Save The Last Dance: Things Only Adults Notice In The Teen Movie

The 2000s gave us Save the Last Dance and some other epic dance films — from Center Stage to Step Up to Stomp the Yard. The iconic 2001 film starred 10 Things I Hate About You actress Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas. Stiles plays Sara, a white teenage ballerina who moves to Chicago to live with her estranged dad after her mother passes away. She ends up at a predominantly African American school and enters an interracial relationship with a black classmate, Derek. As she adjusts to her new school and her new relationship, she also learns some hip hop moves and prepares to re-audition for one of the top dance schools in the country. 

When the movie came out, it was a popular teen dance film, but how has it held up? Does it stand the test of time? While there's still plenty to love in Save the Last Dance, adults watching it might notice some details that younger audiences don't.

Does Save the Last Dance have the saddest opening in teen movie history?

Save the Last Dance has a happy ending, but it's hard to believe that it's a hopeful story about love and following your dreams from the opening of the film. The first few minutes are pretty depressing, especially for a teen movie. In the opening scenes, we see Sara taking the train to live with her dad in Chicago. Not only did she fail to get into the school of her dreams, but her mother also died in a tragic car accident.

That's a lot to unpack at the start of a movie, especially when the film isn't supposed to be a tearjerker. While Save the Last Dance is meant to be uplifting and empowering, it's hard to shake off the sadness and the desperation of that opening. It's a bleak start to the film, particularly one that was released in the 2000s, aka the decade of delightfully cheesy teen movies.

Save the Last Dance's Sara might not be up to Juilliard's standards

Sara is a great dancer but is she really at Juilliard level? This sounds harsh, but hear us out. Juilliard is one of the top schools for the arts. Students who are accepted to the institution are at the top of their game. The school's famous alumni include Viola Davis, Nina Simone, Robin Williams, and Yo-Yo Ma. The dance program is incredibly competitive, accepting only 24 students each year. With applications coming in from all over the world, that means this Save the Last Dance character's chances of acceptance are minuscule.

Sara insists that her mom has to be at her audition, even though she's having a busy day at work. Auditions can be nerve-racking, but how is Sara supposed to survive in a cutthroat environment if she can't handle an audition without her mom being there? How will she manage performances if someone isn't there to hold her hand? If she needs that level of emotional support in order to get on stage, a performance career might not be the best fit for her and may only lead to future anxiety.

Sara's dad needs to brush up on his parenting skills in Save the Last Dance

Save the Last Dance has some pretty grim moments. Not only does Sara's mother die, but Sara has to go live with her estranged father in a home that looks like it's falling apart. Her dad doesn't even get her a proper bed and instead has her sleep on a sofa bed from the '80s. He doesn't even have nutritious food in the house for her, showing Sara only a freezer full of TV dinners. Sara immediately dismisses the idea of eating those meals, saying that her mom wouldn't let her eat that kind of food.

While TV dinners aren't the worst thing you can eat, Sara's mom had the right idea. Fresh foods have a lot more nutritional value than frozen foods. This is especially important since Sara is a teenager whose brain is still developing. The fact that her dad thinks she can live off of frozen food is pretty scary and a clear sign that he needs to brush up on his parenting skills.

Why isn't Save the Last Dance's Sara in therapy?

Sara has been through some pretty traumatic experiences, as evidenced early on in Save the Last Dance. She lost her dream of going to Juilliard. Her mother died, and she feels like it's her fault. She's also experienced a massive upheaval in her life by having to move to a new city and attend a new school. Just one of those huge life changes would be enough to significantly stress out a person. So why isn't Sara in therapy?

At the very least, Sara should be in grief counseling to cope with her mom's death. It's clear that she harbors a lot of guilt over her mother's passing, and, with her being separated from her friends, she isn't getting much emotional support. Losing a loved one can be especially traumatizing for adolescents, whose bodies are going through hormonal changes which make it more difficult to deal with loss. Sara is clearly depressed, as she's isolating herself and punishing herself by quitting dance, something that she loves to do — both of which are signs that she's not handling her mom's death well and needs some help.

What's with the school's racial segregation in Save the Last Dance?

In Save the Last Dance, the school Sara attends in Chicago is primarily black. She doesn't seem to be phased by this demographic shift, though she's one of the few white people in the school. What is strange, however, is that while, for the most part, there isn't any hostility between the white kids and the black kids in the school, they don't really mingle much. Instead, it seems that white kids more or less stick to themselves.

Seeing this kind of racial segregation in a movie that takes place in the 2000s is unnerving, though it might not actually be too far off the mark. While Chicago is one of the most racially diverse cities in the United States, it's also one of the most segregated. Different racial groups largely stick to their own neighborhoods across the city and, it seems, to their own lunch tables.

Body shaming isn't cool, Sara

Sara, we love you, but you need to learn some basic human decency. When Sara gets a fake ID so she can dance with her new friends at the nightclub STEPPS, she's horrified to find out that the picture on her ID is someone who doesn't conform to her aesthetic standards. Sara protests that the young woman is fat and ugly which is a pretty gross judgement call.

The language is especially harsh since it comes from Save the Last Dance's main character, who we're supposed to be rooting for. Had it come from the mouth of one of her friends, it would have been more understandable, but it's clear that Sara doesn't think that body shaming is a big deal and that putting someone down is totally acceptable behavior. Thankfully, the body positivity movement has been on the rise since Save the Last Dance came out in 2001, so modern audiences know that body shaming isn't okay.

Sharing earrings can lead to infections, Save the Last Dance fans

The first night that Sara goes to STEPPS, she meets Chenille at her house. She asks Chenille if she's dressed okay, and Chenille assures her she looks fine before they head out to the club. Outside the club, Sara asks again if she's dressed appropriately for a night out at which point Chenille borrows someone's car keys and gives Sara a backseat makeover. It seems like this would have been a lot easier to do back at the house, but okay, Chenille, do it your way. Chenille changes up Sara's hair, has her take off her shirt and wear just a tank top and — here's the gross part — takes out her hoop earrings and has Sara put them in her own ears.

This is a really good way to get an ear infection. It would have been one thing if Sara had borrowed earrings back at the house where she could have disinfected them with alcohol, but sharing unsanitized earrings is unsanitary and not something anyone should ever do without killing off potentially infection-causing germs (via Today). Fans of Save the Last Dance, take note.

Black people are portrayed as stereotypes in Save the Last Dance

Sara assumes that the baby Chenille's grandmother carries is Chenille's. While the baby is, in fact, Chenille's son, it kind of makes you wonder if Sara would have jumped to the same conclusion if Chenille were white. Just a few scenes later, she asks Derek if he has any kids, which seems to support the theory that Sara thinks black people are more likely to be single teen parents. Her friend from her hometown also assumes that her new neighborhood is in the "ghetto" and that there are regular shootings. When Sara says she met a cool guy, her friend asks if there are white guys at the school because it never occurs to her that Sara could date outside her race.

Even Chenille says that her brother, Derek, is "one of the few decent men we have left after jail, drugs, and drive-by," thereby dismissing the vast majority of men in the black community. All the black characters in the film are portrayed as skilled dancers who are into hip hop, another racial stereotype. The stereotypes are so strong throughout Save the Last Dance that critics panned the outdated clichés when the movie was released.

Why can't Sara dance to hip hop in Save the Last Dance?

Sara is the primary white character in Save the Last Dance, and she comes with her own bundle of clichés. For starters, she's portrayed as a straight-laced girl who is supposed to serve as a clear contrast to Chenille. While Chenille's primary purpose is to serve as a cautionary tale about the difficulties of teen pregnancy, Sara's ambitions are set on her studies and getting into a good college.

And things get weird the first time Sara goes to STEPPS. As she hits the dance floor, she clearly has trouble dancing to hip hop music. Now, Sara has years of dance training under her belt, so she should be able to feel the beat. Yet bizarrely, she seems to struggle with basic dance moves that are effortless for the black characters in the film. It's a long-standing stereotype that black people are inherently better dancers and more hip than white people, but it's a pretty strange stereotype to embrace in a dance movie where the white protagonist has long been a dancer.

Were interracial relationships really this taboo in the 2000s?

One of the major conflicts in Save the Last Dance is between Derek and Sara and the many people rooting against their interracial relationship. "We spend more time defending our relationship than actually having one," Sara tells Derek. It makes sense that Derek's friend Malakai, who is constantly in trouble with the law, isn't supportive. He's clearly got a chip on his shoulder and has a grudge against Sara from the beginning of the film. But even Chenille, Derek's sister and Sara's friend, doesn't think the two belong together, and she defends Derek's ex-girlfriend who harasses Sara. Absolutely no one in the film is rooting for this couple.

One notable scene shows a woman on the train looking at the couple in disgust, clearly horrified that a black man and a white woman are together. While there are no doubt people who still disapprove of interracial relationships, it's strange that such a relationship is portrayed as this taboo in a major diverse city in the 21st century, as interracial relationships have been on the rise. All the hate would have made more sense if the film took place in 1961 instead of 2001.

How does Sara get an audition spot in Save the Last Dance?

While people who are rejected from Juilliard can re-audition up to two times, it's pretty unlikely that Sara would have gotten a second audition spot so late in the year... or that she would have gotten a verbal confirmation of acceptance on the spot. With only 24 open spots available in the program, it's needless to say that things get pretty competitive. Auditions are scheduled well in advance, so the odds of Sara being granted a second audition so late in the audition season are pretty slim.

That doesn't even touch on how she managed to get back in top dancing shape and to perfect her technique enough to be admitted in just one month. In order to apply to Juilliard, prospective students must be training for at least 10 hours per week, something Sara clearly hadn't been doing until a few weeks before her second audition. Sara's dramatic second audition makes for an empowering cinematic moment, but it's one that would likely have been difficult to pull off in real life. It would have been much safer for her to train intensely for a few months and re-audition the following year, thus maximizing her chances of getting in.

Sara's second audition is incredibly unprofessional in Save the Last Dance

It's no doubt a very dramatic moment in Save the Last Dance when Derek rushes into the auditorium to motivate Sara after she makes a mistake in her dance routine, but it's also pretty unprofessional. All this shows the audition committee is that Sara, who is already on her second audition, needs a pep talk to perform. To make things even worse, Derek jumps back onto the stage to hug her after she successfully completes her dance, telling the committee that they should let her in.

It's far more likely that, in a real audition, this kind of behavior would get a dancer rejected from a school rather than accepted on the spot. It seems pretty unlikely that a school with such a competitive program would let in a student who has messed up at more than one audition and who also brings a dramatic boyfriend along with her. But hey, this is a movie, so instead of the committee warning Sara about her unprofessional audition, she instead is admitted to Juilliard as soon as she finishes dancing.

How are Save the Last Dance's Sara and Derek going to manage a long distance relationship?

By the end of Save the Last Dance, Sara and Derek are back together and happy, but how long can this relationship really last? It's clear that most of their friends and family don't really approve, which is strike one against them. They're also from completely different backgrounds, and Sara is clearly more sheltered and doesn't fully comprehend the troubles that people of color face in America. To top it off, they're both super young and are about to head off to different colleges.

Georgetown and Juilliard are a few hours apart, so, while Sara and Derek are both going to be on the East coast, making this relationship work is still going to be a challenge. It doesn't help that they've already proven that they have communication issues and have even broken up once. Sorry, Sara and Derek, but this relationship seems doomed.

Why doesn't anyone else get a happy ending in Save the Last Dance?

Throughout Save the Last Dance, we get pretty attached to two of the supporting characters, Malakai and Chenille. Since this is a romantic dance film, we expect everyone to get a happy ending, but they don't. Malakai ends up injured and arrested, and he will presumably be sent back to juvie instead of completing high school. Given his persistent unwillingness to turn his life around, it's likely that he will never graduate. Chenille's future looks like it will be tough, too, as she's a single teen mom. A big part of her support system — her brother — is about to disappear, as Derek is about to move away for college. It would have been nice if we could see her storyline end on a more optimistic note. Couldn't the movie show that she, too, has plans for college, was awarded a scholarship, or started a business?

Unfortunately, it seems that only Sara and Derek get happy endings as they merrily dance off into the credits.