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Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Dance Scenes in Historically-Set Movies – January #prairierosepubs #moviedancescenes

Join me here for a year of movie trivia fun as I post dance scenes from movies set in historical time periods. I will give a brief summary of the movie’s plot and an equally brief set-up to the scene. Each month on the second Wednesday, I will post a new movie clip and link back to previous movie scene articles here on the blog.

This is the criteria by which I chose the movie scenes:

  • In a non-musical movie, the dance scene is important to the overall storyline, not just visual and auditory filler.
  • In a musical drama, the characters in the dance scene don’t sing to each other.
  • In a musical drama, the dance is important to the overall storyline, not just visual and auditory filler.
  • The historical cut-off is 1960, because that date works for me. ;-)

Side note: The article “Classic Literature is Not Necessarily Historical Fiction” on the BookRiot website offers an interesting explanation on what constitutes historical fiction and where various historical date lines are drawn.

Onward to the January movie scene. 

My well-used DVD cover of Cat Ballou.
  • Name of Movie: Cat Ballou
  • Historical Time Period: 1894
  • Location: Wyoming, U.S.A. in fictional Wolf City
  • Occasion: harvest festival barn dance
  • Type of Dance: square dance

Plot Summary - Paraphrased from Wikipedia – This 1965 western comedy-drama stars Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin. Catherine “Cat” Ballou hires a notorious gunman to protect her father’s ranch then later hires him to avenge her father’s murder. The gunman turns out to be less than what she paid for.

Scene Set-Up - The set-up is included in the clip up to 2:24. In this short amount of time, we learn many things.

  1. Cat is newly returned to her hometown.
  2. She’s been away long enough that Sheriff Cardigan doesn’t recognize her.
  3. Cat’s father is tough and witty.
  4. Her father still thinks of her as a little fathers tend to do.
  5. Her father is proud of her.
  6. We infer the sheriff is corrupt and is part of the plan to run her father off his ranch.
  7. Cat isn’t afraid of confrontation or to speak her mind.
  8. Cat understands immediately the sheriff is an obstacle to justice.
  9. Cat is fiercely protective of her father.
  10. Cat loves her father deeply.
  11. Cat has been threatened by a villain named Strawn.
  12. The sheriff has minions.
  13. Cat’s friend, Jackson, advises her to hire a gunfighter.
  14. We infer that Strawn is a gunfighter for the sheriff or someone the sheriff is in cahoots with.

The dance begins at 2:25 and devolves (or evolves) at 5:55 into a brawl of hilarious entertainment.

During the square dance—2:25 to 5:54—we learn more.

  1. Cat and Jackson discuss hiring Kid Shelleen, a gunfighter with a reputation as one of the best.
  2. We get a feel for the racial tension of the time. Cat’s father chastises her for dancing with Jackson, a Native American, because a white woman dancing with him will cause him trouble. Her father evidently likes Jackson.
  3. Cat is surprised to see two men she’s obviously acquainted with, who are outlaws with prices on their heads.
  4. Cat and one of the outlaws are attracted to each other. “What are you doing here?” “Looking for you.”
  5. Cat dances with one of the outlaws and invites him (and his gun) to go home with her, which infers she’s hiring him/them to protect her father.

This movie clip is pixelated at the beginning and somewhat blurry throughout, but it’s watchable for our purposes.

Below is a clearer clip (3:21) of just the dance.

If the videos don't show on your device, these are the urls: and

This dance scene gives us a feel for the:

  • clothing and hair styles,
  • social activity,
  • social hierarchies (cultural, racial, gender),
  • music, and
  • dance of the time period.
I appreciate all of this as a writer of historical romance for use as reference.

The use of a square dance accomplishes several things. The quick pace of the dance itself moves the action along. It allows the interactions to ebb and flow, which builds viewer anticipation with thoughts of Is she going to dance with him again? Will someone else intervene? Oh...they're looking for each other.

When they come together again for a few moments, they exchange bits of bantering dialogue or professions of love. Dancing, especially in bygone days, was a type of courtship ritual. Couples could touch, speak intimate words, or even make clandestine plans out of earshot of a chaperone.

This scene packs a lot of plot information through dialogue; facial expressions; body language; character insights through dialogue and inference; hints of different character’s motivation and intent; and several points of foreshadowing into a 5½ minute clip.

Well done.

Until next time,
Kaye Spencer
Writing through history one romance upon a time

Warning Sign Image credit: © Can Stock Photo / karenr


  1. Fabulous analysis of a great movie. Cat Balou is one of my favourites. I've seen it many times and never realised for a second how much they packed into this dance scene. So much nuance, and plotting squeezed into such a small scene. Thanks for this. I look forward to seeing more of these.

    1. Thank you. The movie is one of those that barely resembles the book. I found the movie to be an improvement over the book.

  2. Really interesting, Kaye. Love the way how romance writers and movie makers use the dynamics of dance to move relationships along.

    1. I couldn't agree more. A well-crafted dance scene, in writing or on the screen, really shows the relationship(s) between and among characters.

  3. A fabulous movie! I love these old movies and this is one of the best. Loved how you dissect the things that are going on! I'm looking forward to this series of blogs.

    1. It is such a fun movie. Lee Marvin portraying two characters is wonderful to watch. I love the scene when he's dressing up in his black gunfighter's outfit. In December when I wrap this up, I'll explain why I didn't include a few iconic movie dance scenes before I post the last dance scene.

  4. This series is 'right up my alley' with my love of and background in theater and movies. Great start and looking foward to more. Doris