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The Score: Mapping the Music and Style of 'Save the Last Dance'

The movie that gave us one of the best soundtracks of the early aughts—and one of the worst protagonists.

Few things confuse me like Save the Last Dance. First, I still don’t know what this movie’s supposed to be about. Dancing? Love? Racism? Privilege? Music? Overalls? Stereotypes? Dancing with chairs?

Yes. Truly, we both know there aren’t enough hours in the day to ask the number of questions we have about this movie. The first time I saw Dances With Chairs I was 15 and assumed that Julia Stiles’ character would be another version of Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You but it turns out that Julia Stiles is not contractually obligated to appear as a harsh truth-talking poetic feminist at all times, and can choose other roles like that of Sara—the girl in this movie who has no last name.


Her style in the movie is just as baffling: we know that Sara experiences a makeover at the hands of Kerry Washington’s character Chenille, but aside from that, her fashion is bland. In fact, is bland. Aside from being a ballet dancer, she has no discernable qualities that make her stand out from anybody. Even her audition music is something introduced to her by Chenille and Chenille’s brother, Derek: hip-hop. Music she has seemingly never heard before despite the year being 2001, and it being everywhere. She also acts like she has never even danced to hip-hop— despite, again, it being a mainstream genre since the late 1980s. I mean, Ice Cube’s “You Can Do It” has been played at middle-school dances. It’s not like a B-side track to an underground leaked album. Yet she seems scared and confused when she hears it.

Arguably, this movie is less about Sara than it is Derek and Chenille’s patience with her. Without them, she would combust. Especially since this movie isn’t about them “changing” her, it’s about them telling her stop being a baby-bitch. (Which is the opposite of a boss-ass one.) This is actually Derek and Chenille’s movie. And Sara’s just kind of renting space.



There is a lot going on here. First, girl is representing her ballerina history with a tight, slick-backed bun ala most high school students circa the early 2000s (and most 20-somethings now). Also, she’s donning a pink sweater set and parka with flared pants because life isn’t always fair. We also know this: as sad, instrumental music plays, she tells us the story (via flashbacks) of when she totally nagged her Mom into going to her Julliard audition, despite her Mom basically saying, “I am very busy at work and ready to walk into the sea because of how busy I am.”


So: Sara is spoiled. And I think I speak for everyone here when I say that our parents would’ve laughed in our faces if we’d said, “I know you seem near tears with stress, but please leave work to watch me try to get into school.” I don’t think I like her, guys. (But Julia Stiles I like as a person just fine, don’t worry.)

Also, this is exactly how I imagined adults in the arts to look when I was a child. Clearly the casting director did, too:

Anyway, Sara falls during her audition, disappointing Ponytail Man and, because her Mom feels terrible following Sara’s guilt trip, she hops in a van, and dies in an accident, which, admittedly is some real shit.


So Sara heads to Chicago, where no music plays yet, and she reunites with her father who looks like he has a lot of opinions about B-tracks to underground leaked albums.


Sara hates him because she’s #sad. This hatred is especially obvious when Sara gets dropped off at school and she hears hip-hop music for the very first time. Also, she woke up that morning and thought “I would like to wear every winter accessory” before choosing pieces she found in a box marked, “WINTER CLOTHES.”

That fucking coat. WE GET IT, COSTUME DEPARTMENT: SHE STICKS OUT. So much so that two students leave the office while she walks past and look at her and then look at each other like, “Wow, she really committed to the brightest color of all.”

Meanwhile, as we return to deafening silence, the school’s principal/guidance counselor remains patient while Sara’s striped sweater screams like a banshee.


Kerry Washington, please save us.


THANK YOU. I mean, I don’t want to choose favourites, but Sara is a fucking moron and Chenille rules all. Imagine Sara had gone to Julliard? She’d fall asleep on the subway with her wallet wide open.

Anyway: Chenille’s brother is Derek, with whom Sara ends up dating. Basically, Chenille is Sara’s lifeline to everything. She teaches her how to dress, how to function, how to exist, and how to embarrass herself less. Chenille would be Cher to Sara’s Tai if this were Bronson Alcott High. Only in this case, Chenille has even more patience because Tai didn’t stare at people dancing.

Like, actually: Sara gets distracted by Nikki (Bianca Lawson, you guys!), whose hip-hop dancing leads to Chenille explaining to Sara that “It’s just a little hip-hop.”

HOW DO YOU NOT KNOW, SARA? JESUS. Also, if Nikki wants to dance in the cafeteria, dance in the cafeteria! What the fuck business is it of yours? Stop staring! Had she never seen MTV before? Where was she living? Let’s get out of this cafeteria immediately. But first, HI FREDRO STARR!

Enter: Chenille.

As we can see, Chenille is wearing everything that’s made up most F/W 2014 collections: faux fur, turtlenecks, leather pants, which makes me sure that Save the Last Dance is actually her movie, since without Chenille, Sara would be sitting alone in the bathroom at lunch and going home to cry at night.

Or, going home to work on a very intricately detailed braid. WHO KNOWS. Hours after telling Derek she’d dance in circles around him, Sara meets Chenille at her place, and is promptly informed by Chenille that Chenille looks slammin’:


Sara does not. From the mouth of Chenille herself, “You need to take off that fifth-grade, dance-looking top.” Bless.

But now, congratulations to everybody, she actually looks okay. And to welcome said okay-ness, we’re greeted with the sweet sounds of Fat Man Scoop’s“Put Your Hands Up” as Chenille SHUTS DOWN SOME HARASSMENT like a fucking boss.

Nice hat, asshole.

Meanwhile, Nikki makes the case for this season’s choker revival, doing the likes of Saint Laurent proud. (Same with statement cuffs—as seen at Lanvin.) I would like to know more about Nikki. Hers is a really interesting character that we don’t get to know enough about.

Anyway, after a confrontation that reveals Nikki’s past with Derek, Sara is all alone—aside from the sounds of Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” and eventually the company of said Derek, whom she had earlier promised to “dance circles around.” Guess what she does not do. Which is especially upsetting since she stands there, almost motionless, for most of Da Rockwilder” as Derek helps her find the beat despite her being a Julliard-worthy dancer.

I’m still so confused about how Chenille did that with her sweater.

Anyway, what we’re learning here is that the Reynolds family is magic. Derek and Chenille make Sara. This is basically one of those classic teen makeover movies, but instead of teaching her to put makeup on, they teach her not to be an idiot. Through clothes, music, and dancing, they work together and help turn one waspy person into a slightly less waspy person who is a little more socially aware. (Also, they danced to the remix of “Love Like This Before” which—foreshadowing—neither of them does have a love like that… before.) Important.


Although not as important as this:

So it’s official: the Reynolds are there to rescue her. Derek teaches Sara how to dance like a person who has heard music before using Donell Jones’ “U Know What’s Up.” And this is also where we begin to see Derek’s influence, in addition to Chenille’s: Sara begins dressing a little less Gap ad, a little more tomboy; gravitating to styles that mimic Derek as opposed to Chenille and her friends'.

Twinsies! But seriously: look at how their outfits complement each other. Like, that orange jacket makes a little more sense now. Not just because it’s paired with carpenter pants, but also because she’s toned down the knitwear. Considering Sara’s gravitation towards hip-hop moves taught by a guy, this movie might also be able discovering a more masculine aesthetic. Or, at the very, very, very least, finding a look that works for her.

I mean, holy shit: green top, green pants; pink baseball shirt, blue jeans. So cute “It Makes Me Sick.” (It doesn’t: that’s just the song that’s playing—and it’s by Pink, by the way.)

The thing is, at the start, Sara actually dresses like whichever Reynolds she’s with. With Derek, it’s masculine cuts, styles, and colours (usually). With Chenille… that paisley number is just like Chenille’s club outfit.

Holy shit, this movie is becoming yourself via your best friends. Only I wish we had more of the best friends’ perspective because Derek and Chenille actually deserve their own spin-off.


Anyway, Sara and Derek have dressed alike again while en route to the ballet, and hook up to the sounds of Jesse Powell’s “I Can Tell.”

Peacoats for all! Fortunately, kissing time was a success as it leads to the ballet, and then leads to Derek telling Sara to shut the fuck up and go to Julliard already, you asshole. Cue: montage, set to “Only You” by 112 and Notorious B.I.G. Seriously, people: I can’t stress enough that this isn’t a movie about a boy saving a girl; it’s about a brother and sister team saving a person. Can you imagine if Sean Patrick Thomas (who plays Derek, obviously) guest-starred on "Scandal?" Can you imagine the problems he and Olivia would solve?

Derek clothes again!

But everything changes at Steps with Ice Cube’s “You Can Do It” which I assume is solely about Nikki’s ability to impress Derek with dance.

For the first time ever, Sara stands out completely (and it’s not a style disaster). Aside from wearing a backless shirt like Nikki is, she—unlike LITERALLY EVERYBODY IN THAT ENORMOUS PLACE—opts for pink sequins on a night when Derek and Chenille are both wearing black. Unfortunately, Fredro Starr trumps all of them because he’s the only person there wearing sunglasses inside.

Also please note that the first time Sara and Derek hook up/hook up it’s set to “True Colors” by Fredro Starr (who tells Sara at Steps that she and Derek will never work). So TAKE THAT, DUDE.


But then it all goes to shit: Sara starts wearing clothes that do not compliment her Reynolds god-people, and because of that, her friendship with Chenille goes south, and Derek and her break up.

It was between him and her braids, and I guess she made a choice.

Braids #Sad And all while K-Ci and JoJo’s “Crazy” plays. Breakups are tough. French braid updos are tougher. Julliard judges are toughest.


So ultimately, Sara bucks up and decides to be a thinking person as opposed to a fulltime victim. She communicates with Chenille, who explains patiently and calmly that shit happens, and their friendship is fine. Then, she goes to her Julliard auditions and falls down—but then, sees Derek (wearing clothes that match her’s)—and delivers the performance of a lifetime.

I am almost 99% sure this would actually get you banned from Julliard, but the important thing here is that Athena Cage’s “All Or Nothing” is on while Sara is wearing leather pants that go with Derek’s leather jacket. They work together! Partners! Partnership! Specifically, a partnership that gave Sara a boost to get her shit together and stop moping around Chicago!

BEST FRIENDS FOREVER, EVERYONE. Or more specifically: Sara is now a mix of her own style, Derek’s, and Chenille’s, and slightly less horrible than she was when we met her. (We love you, Julia Stiles. It’s not your fault.)

So, as Montell Jordan’s “Get It On Tonite” plays, we bid this team of friends (and lovers) adieu; making note that in some cases, music can change a person, sure. But not as effectively as patient people who are willing to take an almost lost cause under their wings to make that person stronger. Or at the very least, less terrible.

Anne T. Donahue has a PhD in early aughts teen films. She's on Twitter.