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The Best Moves of 2014

Sia’s “Chandelier” Video

Unlike the tightly synchronized, sweat-dipped back-up dancers that typically stand in for music video dance, “Chandelier” offers something fresh and startling. Choreographed by Ryan Heffington (also responsible for Arcade Fire’s “We Exist” that featured an uninhibited Andrew Garfield as a trans-woman with Footloose-like dreams), “Chandelier” follows 11-year-old Maggie Ziegler of Dance Moms reality-TV fame in a seemingly continuous shot through a rather drab apartment. Bewigged in a Sia-like platinum bob, dressed in a nude leotard like a doll just released from a cellophane cage, Ziegler races through the rooms with the spastic determination of a demon possessed. There are classic spins and leaps but also belly slaps and freaky waddles – Rosemary’s baby as ballerina. The scene captures the mood of Sia’s grim, grasping lyrics, which otherwise might be lost in the anthem’s soaring chorus. Perhaps the most unexpected, captivating dance of the year.

St. Louis Ram’s “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” Gesture

A century or so ago, modern dance dismissed the traditional vocabulary of ballet, then half a century later, post-modern dance distilled movement even further, championing the power and inherent meaning of the pedestrian gesture, validating it as dance. Following the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which took place in response to the decision of a grand jury not to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown this summer, members of the St. Louis Ram’s football team ran onto the field at the start of a game with their arms aloft, palms open — the way you stand when a policeman with a gun tells you to put your hands up. With this clear and simple gesture, these athletes made a powerful and poignant statement on a charged political issue, silently expressing outrage and wordlessly contributing to public discourse. Few dance moves ever feel so relevant.

Misty Copeland / Under Armour, “I Will What I Want” 

For years, balletomanes have had their eye on Misty Copeland, a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, one of the country’s most prestigious companies. There are very few black dancers in the top ranks of ballet companies, and Copeland has publicly stated her goal of becoming ABT’s first black principal dancer (in the hierarchy of ballet, it’s the next step up – but a big step). Many critics say she deserves it – not for being black but for her skilled, focused and passionate dancing. The New Yorker gave her a big profile this year, examining her challenging journey through the world of professional ballet, but her biggest leap into mainstream consciousness came via this ad for Under Armour. In it, a voiceover reads a rejection letter from a ballet academy, detailing Copeland’s physical shortcomings, while Copeland responds with ferocious twirls and leaps that silently refute the letter’s ridiculous assertions. Her video has nearly three times as many views as Giselle’s.

Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” Video

The point of Taylor Swift’s video for “Shake it Off” — the song you can’t even bother pretending to not like — is to inform us she can’t dance and she’s proud of it. To demonstrate, she fumbles her way through a broad range of dance styles and we can all agree: Yeah, she sucks. But what makes the video fun and noteworthy from a dance perspective is how she nails the parodies of each genre — the stiff propriety of ballet, the exaggerated attitude of hip-hop, the overwrought emotional earnestness of contemporary dance (meanwhile showing off some nice examples of each). Naturally, they are stylistic stereotypes — including the twerking, which earned Swift a bucket of criticism for perceived racial insensitivity. More broadly, though, the video makes the statement that as much as we love (and have come to expect) our pop divas to strut, strip, shake and shimmy — in other words, sell us their sexuality with dance — Swift won’t play that game.

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World Cup Colombia National Team Goal Dances

Soccer, at its core, celebrates the dexterity of footwork — which its Spanish name recognizes and its English name has strangely ascribed to a glorified game of Hot Potato with pigskin. At this year’s World Cup, Germany’s skilled ambulation earned it the championship. But it was the Colombian team’s goal celebrations that stand out as the best footwork of the games. The short nuggets of joy were hardly more than a phrase or two of movement. Yet for all the seeming improvisation, the team managed to segue into synchronized steps — like this charming samba. It is dance as spontaneous, collective jubilation. It made the world smile.

Lil’ Buck & Jookin

As with many other art forms, dance appropriates homegrown styles that are developed outside the confines of codified techniques, incorporating, for example, folk dances, hip-hop and Latin dance. This was the year that it broadly embraced Jookin, a street dance born in Memphis that combines slithery smooth extremities with motion capture jolts for something not unlike a physical flipbook. And the man serving as its main ambassador is 26-year old Charles Riley, a.k.a. Lil’ Buck. He was first noticed in a 2011 viral video with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and performed with Madonna at the 2012 Super Bowl. But 2014 brought his unique skills to the concert stage, where he starred in a short but striking work for the New York City Ballet by visual artist JR in which he more than held his own. Concert dance venues are now clamoring to showcase his singular dramatic grace. Dance is richer for it.

The Shmoney Dance

It didn’t inspire the tidal wave of interpretations by every bored corporate office in America, like the Harlem Shake, nor is it as clearly defined and in-your-face as twerking. But the Shmoney Dance may be the closest thing we have this year to a semi-viral dance move. The dance is hard to describe. Bobby Shmurda, the rapper credited with its creation, explained in a video that you bend at the waist, grab the inside of your thighs, and alternate popping your knees while bouncing deeply. Most copycat versions — from fellow musicians (even Beyoncé and Jay Z gave it a whirl on tour) to athletes to a slew of amateurs on Vine — add in loose, heavy, swinging arms. It’s basically the physical manifestation of nonchalance. The Shmoney Dance isn’t particularly distinctive or original, and will be but a faint memory come 2015, but we include it here in part for the noble sentiments of its creator: “I hear a lot of people going around talking ‘bout, ‘grown men don’t dance, gangsters don’t dance,’” said Shmurda in an interview. “You feel good dancin’? Dance.”

OK GO’s “I Won’t Let You Down” Video

The gentlemen of the alt-rock band OK GO aren’t exactly models of the lithe and flexible figures we think of when we think of dancers. But their inventive videos have been prime examples of innovative choreography — whether repurposing treadmills, playing with perspective, or erecting a domino set of epic proportions. In many ways it’s more choreography of the camera than of the body, and the clever deployment of sets and props. But their latest video for “I Won’t Let You Down” takes human configuration to a new level with mind-blowing scale and coordination. More importantly, it’s one of the year’s best uses of drones. That technology, on the verge of ubiquity for both good and ill, has best been known to-date for weddings and wars. OK GO offers a more creative alternative. Here’s hoping that technology and choreography continue to tango in 2015.

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