15 Slammin' Secrets of Save the Last Dance

No need to C your way out of this A and B conversation. With the Julia Stiles teenage dance film marking its 20th anniversary, we're reliving all of Save the Last Dance's best moves.

By Sarah Grossbart Jan 12, 2021 8:00 AMTags
Watch: Happy Birthday Julia Stiles!: E! News Rewind

Facts: If you ever slipped on a leotard and tights in the mid-to-late '90s, there's a solid chance you either wanted to be like Center Stage's Jody Sawyer (or Zoe Saldana's Eva Rodriguez, TBH, our vote for the best goddamn dancer in the American Ballet Academy) or Sara Johnson, the Chicago ballerina with big Juilliard dreams. 

Made during Julia Stiles' successful teen movie run (which coincided with her modern-retelling-of-a-popular-William-Shakespeare-play phase), 2001's Save the Last Dance—which dropped suburban Sara into an inner city Chicago high school, where she naturally finds love with the one(!) successful Black male student, played by Sean Patrick Thomas—spent two weeks at the top of the box office, propelling then-Columbia University freshman Stiles to the heights of ubiquity. 

She collected MTV Awards for Best Kiss and Best Female Performance and a Teen Choice trophy for Best Fight Scene thanks to her face-off with her new guy's ex (Bianca Lawson) at STEPPS, the must-attend club that ain't no square dance but is certainly lax on regulating fake IDs. Stiles also scored a gig hosting Saturday Night Live and a Rolling Stone cover, the mag declaring her "the coolest coed."

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Though for all that success and the film's $27.5 million opening weekend box office haul, we'd be remiss if we didn't point out that it feels more than a bit problematic when viewed through a 2021 prism. 

As the Black characters struggle with poverty, teenage parenthood and gang violence, privileged fish-out-of-water Sara connects with Thomas' Derek, a senior with Georgetown ambitions who happens to be the sole Black male in the film with a promising future. And when their interracial love is challenged, Sara is painted as a victim, glossing over the other characters' very real beef with the situation.


But the MTV Films release did gift us with plenty of dance numbers to spend hours memorizing, a solid soundtrack (Pink's "You Make Me Sick," Ice Cube's "You Can Do It," K-Ci and JoJo's "Crazy") and the valuable lesson that we should never leave our s--t on the floor.

Plus, it introduced the world to an unknown Kerry Washington as Derek's sister Chenille, who challenged Sara when she brushed off any mention of her inherent white privilege by boldly declaring, "There's only one world, Chenille." Uhhhhh... As Chenille put it, "That's what they teach you. We know different." 

So there are parts that are still slammin'. 

And with the 20th anniversary of the Jan. 12 release upon us, we're ready to dust off our best STEPPS-worthy moves and dance in circles. Probably around you. Here's everything you may have forgotten about the 2001 flick. 

1. Save the Last Dance wasn't Julia Stiles' first time showing off her skills onscreen. True teen flick connoisseurs recall the 40-second scene in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You that saw a 17-year-old Stiles climb atop a table at Bogey Lowenstein's bash and truly hypnotize her fellow partygoers as Biggie Smalls' hit played. It captivated film execs as well. "[Director] Thomas Carter told me that he suggested I screen-test for the movie because he had seen a scene in 10 Things I Hate About You where I'm dancing on the table," Stiles recently told E! News, "and he's like, 'Oh, she has rhythm.'"

2. Of course that wasn't the only experience she brought to the gig. "I've been dancing since I was little," she shared on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn while promoting the movie in 2001. Still, to play a teenage ballerina with a realistic shot at attending Juilliard, her years of modern dance experience weren't going to cut it. "I had to do, like, a month and a half of four hours a day dancing my tush off," she said. While that left the 19-year-old in what she called "the best shape of my life," her feet were destroyed: "Oh my god, I had the nastiest feet….They'd bleed, they'd get calluses, blisters, bunions, all that stuff." 

3. But it was all worth it as she reallllllly didn't want a body double. "The dilemma for me was I had to constantly prove myself as a dancer, because I didn't want them to double me," she explained to Hollywood.com months after the movie's release. "So I was like, I understand you're gonna have to double en pointe cause I can't do pointe, but everything else has to be me. And I told them I didn't want them to bring a hip-hop double in." 

Thus, much of her training focused on those routines "and I was more comfortable with it," she said. As for the ballet, let's just say it required a jeté of faith. "Everyone's expecting that you're not gonna be able to dance well because you're the actress," she continued. "The first time we shot one of the ballet things I was shaking. And when we'd done a couple of takes I was able to relax."

4. Her counterpart had to put in work as well. At the time, Sean Patrick Thomas was a 31-year-old actor with a handful of film credits who had barely seen the inside of a studio. "I didn't have dance experience, except for some aerobics dance classes, and I had to dance at the final audition," he recalled in an interview with Nitrate Online. "Usually, with any type of choreography, you have to learn it and practice it. I didn't have that chance—they taught it to me that morning. I did the best I could." 

He continued putting in the work after he was cast. "I'm not a dancer at all, I'm just a regular person," he explained to E! News. "And so I was anxious for the opportunity to not screw it up when it came to filming. So if they were going to come and teach me stuff, I was very eager for it because I was so afraid of looking like a complete dork. So I didn't feel like it was extra work in the sense of, like, 'Oh god, I gotta do this again.' I was more like, 'Give me more, give me more, give me more, because I can't screw this up.'" 

5. But the fake it 'til you make it aspect wasn't the only thing that gave him pause. Having already filmed a background part as Jock #2 in Can't Hardly Wait and portrayed Ronald the cello instructor who falls for Selma Blair's Cecile in Cruel Intentions, he feared he might be pigeonholed as a teen movie actor. 

6. Her years at the barre wasn't the only experience Stiles drew on during the Chicago shoot. Growing up in New York City's Soho, the eldest of Judith and John Stiles' three kids, her urban middle school was "a lot like [the film] where I was the only white girl," she told Hollywood.com. "And I wanted to be a homegirl so badly, so I hung out with the tough homegirls and pretended to be like that."

She told Rolling Stone that her daily uniform included door-knocker earrings not unlike those she wore in the film, a Raiders hat and a healthy application of lip liner. "Everyone wanted to be a homeboy or homegirl," she explained, "and I tried to imitate that." 

7. But what really attracted her to the role was the chance to work with legendary choreographer Fatima Robinson. The film's chief choreographer, Robinson's clients have included everyone from the Backstreet Boys and Black Eyed Peas to Michael Jackson, Jennifer Hudson, Usher, Leona Lewis, Prince, and Rihanna. "It was a huge reason why I was thrilled to do the movie," Stiles told E!. "I was like, 'Yes, I would like to get private dance classes, this is amazing.'" 

8. And those who worked to memorize every move of Sara and Derek's chair routine may have picked up on the fact that it was lifted from the Backstreet Boys' "As Long As You Love Me."

9. At 22, Kerry Washington was fresh out of school, an anthropology and sociology degree from George Washington University in hand, when she accepted her breakout role as teen mom Chenille. At that point, the future Emmy winner's credits included an ABC After School Special that earned her a SAG card, a PBS education series and the drama Our Song, which saw the Bronx native playing a 15-year-old living in the Brooklyn projects. 

10. Naturally, Washington put in the work to nail her part. "I did a lot of research and spent time with teen parents when I was preparing for the role," she told Contactmusic.com. "They helped me understand that when you have a child at that age, suddenly you really get that motherly, care-taking feeling toward a lot of people around you, which really helped me understand why she was willing to embrace Julia Stiles' character. So I think there's a part of that, you know, that having a child just makes you sort of rise to the occasion."

11. While suburban Lemont High School easily doubled for its city counterpart, set designers had to put a bit of work into creating STEPPS. Chicago spot The Crowbar "was actually like this weird gothic club," Stiles revealed, "that they redressed it to make it look hip-hop and reggae."

12. The cast certainly appreciated the effort. "There was one point where we were shooting in the club and Julia and I turned to each other at three in the morning, and realized that we were getting paid to dance and have an incredible time in a club in Chicago," Washington told Rolling Stone of the experience."You know all the dancing when the credits are running at the end? That was during the last night of shooting at the club, and we just danced for hours—pulled the producers and the sound guys and the prop guys on the dance floor."

13. We have the film to thank for the birth of Snooki. Sorta. Then a high school student better known as Nicole Polizzi, the future Jersey Shore standout lifted her fame-making nickname from the film's class clown who moonlighted as a DJ at STEPPS.

14. There was a Save the Last Dance 2, a 2006 straight-to-DVD release that followed Sara to Juilliard, where she meets and falls for Columbus Short's hip-hop theory guest lecturer Miles. Sadly, Stiles didn't sign back on, leaving ballet student turned actress Izabella Miko to fill her pointe shoes. 

15. Safe to say Stiles' fame-making film isn't on her regular viewing list. "Save the Last Dance came on TV the other night ... and there was a part of me that was curious about the memories of making that movie," she shared during a 2019 appearance on Good Morning America. "And then I immediately turned it off because it was cringeworthy to me. When you see pictures of yourself as a teenager, part of you goes like, 'Oh yeah.' And then part of you is like, 'Oh my God.'" 

Though, sign us up for the sorta kinda reboot Washington first floated in Stiles' 2001 Rolling Stone profile. Gushing about her costar's "intelligence and commitment and pure talent," Washington said, "I look forward to working with her when we're both in our sixties."