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Center Stage Gave Us Zoe Saldana, Mandy Moore, and the Dance Film of a Generation

on May 14, 2020, 1:16pm

On May 12, 2000 many lives were changed forever.

But most of us didn’t know it, because we were too young to get ourselves to a movie theater without a ride from our parents. On May 12, 2000, the motion picture Center Stage came to theaters.

The teen movie focuses on Jody Sawyer and her fellow students at the American Ballet Academy (ABA). Only the best of the best get in, and every student is fighting for a spot in the company. Unfortunately Jody has bad feet, but is reluctantly accepted into the school because of her stage presence. Along the way, Jody discovers jazz, and has a romantic relationship with Cooper Nielsen, the male star of the company and teacher. In that a man helps a woman discover jazz, it’s sort of like La La Land, but more deserving of accidentally being announced as the winner of the best picture Oscar.

Center Stage marked the film debut of Zoe Saldana, who started her rise to movie stardom through her iconic role as Eva (the talented ballerina who smokes cigarettes inside), but it also featured a number of familiar faces including Peter Gallagher, 10 Things I Hate About You’s Susan May Pratt, and Broadway icons like Donna Murphy, Priscilla Lopez, and Debra Monk. The film was the first of many girl power movies in the early 2000s, heavily influenced by the ’90s in attitude, theme, and style. Later in the same year, Coyote Ugly, Bring It On, and Charlie’s Angels came out and had a similar impact on culture and specifically young women. But there was — and always has been — something special about Center Stage.

In honor of its 20th anniversary, Emmy Potter and Carrie Wittmer rewatched the film together (but physically apart). After more than 13 pages of notes made in a Google Doc while watching the film, they managed to put together a (hopefully) cohesive, readable discussion about Center Stage’s impact on them personally, the culture, America’s relationship to dance, and most importantly, why they are still obsessed with it (and its Mandy Moore-heavy soundtrack) all these years later.

Do you remember how/when you first discovered Center Stage?

Emmy: I started taking dance, including ballet, when I was five, so this movie was already very much on my radar back in 2000. I was 11 — almost 12 — when this came out, so I feel like I was just the perfect age for it to really make a formative impression on me and my personality. And it did.

Carrie: I don’t remember how or when I first discovered Center Stage, because it’s impossible for me to remember a time when Center Stage wasn’t in my life. In the summer of 2000, the Center Stage soundtrack was playing in my translucent purple boombox at all times, even though I hadn’t seen the movie.

I didn’t see it in theaters, because I wasn’t allowed to watch PG-13 movies yet. I do have vague memories of seeing a cardboard Center Stage cutout at the Carmike 12 cinema and saying to myself, “That movie looks so cool, I’m going to see it one day.” I finally saw it when my older sister (who was 13 and allowed to see PG-13 films) got the VHS for Christmas (I got an inflatable armchair).

Emmy: I don’t remember seeing this in a theater, either. It was pretty much exclusively a home video situation (which seems to be the case for most everyone I know who’s seen it). I think my mom and I probably rented it from our local movie rental place (RIP Blockbuster) one afternoon when my dad and brother were gone, and I just never stopped watching it. And I definitely had the soundtrack on CD, which I played on repeat on my Sony boombox and my translucent-blue Walkman player!

Meeting our characters for the first time

Carrie: I love that this film follows such a strict “How to Write a Screenplay” book in terms of introducing every single character and their defining trait in the first five minutes. Jody sucks (at ballet and as a person), Cooper rides a motorcycle and wears leather. Eva telling Maureen, “I’m knitting a sweater” while smoking in the dorms is essential to my personality.

And at the same time, it establishes that Eva is a badass with a baditude and Maureen follows the rules but she’s miserable and lonely. I truly am not the person I am today without Zoe Saldana’s Eva. Anyone who doesn’t know me is rolling their eyes right now, but anyone who does know me is nodding their head uncontrollably.

Emmy: Eva is unquestionably the best character in this movie. When she stomps out her cigarette with her pointe shoe? Iconic. And obviously Maureen is the best goddamn dancer at the American Ballet Academy, but she is also the worst, you know? And I love that! I love how this film just buries itself in character tropes and doesn’t even try to subvert them! Like Cooper showing up on a motorcycle so we know right off the bat he is a “bad boy,” and thus, hot.

As for Jody, I have always maintained that if she spent more time on her technique than her complicated hairdos for class, she’d have done better at ABA. Ooh but you know what is a perfect character introduction in this movie? “My stage name is Eric O. Jones after Oprah. She’s my idol.” Same, Eric. SAME.

Carrie: Watching this as a kid, I don’t think I ever really processed that Sergei had already been at ABA for YEARS.

Emmy: Played by champion Russian figure skater Ilia Kulik, who I was obsessed with. Also Charlie letting everyone know his girlfriend dumped him just before he arrived at ABA is a great way of letting us know some male ballet dancers are cishet and also he is available to be dueling love interests with Cooper for Jody’s affection.

Carrie: That’s screenwriting, people!

The teachers at ABA include egomaniacal artistic director Jonathan (Peter Gallagher) and elegant but tough Juliette (Donna Murphy)

gallagher gif Center Stage Gave Us Zoe Saldana, Mandy Moore, and the Dance Film of a Generation

Emmy: This film would be nothing without Peter Gallagher and Donna Murphy.

Carrie: There’s no way Peter G. gets cast as Sandy Cohen on The O.C. without this movie. He was a draw for the teens because of this role, and I have to be honest: When I saw ads for The O.C. on FOX in the summer of 2003, I recognized Peter from Center Stage. He is why I tuned into the pilot when it premiered. I remember being shocked at how sweet and understanding Sandy Cohen was compared to how cruel and conniving Jonathan was. I love that Peter Gallagher and his eyebrows are in both of the most influential works on my life.

Emmy: His eyebrows are out of control in this movie in the best way. Just beautiful. Like they are a separate character.

Carrie: Also his hair is fabulous. The dimension! Jake Gyllenhaal-esque.

Emmy: Jonathan is very much a stereotypical tyrannical director, but I think Peter Gallagher also gives him a little more dimension than what was probably written on the page. He reminds me of some directors/teachers I worked with in college who seemed nice on the surface but the subtext of their words was pretty critical and/or harsh. Donna Murphy feels like she was a ballet instructor in another life. She has such the right look and demeanor for it. Perfect casting.

Carrie: Donna Murphy is so convincing as a ballet teacher that I just assumed she was a ballerina who just took a small role in the movie until I saw her in the greatest movie ever made that is not Center Stage (Spider-Man 2).

Emmy: I would like Donna Murphy to mentor me in real life and also take me shopping for elegant, high-neck leotards like the ones she wears throughout the film.

Let’s talk about the parents

Carrie: Jody’s parents are portrayed as the assholes who don’t want their daughter to pursue her dreams, but really they just know that their child is not as good as she thinks she is. It sucks to have parents who discourage you from doing something you love, but they knew that she had bad feet all along! They just didn’t know about … soft drum roll please … jazz. And more specifically, sexy jazz ballet.

Emmy: To me they come off more as “clueless Midwesterners” who don’t understand their daughter’s artistic dreams, which is definitely true of some Midwestern parents, but thankfully not mine!

Carrie: Is Maureen’s mother the best movie villain of all time? Sorry [No Country For Old Men’s] Anton Churgurh! Maureen’s mom never gets redemption and I don’t even know her name and we love that. She’s a selfish parent with zero redeeming qualities and the movie never tries to make you feel bad for her. The contrast between Jody’s and Maureen’s parents is one of the most sophisticated parts of the film that is barely explored (but that’s a good thing). Maureen would have loved to have Jody’s parents, and I think it shows in Jody and Maureen’s interactions.

Emmy: You think Andy’s boyfriend is unsupportive in Devil Wears Prada? Well, Maureen’s mom is too supportive and that makes her terrible! She’s such a classic, domineering “stage mom” like Mama Rose in Gypsy. Does anyone else find it weird her best and only friend seems to be her daughter? It’s very Barbara Hershey/Natalie Portman in Black Swan, which clearly was inspired by Maureen’s Mom/Maureen in this movie. Her one redeeming quality is Debra Monk’s magnificent bob and bangs, which look absolutely perfect throughout the film.

On Jody Sawyer, or as one teacher in the film puts it, “who let that disaster in here?”

Carrie: Disney movies make the protagonist an orphan so you feel bad for them. Center Stage made its protagonist a ballerina with “bad feet” so you feel bad for her. I never particularly liked Jody. And I don’t like her now. But as an adult who has definitely thought a man was into me when he literally only wanted one thing (and didn’t even want me to star in his sexy jazz ballet), I finally understand her. Although she has no limits, it’s disturbing. Calling Cooper her boyfriend when they hadn’t had a discussion about their status? Or really, any discussions at all, ever in their lives? Showing up backstage at his soldier ballet? The cookies? I feel like throwing up just writing about it.

jody Center Stage Gave Us Zoe Saldana, Mandy Moore, and the Dance Film of a Generation

Emmy: I think Amanda Schull is very charming, but Jody as a character raises so many red flags for me. We’re supposed to believe she has “bad feet” and not enough turnout when, in reality, she is just barely worse than anyone else. If anyone has bad turnout, it’s me, because I have very inflexible hip flexors. The school is super competitive, so it’s hard to believe they would have admitted someone they repeatedly call a “disaster” and rag on so much over dancers with better technique. And then there is her whole situation with Cooper, which is just…a LOT.

Cooper vs. Charlie (and Special Mention to the film’s actual best boyfriend: Jim)

Carrie: I’m trying to come up with a joke for Charlie and Cooper that makes more sense than Maureen’s mouse/elephant joke. Charlie is a plain avocado: delicious as is, but could use a little salt. And Cooper is the hottest ballet dancer in the company who rides a motorcycle, wears a leather jacket, and lives in a giant loft apartment in DUMBO. The Charlie/Cooper rehearsal dance-off scene is the second best scene in all of cinema. The best scene in all of cinema is when the March women go to the Laurence residence in 2019’s Little Women.

Emmy: The movie really goes out of its way to emphasize Cooper’s hotness. He practically has “Guest Star on peak Beverly Hills 90210 episode” hair and attitude! He’s blond, he’s a star, he has a dramatic past and sexual reputation, and he doesn’t follow the rules. I recognize a primo fuckboy when I see one, and Cooper is definitely a major one. It’s no wonder Jody goes for him right off the bat over semi-bland, brown-haired, nice guy Charlie. Look, Charlie is hot, talented, and supportive of Jody, but it’s hard to compete with a man who hires a drummer (also hot) for the rehearsals of his sexy, controversial ballet. But yes, the big dance off between Cooper and Charlie is one of the hottest things I’ve ever seen and the only kind of manhood pissing contest I’ll allow.

Carrie: You’re right, Emmy. As always. The movie really goes out of its way to emphasize Cooper’s hotness. But it doesn’t have to. But it did. And it did that for us specifically. Jim (Eion Bailey) is also hot. Jim goes to Columbia pre-med, and even though Jim is persistent about dating Maureen, it is never creepy and she finally agrees to do it because it’s what she wants – not because she feels guilty for rejecting him. Her hesitation was coming from her controlling mother. Jim, who confronts Maureen about her eating disorder and general unhappiness with her life as gently as possible, is an excellent boyfriend.

Emmy: Jim is unquestionably the best, hottest boyfriend in this film, and a template for supportive boyfriends everywhere.

We need to discuss the sexual jazz dance class

Emmy: So first, let’s start with Ms. “Dance the shit out of it!” Jazz Teacher played by Broadway legend Priscilla Lopez (aka the original Diana Morales in A Chorus Line). She is maybe the most New York person in the film and reminds me of several teachers I’ve taken class with. I love her, and she’s in the movie maybe five minutes.

What I can’t decide is if they purposely made the jazz class scene so overtly sexual to contrast with the ballet classes at ABA and to play up the sexual tension between Jody and Cooper or if that’s just how jazz classes were at that moment in the late ’90s/early ’00s.

I’ve never seen so many pelvic thrusts outside of the 1985 aerobics film Perfect starring Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta, and I’ve certainly never done that many in a class myself. And yes, I did spend hours trying to teach myself the jazz combo set to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ cover of “Higher Ground” in this scene.

Carrie: I went to Catholic school most of my life, so I consider this part of the movie my sex education. How could Jody not cross the bridge into Brooklyn on a motorcycle to have sex with Cooper after watching him hump the air for an hour in that navy bandana?

During one scene midway through the film, Maureen tries to retell a complicated joke about jungle animals that is never explained over lunch with her mother, who is more focused on pushing Maureen’s dance career forward.

Emmy: I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE ELEPHANT/MOUSE JOKE.

Carrie: All I know is that Susan May Pratt acts this so convincingly that I always think, Wow she really got her mom with this story I do not understand! Is it a metaphor? Is it a joke? Is Maureen the mouse and her mom is the elephant? We know Maureen’s mom is a bitch, but why is the elephant a bitch?

Emmy: What does the mouse mean when it says, “Take it all, bitch”? It seems like a very complicated joke because it apparently involves a whole jungle of animals, and we never hear the whole thing, which really bothers me. I know the “take it all bitch” is just supposed to help punctuate the argument between Maureen and her mom, but what went down between the elephant and the mouse?!

Carrie: Yes, Emmy. I cannot emphasize this enough: What did the elephant do to the mouse?! I hope this question is answered immediately after I die.

In the student showcase at the end of the year that determines whether or not ABA students will make it into the company, Eva takes Maureen’s place as the star of Jonathan’s ballet in the student workshop.

Emmy: One of my favorite parts of this movie is when Maureen and Eva finally end their beef, and Eva dances Maureen’s part in Jonathan’s ballet. It’s very obvious when they use dance doubles for Zoe Saldana and Ilia Kulik here, but it’s still so thrilling to see Eva step into the spotlight and Maureen’s mom absolutely lose her shit when she realizes her daughter finally grew a spine and disobeyed her because she was so unhappy.

Carrie: While the doubles are obvious, this part of the movie more than anything shows how talented and hard-working Zoe Salanda was and is. I’m no ballet expert, but the tight shots of her dancing are pretty convincing. They’re so convincing that I forget Saldana even has a double in the longshots. I also appreciate that Eva’s big moment is about her relationship and mutual understanding with Maureen. Women — they have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts.

Emmy: This is when I think Zoe’s star power really becomes evident. The camera adores her.

Cooper Nielsen selects Jody, Charlie, and Eric to star in his super secretive ballet. It’s a sexy jazz ballet, inspired by the sexy jazz class where he sees Jody and also his own past history with Jonathan and ex-girlfriend/partner Kathleen Donahue. It’s autobiographical and incredibly meta. It’s about two men (a straight-laced ballet teacher and a man with a motorcycle) fighting for the love of a woman, played by Jody. In a convenient plot development, Eric breaks his leg and Cooper replaces him, ultimately playing himself.

Emmy: This is the very definition of an iconic dance movie moment. Cooper’s ballet was actually choreographed by Tony-winning legendary director/choreographer Susan Stroman. We love to see it!

Carrie: Does Jody ever realize that Cooper’s sexy jazz ballet is autobiographical? I do not think she is aware of this. Also, Cooper doing sexy jazz ballet in leather pants changed me.

Emmy: Have you worn leather pants and tried to do more than walk? Impossible. Leather pants would be bad for dancing, but this is CINEMA! I would argue no ballet dancer has made ballet hornier for me than young Baryshnikov (see: The Turning Point and White Nights), but Cooper is undoubtedly off the charts here. Also it’s kind of nuts how Jody’s parents now have to watch her have simulated sex onstage with a man she had actual sex with.

Carrie: One of my favorite parts of the movie is how Jody is completely ignorant to the fact that her parents are horrified that they just watched their daughter have ballet sex with her choreographer.

Emmy: While it’s literally not possible without movie magic, my favorite part of the whole movie is when the background and Jody’s leotard and pointe shoes change to bold red. This whole last sequence is so classic and timeless-looking, that it’s the first image that comes to mind when you think of Center Stage. It’s great both cinematically and theatrically, and I have to give director Nicholas Hytner huge props for it. It gets me every time.

The soundtrack

Carrie: The soundtrack was definitely what got me into this movie because I listened to it constantly for months before I ever saw it. I was really into Mandy Moore at the time, and I think that’s why I got into the soundtrack. But maybe I got into Mandy Moore because of this soundtrack? I don’t know anymore.

All I know is that Jamiroquai’s “Cosmic Girl” still slaps; in just three minutes and 34 seconds, PYT’s “We’re Dancing” takes me through hundreds of different emotions; and it is incredibly chaotic that a song as romantic as Moore’s “I Wanna Be With You” plays during Cooper and Jody’s sex scene.

Emmy: I can say definitively this soundtrack introduced me to both Mandy Moore and Jamiroquai, and for that I am ever grateful. Did I also do a lyrical dance in middle school to Ruff Endz’ “If I Was the One”? Maybe. (I did.)

What is Center Stage about?

center stage gif 2 Center Stage Gave Us Zoe Saldana, Mandy Moore, and the Dance Film of a Generation

Emmy: Center Stage is about the love of dance, pursuing your dreams, and not letting men with big eyebrows or tight leather pants tell you what to do. You know, important life lessons everyone should learn.

Carrie: Center Stage is about a grown man (Jonathan) torturing a young woman (Jody) by accepting her into his ballet academy because she’s hot, just so everyone can tell her she is bad for an entire academic year. But Jody doesn’t let this bring her down: she has sex with the hot ballet star who wears leather and lives in DUMBO before it was expensive. And by the end of the movie he gives her a job. It’s powerful.

Is Center Stage a good movie?

center stage gif Center Stage Gave Us Zoe Saldana, Mandy Moore, and the Dance Film of a Generation

Emmy: I think it accomplishes everything it sets out to do and does it in an entertaining way, so yes, it’s “good” in that sense. And that last ballet against the red backdrop has real “One Perfect Shot” energy (Roger Deakins wishes!) but I would never call it good. It’s great precisely because so much of it is hammy and melodramatic. It’s “good” but not good. Does that make sense?

Carrie: The finale of Cooper’s sexy jazz ballet with the red backdrop pliéd so the throne room scene in The Last Jedi could pirouette. Center Stage is not an objectively a good movie, but it is a great movie because it matters to me.

Why do you think Center Stage resonated for so many young women of a certain age?

Emmy: I think this movie arrived at a transitional moment for movies: right in the midst of so many great teen films in the late 90s but before a lot of the dance movies of the early 2000s like Save the Last Dance or Step Up. It’s kind of the perfect intersection of those genres. There’s even crossover in the casting because Susan May Pratt (Maureen) was also in 10 Things I Hate About You! It was certainly seminal for me as a young dancer who wanted to live in New York City, but I think it also just somehow arrived at a perfect moment with a specific look, tone, and truly fantastic soundtrack!

Carrie: Center Stage has a different meaning to me, because at the time (and even now, really) dance was never a huge interest of mine (although I recognize that the dancing in this film is cinema). At the time Center Stage came out, I was at peak tomboy, and hadn’t danced in years. My only interest was basketball.

center stage Center Stage Gave Us Zoe Saldana, Mandy Moore, and the Dance Film of a Generation

What’s resonated with me is that its female characters take control of their lives and fate. Yes, Jody sucks, but she’s thrown into an impossible situation and forges her own path forward, and along the way discovers something she loves even more than ballet. Eva improves both at dancing and as a person by becoming more vulnerable and optimistic. And Maureen finally finds the courage she needs to accept that her mom forced her into a life she’s never really wanted, and she’s sick because of it.

Emmy: Jody, Eva, and Maureen all stand up for themselves in various ways and end up stronger and happier for it! Center Stage very much feels like a Girl Power kind of movie even if you’re not a dancer or don’t know anything about dance. The themes in the film are universal.