Dancing in 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.
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.
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.
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.
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