We’ve all been there. Those long summer car trips with friends or family, ambling off towards some far away, inevitably lakeside destination that we’re only able to shrug our shoulders at. Adulthood lies in wait beyond some distant horizon, in a future where you’re finally the one driving the car and your destination is dictated by you and you alone. But for now you’re young and your summer’s fate lies in the hands of an over-packed station wagon. A cracked passenger window forces the scents of sunscreen, bug spray, and half-eaten snacks to intermingle, all the while your sibling’s annoyance at the whole predicament palpably escalates. What could be more awkward than having to spend those first moments of post-tween self-realization crammed into unavoidable proximity with your family? Throw in growth spurts, heightened heartbeats, and burgeoning adolescence and you’ve got quite a heady cocktail. Summer vacation, barreling down the road and back again—counting the cars and having no real expectations beyond a sunburn, a swim, and just getting through it.
Dirty Dancing opens with the Houseman family driving up to Kellermen’s, an affluent resort in the Catskill Mountains. It’s 1963 and the family of four—Mr. and Mrs. Houseman and their daughters, Lisa and Frances—arrive at Kellermen’s in hopes of having a relaxing, enjoyable, wholesome family vacation. In terms of idyllic summer getaways Kellerman’s seems to offer just about everything: sprawling cabin bungalows, group activities, morning announcements, attractive camp counselors, a lake with a dock, and ample opportunities for embarrassment in front of your peers. The resort functions as a kind of platonic ideal for how one should spend an all-American summer, which fits perfectly, since Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) belongs to a model all-American family: Dad is a physician, mom is a looker with a good golf swing, and sister Lisa is equal parts bratty and beautiful. Frances, the kid sister on the verge of college, with dreams of someday joining the Peace Corps, first appears to us dressed down in white keds and one of her father’s old shirts.
Dirty Dancing is one of those films that will make me scream “WHAT?!” in your face if you dare to tell me you haven’t seen it yet. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I should confess that I hadn’t actually seen it myself until somewhat recently. Once I had seen it, though, I immediately began to wonder in earnest what sort of person I might have been had I caught the film in middle school, high school, or even college. Baby was the protagonist I had always needed but could never find: a relatable female character with pluck and self-conviction who manages to not only better the lives of those around her, but to woo all-around cool guy Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). She was clumsy, naive, and decidedly teenage-ish, but never let any of that impede upon her genuine good nature. She was, much like me, all heart and no cool.
Like Baby, I was once a sheltered young girl. I grew up in the shadow of the church, wearing strict school uniforms and attending weekly mass until I graduated high school. To say my upbringing was conservative would be a grand understatement. I was a gawky, shy, impossibly awkward kid, before finally “blossoming”—rather lacklusterly—into a classic textbook version of a goody two shoes. A closet tomboy with no playground guts, I spent most of my youth daydreaming outside in Florida’s eternal summer heat. Like most introverts, I had a rich inner life and a strong internal sense of self, but outwardly I often struggled to assert or believe in it. Life seemed to be parading me along haplessly, my youth like one long, inescapable, humiliating conga line that I could never quite shirk away from.
Growing up I read plenty of comics and fables where “good” consistently trumped “bad”. But let’s face it, being “good” is rarely “cool” and being cool is just about all that matters to teenagers (with the possible exception of crushes). Nevermind actually dancing—or any other sort of honest outward expression—the likes of which seemed just plain impossible to me. To dance would have been to perform an insufferable display of vulnerability. Who doesn’t still cringe at the memory of their first middle school dance? The fumbling hands on waistlines, being forced to leave room for the “holy spirit”. The burden of an unprecedented sense of abstract longing (aka: a crush) and having no means with which to articulate that longing, except to gently sway and be consumed whole by embarrassment. I didn’t learn how to love dancing until I found a way to stop feeling continually embarrassed on the dance floor. This took years, decades even, and somewhere along the way I realized it applied to the rest of my life as well: I didn’t really learn to deeply enjoy anything until I stopped worrying about trying to be cool.
Baby resonates so deeply with me because she initially presents with the gentle naivety of a young girl, only to eventually reveal an underlying, immovable moral fiber. Her transformation throughout the film could be considered somewhat unremarkable—certainly the story of any young woman’s coming-of-age/first love could be fraught with frivolity, the soft focus stuff of a Nicholas Sparks screenplay. The thing that strikes me about Dirty Dancing, though, is that the catalyst for Baby’s transformation is never entirely centered on romance. Despite her attraction to the seemingly unattainable Johnny, there’s no one moment in the film that leads us to believe Baby takes all the risks she does simply to impress him. Her actions seem as much for her as they are for him, or anybody else. The twist—if you can call it one—is that Baby’s nerve and apparent fearlessness are ultimately what pull Johnny into her orbit. Dirty Dancing is not a makeover story: Baby becomes Johnny’s love interest simply by being her unbridled, earnest self.
Throughout the film we witness a girl in slouchy sweaters and over-sized shirts slowly growing into her own posture and, moreover, assuming a position of increased agency and dominance both in her own life and on the dance floor. Baby is continually uncovering as much about the world as she is about her own potential. Jennifer Grey’s performance is nuanced enough that we get to see Baby fully, in moments of both awkwardness (“I carried a watermelon”) and of heartbreaking honesty with her father (“If you love me you have to love all the things about me”). In one scene we see Baby boldly confronting her sister’s sleazy suiter, Robbie, while wearing a long sleeve striped shirt. In the scene that follows she’s cut the sleeves off that shirt, in an attempt to better fit in at the secret staff dance party. Show a little skin, stand up straighter, look aloof, and the rest is a bluff waiting to be called. Ultimately we see Baby transition from girlhood to womanhood, asking Johnny to dance alone in his room (“Dance with me.” “What here?” “Here.”) while Solomon Burke’s “Cry For Me” plays. Baby moves from fumbling to taking charge, from not knowing any of the steps to playfully scolding a smitten Johnny to keep out of her “dance space”.
Contrast this to Swayze’s Johnny Castle, who feels continually put down by his superiors, his job, his status in life as the son of a unionized house painter. At first, Johnny is unable to reconcile his worldview with Baby’s seemingly naive and tireless optimism, dismissing the integrity Baby shows. He initially writes Baby off, until her commitment to their dance routine is forcibly asserted in a moment of heated frustration, as Baby retorts “I’m doing all this to save your ass, what I really want to do is drop you on it!”. (In real life, Grey and Swayze infamously despised working with one another, so those moments when Swayze’s patience breaks are likely heated for a reason.) Grey is unflappable and her chemistry with Swayze—or supposed lack there of—imbues the film’s narrative with a palpable passion. The resulting smiles and stolen glances shared between the characters on the drive back from their successful mamba performance become every bit as memorable as the final act’s iconic “lift”.
Dance was certainly something of a preoccupation for director and choreographer Emile Ardolino and screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein. Ardolino’s early career work with PBS on Dance In America and Live From Lincoln Center won him a total of 17 Emmy nominations. Eleanor Bergstein based the screenplay on her own life, having spent her summers dancing at camps and competing in teen mamba competitions. You don’t have to love dance or dancing to loveDirty Dancing, but the film certainly doesn’t disappointment if you do. (I do.) Besides being enormously entertaining and achingly romantic to watch, the dance scenes also serve to underscore the larger themes of communication, trust, and courage that drive the film’s plot. Dancing, not unlike the many transitions of one’s adolescence, forces an unavoidable honesty, an openness from which you cannot hide or recoil. As Johnny puts it: “It’s a feeling, a heartbeat.” Find yourself a good dance partner in life and everything else becomes white noise, a faceless audience concealed by backlighting.
Dirty Dancing’s summer of new romances, self-discovery, sneaking out, and deceiving parents eventually draws to a close with a talent show grand finale, complete with famous lines (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”) and a big swelling dance number. Everyone has had “the time of their life” at Kellermen’s, and, thanks to Baby and Johnny’s dancing, things just might work out okay for the old-fashioned camp. Sure, there’s probably a symbolic correlation between Baby finally being able to do the lift and her own personal self-actualization. Gravity defying dance moves and catchy songs distract, however, from an earlier, tender moment that always stood out to me even more. Shortly after Johnny’s initial dismissal from the camp, a quiet farewell between Baby and Johnny illustrates the equals they’ve come to discover in one another, and echoes a sentiment we all hope to hear at the close of summer: