah/Juilliard’s goal as well, however, and The Juilliard School has both stringent artistic standards and a GPA requirement.
But Quinn isn’t aware of details like that. She has privileged tunnel vision, the kind that convinces you that the tunnel you’re in is the deepest and longest. As Quinn stumbles her way through her Duke interview, coming across as fundamentally boring to the exuberant admissions officer Ms. Ramirez (Michelle Buteau), we are meant to feel bad for her. And yet, none of what Ms. Ramirez is saying seems unfair. “The world is burning. I am looking for applicants that are change-makers, risk-takers.” Fair enough.
College admissions are a popular McGuffin in dance movies. Step Up’s Nora pushes back against her mom’s insistence that she attend school rather than pursuing dance, an impulse that motivates her to persevere despite setbacks; Save the Last Dance’s Sara (Julia Stiles) has her heart set on attending Juilliard, and the training she does in preparation introduces her to love interest Derek; in Honey: Rise Up and Dance, Skyler (Teyana Taylor) decides to audition for her sister’s dance crew to compete for a college scholarship.
Work It, in particular, seems like it wants us to believe that the hardest thing you can be is a college applicant — a dorky white girl with flawless skin, ample financial resources, and a slew of extracurriculars. And while the college application process can be understandably anxiety-ridden for everyone who undergoes it, Quinn’s perspective is clearly that her situation is the most challenging out of all those around her. She wants to attend Duke because it’s her deceased father’s alma mater (dead parents are another hallmark of the teen dance movie), but her main barrier isn’t skewed standards or financial inaccessibility, it’s her concern that she’s not interesting enough. As she schemes to make her dream school a reality, she uses those around her, especially Jas and Jake, in a way that is never adequately addressed in the film. And although the whole team, which is exactly as diverse as Quinn must have calculated it needed to be to pique Duke’s interest, seem to grow close, we hardly hear from most members. They are merely a means to Quinn’s end.
Quinn convinces Jas to quit The Thunderbirds, a move that could have a very real jeopardizing effect on Jas’ future as a dancer by keeping her from performing in front of scouts. This conflict does bubble briefly when Quinn temporarily quits TBD close to their competition: “I did all this for you, Quinn,” Jas says. “I quit the Birds for you, you begged me. And what…you’re gonna bail on us? Wow, for a second I thought you actually cared, and you weren’t just using all of us.” Jas’ future is riding on the choices Quinn has made, and she’s understandably frustrated, worried, and hurt. But the situation isn’t resolved by a conversation between these lifelong best friends about the serious concern that Jas has been taken advantage of, which might have led to Jas having the opportunity to air her emotions, and Quinn growing as a person. Instead, both girls quit and then rejoin TBD, and the issue simply melts away.
Something similar happens when Jake, the brilliant but injured dancer whom they rope into choreographing for them, loses his job as the result of TBD’s unauthorized use of the studio where he works. He asks how he will pay his rent without a job, and the question lingers unresolved for the rest of the movie, seemingly forgotten when he and Quinn reconcile. He choreographs for the team for free, while also being saddled with the additional emotional work of teaching Quinn how to calm down long enough to feel a rhythm and start her day without the aid of a TED talk.
Quinn’s lack of consideration for others could be handled with self-awareness, leading to growth. Instead, she uses those around her, many of whom are Black and brown — her plan hinges on the idea that to make her supposedly precarious dream come true, they must all pitch in. Work It plays right into the tired plot points it claims to transcend. If anything, it’s something of a swan song for characters like Quinn.
When Juilliard is rejected from Juilliard (and reverts to Isaiah), he explains to his fellow Thunderbirds that conservatory dancing is different, and if he wants to be taken seriously, he would need to learn to control his fire… “I would die before I extinguish my flames for some stuffy-ass school,” he asserts. The idea that a classical institution would reject a talent of his caliber because he is a relatively effeminate Black man who has too much “fire” exemplifies a painfully realistic scenario that plays out in not only college admissions, but all areas of life. A dance film that explores experiences like Isiah’s by using the college admissions trope to highlight genuine inequality would do Work It’s subversion claim justice.
Deployed correctly, tropes can be powerful, allowing a piece of media to comment on the larger context in which it exists by referencing widely-recognized touchstones. Work It is constructed on a foundation of such stones but rises no higher than its base. Other dance movies in the future will hopefully aim to build upwards.