Dancing in Orange is the New Black

Suzanne Orange is the New Black

The medium of dance is an innovative tool and is regularly used in musicals, ballets, and other entertainment sources reliant on physical theatre to convey anything from singular emotions to changes in plot direction. Outside of shows like Glee it has rarely used in television until, surprisingly, Orange is the New Black. Whether or not dance being used as a signifier is intentional, it is present as an intensifier to catalysts that drive forward the plot. Orange is the New Black is a very physical show and has never shied away from the bodily grotesque, using dance largely for slapstick humour during the auditions for the Christmas play. Therefore it works perfectly that the physical action of dance is used in such a way and has somehow been integrated seamlessly, despite being something that is so incongruous to prison life.

Even from the opening episode, the first slip in Piper’s downfall is punctuated by a dance that she performs for Alex. Let’s Move and Groove Together by Benny Latimore plays in the background while we’re given a stark comparison between her relationships with safe, sweet Larry and seductive, luxurious Alex, who we meet properly for the first time in this scene. It is also in this scene that Piper agrees to go to Bali with Alex, where she starts her journey with the drug ring and jumps onto the slippery slope that led to her incarceration. This use of dance runs throughout the first season of Orange is the New Black, although to a lesser extent in season two. The key scenes, especially for Piper in the first season, are almost always underlined through dance, be it a coordinated number or just a sexy wiggle as in this first episode.

Piper dancing for Alex
Piper dancing for Alex

The most important use of dance is without a doubt the one between Alex and Piper in the ninth episode, during Taystee’s leaving party. This singular dance changed everything inside and out for Piper, the audience, and Litchfield itself. On the surface we’re finally seeing Piper let down her guard with Alex again (whether this is good or not is debatable), but within the scene itself there’s so much more going on to set up a chain of unfortunate events. It seems fairly likely that Alex and Piper are going to do the dirty, which will obviously affect Piper’s relationships with both Alex and Larry. These dominoes fall with ease, as Piper dancing with Alex gets her thrown in solitary confinement, and so Larry is unable to see her when he visits for Thanksgiving. Larry demands to know why Piper is in solitary and Healy is more than happy to tell him, leading to Piper and Larry’s understandable meltdown.

Healy and Pennsatucky are both as relevant as Piper, Alex, and Larry for this scene, in terms of their personal actions and consequences. We always had an idea, from the very first episode, that Healy was uncomfortable with lesbianism, but it was never pushed further than the type of generational discomfort that many older people feel about homosexuality. At Pennsatucky’s push he erroneously assumes that the dancing between Piper and Alex is indicative of an ongoing lesbian relationship, and his image of Piper as being “like him” is shattered. This destroys the relationship between Piper and Healy which, so far, had been advantageous to Piper as Healy gave her small allowances that other prisoners did not get. His overreaction shows that Healy has many more problems than we previously assumed, and paves the way to his issues with anger management that come out during season two.

Piper and Alex dance together
Piper and Alex dance together

Pennsatucky’s part in this scene is equally telling. Previously she was largely an annoyance, but here we begin to see what she’s truly capable of. The fact that she lied to Healy about Piper and Alex having sex in the shower, particularly knowing how much Healy opposes lesbian activity, is the first step in showing us how much of a dangerous nemesis she is because she knows, and doesn’t care, what trouble her lies will cause. Piper’s reunion with Alex also ignites a daredevil side in her which helps her take control of her prison experience, but also makes her foolish. With Alex’s blessing she has a new confidence and starts to antagonise Pennsatucky by making her believe that she’s performing miracles, ending up in Pennsatucky being taken to the psychiatric facility and further stoking the fires in their hatred of one another.

Had Pennsatucky not lied about Alex and Piper, and had Healy not thrown Piper in the Schu, then it’s possible that Alex and Piper wouldn’t have reunited at all, or it would’ve at least taken a lot longer. It was the anger that came from being in solitary confinement that reignited this relationship, really contradicting what the punishment was supposed to be for. Once released from her punishment for “lesbian activity”, Piper seeks out Alex immediately for the purpose of engaging in lesbian activity. This is one of the key plot points that drives the rest of the action, not just for Piper and Alex, but also directly affects Larry, Polly, Cal, both of their families, and the rest of the prison.

Cindy dancing with the mop
Cindy dancing with the mop

While this was the biggest and most obvious scene where dancing signified a huge plot point, the end of season two included a scene that was just as important. One of the main storylines in season two was the introduction of psychopathic villain, Vee. After entering Litchfield, Vee creates her own girl gang with some of the younger inmates and starts distributing heroin back through the prison. In the process she destroys many relationships (namely wonder-duo Taystee and Poussey), and orders physical attacks on several inmates. Due to her superior manipulation skills, many of her own gang don’t see how frightening and unpredictable she really is, until someone steals her stash of heroin. The scene that marks her downfall in Litchfield begins with Black Cindy dancing solo with a mop in the store room. Before long Vee bursts in, snaps Cindy’s mop, and attacks her, holding the broken handle to her throat. This scene is the first step for Vee being overthrown, as it is the first time when any of her gang realise that they are simple commodities for her that she could turn on at any time. With Black Cindy removing herself from the gang it’s not long before the others realise and follow suit, and so they work together to destroy her position of power.

It’s unusual for a show that focuses on realism so heavily to be able to integrate so many dancing scenes, as there always has to be (and there always has been) an excuse for them. Despite this, the physical action is brought in regularly and both signifies important scenes and moves along the action in and of itself. The scene in which Piper and Alex dance together is arguably the most important of the entire season, with that physical dance working as the catalyst for a new plot direction itself. With the use of dance throughout the rest of the show as an in-scene highlighter it makes perfect sense that this crucial catalyst is done in this way. One thing that Orange is the New Black does famously well is combining comedy and tragedy, and using dancing to complement key scenes of heightened emotion is both innovative and entertaining. While this may have been a primarily season one phenomena, hopefully season three will bring back this tick in full as using dance in this way works perfectly with the show’s physicality and sense of fun, and gives it yet another unique spin.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I have fall in love with each and everyone of the cast. And the show is just unpredictable!

  2. Orange is the new black never appealed to me at all but I saw so many people talking about it that I thought I just needed to try give it a watch. Now I’m hooked and have been reading articles on it for hours.

  3. Visenya

    This is an excellent article, and just in time for the new season. Great job! Another character that could be discussed under this topic is Taystee. She dances a lot in the show, often to lighten the mood for herself and others when something more serious is happening.

  4. This show looks so good! New addiction I think…

  5. Glinda Hindman

    I love OITNB!

    • If you loved Orange is the New Black, you have to see “Rectify” also on Netflix. The storytelling and character development is awesome, gritty and thought-provoking with elements of humor. It’s a series about a guy released from death row after 20 years, who tries to adjust to life on the outside. Netflix should promote it much more. It’s awesome!

  6. Nielsen

    I think it’s the character development & dynamics/interactions between the characters that makes Orange so interesting to me.

  7. not my cup of tea. seems like it belongs on NBC as a 30 minute sitcom. im shocked people are so wrapped up in it.

  8. This could have been a really good show if the writers had actually taken the time to do better research .

  9. Monahan

    I’ve seen two seasons so far from Netflix. I really loved it.

  10. This show is the bomb dignity.

  11. A testament to how dance as an art form can be used as a powerful visual tool to express a variety of human experiences and states of being.

    • Jacque Venus Tobias

      Saralasha, I like your statement. I think it can applies to the inmates in as much as they do not have control over their situation. However, they can at times control how they move their bodies in rhythmic beats. It also brings to mind the Irish clogging and how only the lower part of the body can be used for movement another form of control.

  12. Marcie Waters

    Interesting. I never realized there was so many dance scenes. Now I will be watching for that as I’m watching season three.

  13. I’m a dancer myself, so seeing other people writing about it in such an awesome context is really cool! I love that you have combined dance and the screen together, it was something I looked at while at University. I hope you will write more articles like this!

  14. Amelia Fairweather

    This is a very cool insight, I had not previously picked up on while watching the show! It’s very interesting to see how they used dancing to move the plot forward and set up new events.

  15. Emina J

    This is such a fascinating perspective! I never considered the use of dance in the show, but now I realize how symbolic it is. The writers of OITNB never cease to amaze.

  16. Dance definitely plays an underrated role in OITNB. It is amazing how a simple dance leads to sch developments both in the plot and the characters in season one.

  17. danasom

    Great way to demonstrate solidarity.

  18. Interesting post!

  19. Interesting article! I had never really thought about the use of dance in Orange is the New Black, so I learned a lot from your post. A detail but you say at the beginning that not a lot of TV show incorporate dance moments – I have to disagree with you on this one. In Friends, Chandler dances constantly – his happy dance. Monica and Ross have ‘the routine’. You see dancing at each wedding. In How I met Your Mother, Barney and Robin dance together in season 7. Ted dances with a lot of girls. Marshall has his robot dance, and of course there is Robin Sparkles. In Grey’s Anatomy Christina and Meredith dance whenever they feel too much pressure. And so on…. Would be interesting to look at how dance is used in TV shows in general 🙂

  20. Excellent observations. Having just finished Season 1; I found the dance scenes lead to a pinnacle of plot action. Dance scenes wherein the larger population joins are abruptly followed by an intriguing twist, often setting up a cliffhanger. I found that dance is used almost like a paragraph transition, shifting the plot from one focus to another. This is mirrored within the subplots as well.

  21. I was hesitant to watch this show at first because the pilot episode didn’t really appeal to me. However, after giving it a couple more episodes, I was hooked. I had not reflected on the use and importance of dance in this show. I did think to myself during the episode where Piper and Alex dance at Taystee’s good bye party how strange it seemed for them to be dancing and for things to seem “normal” in prison. Interesting article!

  22. I love OITNB. I think the show itself, as well as the show’s characters are captivating. I never thought of the dancing scenes as “plot points”. I think it is very interesting that something so little like a dancing scene, can now be something one can use to predict the importance of the scene.

  23. Diego Santoyo

    Love me some OITNB!! Greatest Netflix show out there by far!

  24. Really interesting, before this article i had never realized that there was so many dances scenes in OITNB. It definitely infers a lot o things about the characters. Awesome article !!!!!

  25. I really enjoyed your take on the role that dancing plays in Orange is the New Black. However, I don’t think that the role of dancing is, per say, “an in-scene highlighter.” I do believe, however, that in the scene with Alex and Piper dancing together which results in Piper being thrown in the SHU (sorry to be picky but SHU stands for “Solitary Housing Unit” and is not spelled Schu, that dancing in that particular scene is crucial. Overall though, I think that you might be misinterpreting the role that dancing plays throughout the show. I think that the dancing in Orange is the New Black is a way for the inmates to have fun while they’re incarcerated since they clearly can’t have parties or celebrate as they would if not incarcerated. Dancing in OITNB could also be seen as a way for the inmates to maintain happiness while in prison, and could be a display of how the inmates can still maintain control over their attitude towards being incarcerated and making the best of what they have in prison, and choosing to maintain a fun and spirited attitude with basically all of their rights taken from them. A similar feature is used in the television shows Grey’s Anatomy and Girls. When times are tough for Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy she “dances it out” as does her closest friend, Christina Yang. There are multiple episodes where things in both Meredith’s and Christina’s lives have gone completely awry and they choose to dance it out rather than sulk about it. An almost identical tactic is used in the HBO series girls when Hanna finds out that her ex-boyfriend, Elijah, is gay, and instead of being flustered and upset, she and her best friend, Marnie, dance it out as well. I think dancing in Orange is the New Black, and many other television shows reflect characters making the best of unwelcoming and overall crappy situations. I don’t mean to discredit your article at all because this is just my opinion, and I do believe that your insight towards this idea is really astute. I just wanted to share my interpretation of your idea, but overall I believe your article was very insightful and eye-opening!

  26. Truly one of the best shows out there in TV land or on Netflix, The art of dance used on this show is very rare especially as we get further towards each season, However I totally agree we have to recognize the art of dancing on this show when we see it, because keeping in mind that they are prisoners tends to slip the minds of the audience.

  27. this has brought something to light I hadn’t given much thought to before! I do find the dancing tends to either highlight moments of comic relief, but it also arises during moments when inmates are celebrating / commemorating important milestones in their sentences.

    Taystee’s leaving party springs to mind as it is a rare time that the women are celebrating a positive outcome, the dancing and the party itself becoming a catalyst to express their femininity. By some extension, it expresses the sexuality and primitive flirtation Piper has to offer Alex. Though as seen in some of the flashbacks, she isn’t always 100% comfortable in what she’s doing; ultimately portraying her at this stage in the characters development as being rather submissive.

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