'Save the Last Dance' costars Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas break down the movie's iconic dance scene 20 years later

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'Save the Last Dance' costars Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas break down the movie's iconic dance scene 20 years later
Julia Stiles as Sara in "Save the Last Dance."MTV Films/Paramount
  • Iconic teen-drama movie, "Save the Last Dance," premiered 20 years ago this week.
  • Insider spoke with the film's stars, Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas, about shooting the climactic scene where Sara blends hip-hop and ballet for a Juilliard audition.
  • Stiles said she rehearsed "every weekend and every second," focusing on refining the choreography because she remembers "feeling like [she] was never going to get it right."
  • "I do remember that Julia had worked really, really hard on that whole routine," Thomas recalled. "I remember watching her do it and I remember being excited watching her do it."

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the iconic 2001 teen drama "Save the Last Dance."

The movie's costars, Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas, played Sara and Derek, a teen couple who fall in love over their shared passions for dance despite a jealous ex-girlfriend and an at-times judgmental sister.

"Save the Last Dance's" emotional climax comes when Sara successfully lands a spot at esteemed performing arts school, Juilliard, by auditioning with a contemporary-freeform piece that blends Sara's ballet training with the hip-hop choreography Derek had been teaching her for months.

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"I loved the training and there's a part of me that loves to dance," Stiles told Insider during a recent phone call. "But also the culture of dancers is very, very critical. I just remember feeling like I was never going to get it right. I was never going to perfect it. So I wanted to keep doing take after take, after take, after take."

Insider caught up with both Stiles and Thomas to learn more about how that memorable audition scene came together, and what it was like working on the set of "Save the Last Dance" together two decades ago.

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Both Stiles and Thomas had to learn how to dance professionally, with help from ballet trainers and choreographer Fatima Robinson

'Save the Last Dance' costars Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas break down the movie's iconic dance scene 20 years later
Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas as Sara and Derek in "Save the Last Dance."MTV Films/Paramount

In order to get in the groove of Derek, who is able to dance circles around Sara in the local Chicago club Stepps, Thomas had to train with the movie's choreographer, the legendary Fatima Robinson, who's worked with Michael Jackson, Pharrell Williams, Rihanna, and other superstars.

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"Fatima is just so expert at what she does that you feel like, 'If I can get past her, then I'm doing OK. I'm doing a good job,'" Thomas said in a separate call with Insider last week.

When he first got the role, Thomas went to Los Angeles to meet Robinson and do some preliminary movement work. Alone in a studio with her, the actor followed her instructions to perfect basic dance moves.

Read more: The 'Save the Last Dance' costars had a 'shared mission' to pull off 'the movie because they knew people were doubting them'

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"After I did it I felt like, 'OK, you know, I feel pretty good. I'm doing my thing. I'm all right,' and she looked at me like, 'Um, no. You're not there yet,'" Thomas said, laughing.

"What was good about that was whatever ego or arrogance I had about my ability to do whatever she was asking me to do, she let me know, 'Nuh-uh, you need to start from scratch. You need to start from ground zero. And when we're going to figure this out," he added.

Once everyone arrived in Chicago to begin rehearsals and film the movie, Thomas continued working with Robinson and her dance colleague Richmond Talauega.

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"Between the two of them, they gave me the confidence that I could get up there on camera and pretend like I knew what I was doing because I'm not a dancer at all," Thomas admitted.

By the time cameras were rolling, Thomas and Stiles had built their own rapport and were able to bring the dynamic of expert and novice to the screen during scenes where Derek taught Sara hip-hop dance moves.

"We had a good shorthand and got to know each other well enough to joke around, and play around, and have fun with things," Thomas said. "It was very authentic, very genuine."

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Stiles spent two months, plus extra weekends, working on the final audition dance sequence

'Save the Last Dance' costars Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas break down the movie's iconic dance scene 20 years later
Sean Patrick Thomas as Derek in "Save the Last Dance."MTV Films/Paramount

To nail the final audition scene, which was created by Robinson with input from ballet choreographer Randy Duncan, Stiles had to learn ballet from scratch.

Thankfully, the actress had experience with hip-hop and more contemporary dancing, but still needed months of practice to nail Robinson's choreography.

"Oh my goodness," Stiles said when asked what she remembers about the audition scene. "We did like two months of choreography and dance rehearsals and training before we started filming. And then once we started filming, on the weekends we would do more choreography and rehearsals of that sequence."

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Stiles recalled that even as the weeks went on, Robinson was "refining the movements" for the scene.

'Save the Last Dance' costars Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas break down the movie's iconic dance scene 20 years later
Julia Stiles in "Save the Last Dance."MTV Films/Paramount

"Just when I would get comfortable with the moves, Fatima would change them or add to it," Stiles said. "She definitely kept me on my toes, but I remember I loved working with her and I just thought she was so innovative."

In line with the movie's narrative arc, Stiles filmed the final audition scene towards the end of the movie's schedule. Now, 20 years later, that sequence stands out for fans and Stiles as it was the most memorable part of her experience and a big personal focus.

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"I was rehearsing every weekend and every second that I had to myself," Stiles said. "That was my focus throughout the whole filming: Getting to the day when we were going to film the audition and not messing it up."

The audition scene wound up being mostly night shoots, so both Stiles and her double (who performed the piece and captured the more technical ballet moves) would sometimes dance at three o' clock in the morning, Stiles recalled, which was "an added challenge."

"One thing that saved me was the nature of making a film and how you have multiple angles and multiple takes," Stiles said. "In an actual audition, you get one chance to do the best you can from start to finish, but I had the opportunity to keep refining it."

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In the scene, Derek is standing supportively just off-stage, which meant Thomas was part of the overall filming schedule that week, too.

"I do remember that Julia had worked really, really hard on that whole routine," Thomas said. "I remember watching her do it and I remember being excited watching her do it."

Read more: The 17 best dance movies, including 'Save the Last Dance,' ranked

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Thomas also remembers Stiles as the type of scene partner who would perform their part of sequence, even if they aren't on camera. His reactions we see in the movie were likely the true response he had to watching Stiles perform the audition choreography.

"There are a lot of actors who, if they're not on camera, they don't do [the scene]," Thomas said. "They just say, 'Oh I'm going to go hang out in my trailer and you pretend that you see me there, but Julia is the opposite of that."

Stiles says she's never gone back to watch the movie or her dance performance: 'I'd be too critical of myself'

'Save the Last Dance' costars Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas break down the movie's iconic dance scene 20 years later
Sean Patrick Thomas and Julia Stiles costarred in "Save the Last Dance."MTV Films/Paramount

Even though the scene has remained a staple in the dance-movie genre legacy, in 20 years Stiles has never gone back to watch her performance.

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"No, God, no," Stiles said when asked if she's rewatched the movie recently. "A hundred percent no. No way. Because first of all, I'd be too critical of myself and I know that I'd like beat myself up about how I could've done the pirouettes better or whatever - like my port de bras was kind of saggy."

"And I don't plan to, really," she continued. "I think it would be weird if, in the little spare time I have, I was sitting at home watching my own movies. I think there'd be something wrong with me."

Still, even decades later the scene is the subject of people's conversations and recreations of it online garner millions of views.

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Read more: 30 of the best movie dance scenes of all time

For both Stiles and Thomas, the one word they use to describe how they feel about "Save the Last Dance" now is "pride."

"So many actors go through their careers and they don't get to do things that stand the test of time - they don't get to do things that people are still asking about 20 years later," Thomas said.

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"So to be here at this point, and people still stop me on the street, in the supermarket, everywhere, telling me how much they loved that movie," he continued, "the overwhelming feeling I have now is just pride because I know how rare that is."

"I feel really proud and grateful to have been part of something and to have made something [that] still resonates with people and still entertains people so many years later," Stiles added. "That's what you hope for as a performer and a storyteller."

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