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.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.