First order of business- let me clarify what I mean when I say 'dance film'.
A film where the protagonist is a dancer, and where the plotline heavily involves using dance towards a purpose – from solving marital issues (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi), redeeming a mother's lost pride, class war (Disco Dancer), to drumming up money for survival (Dance Dance), and the solution to the India-Pakistan rivalry (Street Dancer 3D).
However exciting, only a slim collection of films find themselves in this genre. (I will come to this later) The films themselves have changed over the decades; the "purpose" in the dance film has evolved.
Early on in Mithun Chakraborty's 1987 film Dance Dance, a young orphaned Mithun is told by his elder sister, "Tujhe zindagi mein halva khaana hai toh dance karna padega."
Dance here, is to survive.
In Chakraborty's earlier 1982 film, Disco Dancer, he proclaims to his mother, who is feeding him dinner with her hands, his dream of becoming a famous man, "Humara vohi bedard sheher humein sammaan dega."
Dance here, is to redeem, to exact vengeance on the cruel rich businessman who jailed his mother unjustly. This film, where dance becomes the singular, common-man method of avenging the ruthlessness of the moneyed class, plays out like a communist manifesto. It is no surprise then, that in the erstwhile Soviet Union, Disco Dancer was the number 1 movie the year it came out. (It is also no surprise that Mithun, who once belonged to the Naxalite movement of radical class conflict, becomes the figurehead of such a character)
However, I noticed that as we moved towards the new millenium, 'dance movies' mostly became about passion; dance as a vocational soul-mate. I am thinking of Ram Gopal Varma's highly experimental Naach (2004), Shahid Kapoor starrer Chance Pe Dance (2010), and Madhuri Dixit's "come-back film" Aaja Nachle (2007).
In all these films, there is a sense of preservation of both the self and the craft- contemporary, hip-hop, or classical. Mind you, there was also a generational shift taking place- one's job (here, as a dancer) became a source of meaning and joy, as opposed to a source of survival or revenge.
Even a Munna Michael (2017), which feels like it belongs to the 90s, supports this theory. Dolly, the main character runs away from home to pursue her passion for dance. Munna too, dances because he loves to dance. In the climactic dance sequence, he has a bullet wound in his leg. That doesn't stop Dolly from jumping onto it and balancing herself on his shoulders while Munna's arms lay outstretched, striking a pose, pout and abs intact. Dance is more important than … self-preservation.
Now, to the question of why we have such few dance films. (People might argue that a Bajirao Mastani or a Devdas, or even an Umrao Jaan, Pakeezah, could be considered dance films because of the sheer number of dance sequences. But in all these movies, dance is merely part of the spectacle. There isn't a purpose achieved by dance, per-se.)
The tradition of song-and-dance sequences in our collective cinematic imagination is so deep, we don't need an excuse to break out into dance. As a viewer, we are convinced when our main protagonist, a regular person, say a Madhuri Dixit in Pukar or Gulaab Gang, or a Salman Khan in Sultan, or Bharat breaks into dance.
It is within the limits of our imagination. We don't need the actor to be a dancer, in order for them to dance. Therefore we don't have as many films that require the main protagonist to be a dancer.
I wonder then, if dance becomes less dramatic, as opposed to rousing, if it is not used for survival or revenge. There is a scene in Disco Dancer when the rich men try to electrocute Mithun's character by putting "current" in his guitar. His mother finds out, rushes to his concert, and gets a hold of the guitar before he does, dying on stage, as technicolor lights her up from within. I wonder if we will ever get such scenes today.
Which is where the ABCD (Any Body Can Dance) Universe- with ABCD, ABCD 2, and now Street Dancer 3D- shows some hope. The universe itself is a mash-up of these tropes. You have villains, or at least a sketched antagonist. There is scope for drama, with your Good VS Bad template. There is also passion, popping and locking robotically on stage, unwavered by the demands of survival. It is supposed to come together- look great, and feel greater. So far not much has clicked. Perhaps my hopes are misdirected. I pray it isn't.