The Power of Pulp Fiction’s Dance Scene, Explained by Choreographers and Even John Travolta Himself

All the great movies have a few mem­o­rable scenes; Pulp Fic­tion is made of noth­ing but. More than a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry ago, that film’s release turned a young video-store clerk-turned-auteur called Quentin Taran­ti­no into a house­hold name. Cinephiles today still argue about which is the most mem­o­rable among its scenes, and only the most con­trar­i­an could fail to con­sid­er the dance. It comes ear­ly in the film, when the hit­man Vin­cent Vega takes his boss’ wife out to din­ner, the absent king­pin hav­ing ordered him to do so. The two eat at an elab­o­rate­ly 1950s-themed din­er and on a whim enter its twist con­test. They walk off the dance floor with a tro­phy — as well as a cou­ple decades’ influ­ence on pop­u­lar cul­ture.

“The twist was made famous in the 60s,” explains chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Lau­ren Yalan­go-Grant in the Van­i­ty Fair video just above. “There were a lot of vari­a­tions that came out of the twist that we do see in this scene,” such as “the mon­key,” “the swim,” and “the Bat­man,” bet­ter known as “the Batusi.”

As bust­ed by John Tavol­ta and Uma Thur­man, all these moves come out in an impro­vi­sa­tion­al fash­ion, each in response to the last: “If John starts to do the Bat­man, then Uma’s going to ‘yes-and’ it with not only a Bat­man but an open palm, her own ver­sion of this move,” adds chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Christo­pher Grant. Their move­ments give the scene a great deal of its impact, but so does those move­ments’ incon­gruity with their expres­sions, which Yalan­go-Grant calls “the jux­ta­po­si­tion of their seri­ous­ness and the lack of play on their faces ver­sus the play in their bod­ies.”

Though now cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly icon­ic in its own right, Pulp Fic­tion’s dance scene pays homage to a host of old­er films. The most obvi­ous is Jean-Luc Godard­’s Bande à part, with what Yalan­go-Grant calls its “amaz­ing dance sequence in a cafe. It’s total­ly out of con­text, of nowhere.” Nev­er shy to admit his acts of artis­tic “theft,” Taran­ti­no once com­plained that too few picked up this one: “Every­body thinks that I wrote this scene just to have John Tra­vol­ta danc­ing. But the scene exist­ed before John Tra­vol­ta was cast.” The direc­tor’s inten­tion, rather, was to pay trib­ute to his favorite musi­cal sequences, which “have always been in Godard, because they just come out of nowhere. It’s so infec­tious, so friend­ly. And the fact that it’s not a musi­cal, but he’s stop­ping the movie to have a musi­cal sequence, makes it all the more sweet.”

The cast­ing of Tra­vol­ta (Taran­ti­no’s “strong, strong, strong sec­ond choice” for Vin­cent Vega) proved for­tu­itous. The very image of the man danc­ing made for yet anoth­er chap­ter of pop cul­ture from which the film could draw, but with­out his real-life danc­ing skills and instincts, the scene would­n’t have been as mem­o­rable as it is. “Quentin was dead-set on both of us doing the twist, which is a very fun dance, but it’s lim­it­ed in how long one wants to watch some­one do the twist,” Tra­vol­ta remem­bers on a recent appear­ance on The Late Late Show with James Cor­den. So he told the direc­tor, “When I was grow­ing up, there were nov­el­ty dances. There were dances like the swim and the Bat­man and the hitch­hik­er and the tight­en up. Maybe we should widen the spec­trum on this.” Taran­ti­no’s unwill­ing­ness to com­pro­mise his ambi­tions and obses­sions has made him per­haps the most acclaimed film­mak­er of his gen­er­a­tion, but so has know­ing when to defer to the star of Sat­ur­day Night Fever.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Quentin Taran­ti­no Gives Sneak Peek of Pulp Fic­tion to Jon Stew­art in 1994

Quentin Tarantino’s Orig­i­nal Wish List for the Cast of Pulp Fic­tion

The Music in Quentin Tarantino’s Films: Hear a 5‑Hour, 100-Song Playlist

An Analy­sis of Quentin Tarantino’s Films Nar­rat­ed (Most­ly) by Quentin Taran­ti­no

How Anna Kari­na (RIP) Became the Mes­mer­iz­ing Face of the French New Wave

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Irwin says:

    Some­one should tell author Col­in Mar­shall, and his “knowl­edge­able” source, that the swim, mon­key and oth­er dances were not vari­a­tions of the twist any more than the tan­go or the fox­trot are vari­a­tions of the waltz. They’re all sep­a­rate dances.

  • undigested matter says:

    OK, if you don’t like long posts.…

    The facile empti­ness of Taran­ti­no’s entire body of work often aston­ish­es, and this is one of those scenes. What makes it ris­i­ble is his insis­tence on the attri­bu­tions he digs up. I don’t doubt he’s seen the films he claims he’s quot­ing: of course he has. But the boy genius all too often reveals his own mis­un­der­stand­ing of these “sources”.

    The Godard ref­er­ence that he appar­ent­ly insists on is one such. Only the most fee­ble under­stand­ing of Godard seems to accom­pa­ny this in his use of the set­up. As I see it, Godard­’s scene depends on a very com­plex set of ele­ments. These include the deci­sion to present the sequence in a con­tin­u­ous shot. Godard is being Godard, and press­ing the “ver­ité” of the scene, the under­ly­ing fac­tu­al­i­ty of it. Not as three char­ac­ters in a sto­ry who some­how decide to dance for four min­utes out of nowhere, a mys­te­ri­ous chore­og­ra­phy that we have no idea of hte source of. The three are very quick­ly three peo­ple who are NOT the char­ac­ters of the film. The chore­og­ra­phy itself insists on a world out­side the illu­sions of the film, of film itself, of rehearsals, of mul­ti­ple takes. It’s pret­ty clear that the three of them are in the late stages of pol­ish­ing the rou­tine, but it’s not fin­ished being pol­ished, the way an Astaire and Rogers scene would be.

    So he delib­er­ate­ly breaks the illu­sion, where Taran­ti­no is sim­ply obliv­i­ous to this, and sees it in the most naive pos­si­ble way, as the three char­ac­ters break­ing into dance, as if that’s what just hap­pened. He does­n’t get that Godard is intrud­ing into the frame, and insist­ing that we’re watch­ing a film. This is a guy who end­ed many of his works with “Fin du Cin­e­ma”, which isn’t the same as say­ing “End” or “Fin” as was com­mon; nei­ther is it say­ing “The Film is Over”. It’s rea­son­able to read these end­ings as “Cin­e­ma, as an art, as an illu­sion, is over”.

    More, if any­one is still read­ing, but cru­cial­ly; the sound­track is revealed to be an over­lay of a record­ed song, a song typ­i­cal of the Amer­i­can cul­ture that was run­ning roughshod over tra­di­tion­al Euro­pean cul­ture. But when the sound­track is inter­rupt­ed, the sound of the dancers – not actors any­more – the foot­steps of the dancers con­tin­ue, clear­ly live record­ing simul­tanous with the image. Lit­er­al­ly, we’re con­front­ed with “Sound and Vision”. What we deal with is the col­lapse of the illu­sion that there’s a record or a band play­ing. Of course there isn’t. Godard does­n’t want us to use movies as a com­fort­ing illu­sion, but as a glo­ri­ous reflec­tion on actu­al­ité, as the french crit­ics of the day named it. He’s say­ing, “take away the Amer­i­can over­lay, and this is what your life actu­al­ly is”, and he is speak­ing to Parisians of the day.

    Taran­ti­no with his fre­quent cuts, fram­ing fic­tions (Ed Sul­li­van and Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe for starters), and the com­plete con­trast between the restau­rants in the two scenes – in Paris, it is a restau­rant, embar­rass­ing in its slight­ly squalid, quo­tid­i­an decor, in “Amer­i­ca”, we’re on a set but god for­bid that that be how we see it – it’s clear that Taran­ti­no’s quote is at a lev­el of child­ish­ness that reveals every­thing we need to know.

    And the last ele­ment: the nar­ra­tor that comes in over the sec­tions where the sound­track starts. In the four breaks, the nar­ra­tor pro­vides a gloss that frames and com­plete­ly changes the inter­pre­ta­tion of the scene as it plays out. He starts by say­ing, essen­tial­ly, that “now is the time when anoth­er paren­the­sis opens up and the time has come to describe (or explain) the feel­ings of these peo­ple”. What Taran­ti­no does­n’t know, obvi­ous­ly, is how this is meant to affect the view­er, and he also does­n’t know that a paren­the­sis is a fre­quent rhetor­i­cal tool in French intel­lec­tu­al dis­course… the notion of the open­ing up of the unre­vealed world inside of things. Roland Barthes, who was hit­ting his max­i­mum repute in French Intel­lec­tu­al life, wrote essays that were a set of paren­the­ses that opened up the mean­ing of the pop cul­ture that was flood­ing France. To think that Godard did­n’t know him in depth is ridicu­lous. To think that Taran­ti­no has any­thing close to the men­tal capac­i­ty to engage in think­ing at the lev­el of Godard is even more ridicu­lous.

    What the nar­ra­tor does in the next three breaks is to explic­it­ly com­ment on the inter­nal psy­cho­sex­u­al states of the three dancers. Godard knows that the pair­ing of two men and a woman is an inher­ent­ly unsta­ble form that shad­ows the French social accep­tance of the insta­bil­i­ty and inad­e­qua­cy that is sim­ply assumed about spous­es and lovers: you need both. And who will pre­vail in this sit­u­a­tion? One man, Arthur, is real­ly think­ing about his erot­ic desire for Kari­na; the oth­er is look­ing at her tits. She is obliv­i­ous, caught up in the dance she does­n’t know if the world is becom­ing a dream, or a dream the world. The erot­ic side that obsess­es the men does­n’t cross her mind. But of course that’s just what the unre­li­able nar­ra­tor tells us.

    Godard could have released this sequence as a movie in and of itself, but it’s part of a wild­ly com­plex dis­course of film. For Taran­ti­no to “quote” it, is impos­si­ble. He just does­n’t under­stand it. He’s a one-man car­go cult of film: mim­ic­k­ing, with­out under­stand­ing or con­sid­er­a­tion of the forces that lie below the image, the sound, the autho­r­i­al intent, and the grain of the film. He’s an idiot.

  • Michel says:

    I would think Mar­cel­lo Mas­troian­ni Clau­dia Car­di­nale
    in Fellini’s 8 1/2 is a bet­ter match

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