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Dirty Dancing spoke its conscience with its hips

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey (Hulton Archive/ Handout)
Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey (Hulton Archive/ Handout)
Graphic: Libby McGuire
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I can’t buy a watermelon without thinking of Dirty Dancing. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, resort guest Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) scores an invite to a staff-only party by lugging a heavy watermelon to the event. When Patrick Swayze’s bad boy dancer Johnny Castle asks what she’s doing there, Baby flatly responds, “I carried a watermelon.” It’s a perfectly captured moment of social awkwardness—exactly the sort of thing that’s made Baby an icon for generations of women. (You can buy “I carried a watermelon” printed on everything from shirts to mugs to phone cases.) But relatable gawkiness is just one half of Baby, the idealistic high school graduate who plans to major in economics of underdeveloped countries before joining the Peace Corps.

Consider a later scene where she approaches her dad (Jerry Orbach) on the golf course. Baby’s just learned that Johnny’s friend and fellow dancer Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) is pregnant and needs $250 for an abortion. After trying and failing to get the money from the rich med student who knocked Penny up (he tells Baby, “Some people count and some people don’t,” and then hands her his dog-eared copy of The Fountainhead), Baby heads to her wealthy physician father instead. She tries to be as honest as possible, informing her dad that she can’t tell him what the money is for, but that it’s going to someone who needs help. The only time Baby lies is when her dad directly asks if it’s for something illegal—as abortions were back in 1963. Then she makes the ethical call that it’s more important to help Penny than to be entirely truthful.

And that’s Dirty Dancing’s moral philosophy in a nutshell: If someone’s in trouble, you should help them. If someone needs an abortion, you should pay for it. And if someone’s unjustly fired, you should stage a dance protest. Dirty Dancing is a cornerstone of girl culture, a fun, frothy, sexy dance flick that made over $213 million worldwide, produced two multi-platinum soundtracks, and became the first film to sell a million copies on home video. It’s also a movie with a resounding sense of moral clarity. Each time Baby is faced with a choice between doing the easy thing or the right thing, she takes the morally righteous path. And in doing so, her unflappable sense of integrity reshapes everyone around her for the better.

It’s something screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein refers to as “honor.” As she put it in a 2018 interview, “It’s a love story but it’s also about honor. If you reach out your hand and behave with honor, at some point the world will turn on its axis.” Bergstein set Dirty Dancing in the summer of 1963, what she calls “The Last Summer Of Liberalism”—before Kennedy was assassinated and The Beatles came to America. Like her heroine, Bergstein was a doctor’s daughter who grew up summering in the Catskills and was called “Baby” by her family (her older sister is named Frances). Like Johnny, she was a competitive dancer in a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Bergstein put herself through college by teaching Arthur Murray classes before eventually transitioning into writing. She published a novel and penned the screenplay for the 1980 Jill Clayburgh/Michael Douglas rom-com, It’s My Turn. While having lunch with producer Linda Gottlieb, Bergstein casually mentioned that she used to do “dirty dancing” as a teen. According to Gottlieb, “I dropped my fork. I said, ‘Dirty Dancing as a title is worth a million dollars.’”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t an enthusiasm anyone else seemed to share. Gottlieb and Bergstein got rejections from every major movie studio in Hollywood, before finally receiving a meager $5 million budget from Vestron Pictures, a video company looking to branch into movie making. Since it was too expensive to film in New York, Gottlieb and Bergstein subbed in North Carolina for the Catskills. They brought on first-time feature director Emile Ardolino, a dancer turned Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker who immediately connected to the dance elements of the story. Ardolino, in turn, hired a young choreographer named Kenny Ortega, a Gene Kelly protégée who would later go on to helm the wildly successful High School Musical franchise.

For their central couple, the Dirty Dancing team cast two up-and-coming stars who had disliked working with each other on 1984’s Red Dawn but nevertheless had fiery chemistry during their screen test. Then best known as the bratty sister in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Grey had inherited a love of dance from her Broadway icon father, Joel Grey. Swayze, meanwhile, was the son of a ranch foreman and a dance teacher, a combo that pretty much sums up the entire appeal of Johnny Castle. Swayze had studied at the Harkness and Joffrey Ballet schools, but had yet to show off his dance skills in early roles like The Outsiders. At 26 and 34, respectively, Grey and Swayze were far too old to be playing characters in their late teens and early twenties. Yet—as with the stars of Grease a decade earlier—their connection is so palpable it’s worth the suspension of disbelief.

Set in a proudly Jewish world, Dirty Dancing came at the tail end of a dance movie craze. Saturday Night Fever kicked off the trend by delving deep into the darkness of late ’70s life, while Flashdance and Footloose put feel-good spins on their early ’80s coming-of-age romances. Dirty Dancing attempts a sort of middle path. It wraps its complex socio-political interests in an accessible, digestible package. As Bergstein explained in a 2017 Vice article about how the film handles abortion, “That is real life. Real people have to have abortions even as they’re dancing and falling in love.”

Bergstein made sure to weave the abortion storyline so firmly into the plot that it couldn’t be taken out in post-production—which was later requested by one potential sponsor. But since Penny’s procedure is the reason Baby becomes Johnny’s dance partner in the first place, the abortion subplot stayed and the acne cream sponsor went. Even today, Dirty Dancing’s depiction of abortion still feels progressive. Penny’s decision is never questioned, and, with the help of Dr. Houseman, she makes a full recovery from her botched back alley procedure and happily announces that she’ll still be able to have children. Bergstein wanted to remind 1987 audiences of the importance of safe, legal abortion access. When she got pushback as to whether that was really necessary in the era of Roe V. Wade, she replied, “Well, I don’t know that we will always have Roe V. Wade.”

Dirty Dancing’s other interrelated focus is on class. The picture-perfect exterior of Kellerman’s resort hides an intricate employee hierarchy. The waiters are college boys from Harvard and Yale who are encouraged to schmooze with the guests and romance the daughters. The entertainment staff, however, are expressly forbidden from mingling with the guests in anything more than a professional capacity. Though the affluent Kellerman’s attendees fancy themselves good, liberal people, their internalized biases run far deeper than they realize. The owner’s son boasts about his plans to join the Freedom Riders in Mississippi before scoffing at his working-class employees for drawing too much attention to themselves.

Baby is unique in her ability to spot and challenge this hypocrisy, even when it puts her in conflict with the people she loves. After her father provides thoughtful medical care to Penny, he turns around and forbids Baby from hanging out with “those people.” A few scenes later, Baby finally finds the words to call him out: “I’m sorry I lied to you. But you lied too. You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break. But you meant everyone who is like you.”

As Melissa McEwan puts it in a fantastic Guardian piece about reclaiming Dirty Dancing as a feminist film:

It is a curious aspect of growing up in certain kinds of families that hewing too closely to what one’s parents say, rather than the example they set, trying to live up to their espoused ideals, rather than following in their footsteps, inexorably leads to an unexpected moment in which parent and child are both surprised to discover that they aren’t very much like one another after all.

Though Dirty Dancing is very much the story of Baby’s physical and sexual awakening (something the film handles with a radical focus on her agency and pleasure), she’s actually the character who changes the least over the course of the film. Baby’s innate sense of morality and desire to do good is there from the start. It’s everyone else who has to learn to be more like her—including her father.

Dirty Dancing’s biggest arc belongs to Johnny, who experiences an emotional awakening alongside Baby’s physical one. Finally given the time and space to be vulnerable, Johnny gradually drops his confident bad boy mask to reveal he’s a frazzled, self-loathing young man who can barely handle the cognitive dissonance of hobnobbing in a world of wealth while living paycheck-to-paycheck. In one of the film’s most remarkable scenes, Johnny starts to process the unequal power dynamics at play between him and the wealthy older women who slip him their room keys. When Baby suggests that maybe he was just using them, Johnny finally articulates how he actually feels about the encounters: “That’s the thing, Baby. It wasn’t like that. They were using me.” More than 30 years later, those sorts of nuanced onscreen conversations about power and consent are still rare when it comes to women, and almost nonexistent when it comes to men.

Though Dirty Dancing is often lovingly referred to as “cheesy,” I think “heightened” is a better descriptor. It’s a 1960s melodrama filtered through the lens of a 1980s dance film. And it often exists on a purely visceral level of movement and music—one where it makes perfect sense for Johnny and Baby to lip-sync to “Love Is Strange” as a form of foreplay. Ardolino insisted the actors do their own dancing so he wouldn’t have to film around doubles, like Footloose and Flashdance. To make the dirty dancing sequences feel participatory, Ardolino wove his camera in and around the performers. He also filmed rehearsals—leading to great, unscripted moments like the one where Grey laughs at a ticklish dance move and Swayze rolls his eyes in annoyance.

If there’s one thing that deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Dirty Dancing’s cultural staying power, it’s Johnny Castle. Swayze is truly phenomenal in the dance sequences, conveying a smoldering intensity with every single muscle in his body. Even in an art form explicitly designed to show off the female partner, you can’t keep your eyes off him. Johnny is virile but tender; confident but non-threatening; hunky but endearingly socially awkward. He’s a romantic leading man as seen through the eyes of a female screenwriter and an openly gay director and choreographer. Johnny’s close platonic bond with Penny is also key to so much of his appeal. He’s a protector, yes, but, more importantly, he sees women as human beings—one of the most attractive and yet least utilized qualities for a romantic leading man. That Baby is never threatened by Penny and Johnny’s friendship speaks equally well to her too.

The fact that Dirty Dancing is about partner dancing lends itself to all sorts of relationship metaphors about cooperation, balance, and trust. By the end of the film, all Johnny and Baby need is a silent nod across the dance floor to effortlessly pull off the lift that once seemed impossible. They’re finally in perfect sync, each having learned something from the other over the course of the summer. The Dirty Dancing finale is one of those moments of pure cinematic bliss that’s firmly lodged itself into our shared pop culture lexicon. “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and hardly a month goes by that I don’t randomly get the urge to rewatch it on YouTube.

Though Vestron’s expectations were low, Dirty Dancing became a cultural phenomenon and made breakout stars of both of its leads. It inspired a short-lived TV adaptation, a hit concert musical, a spiritual spinoff starring a young Diego Luna, and an abysmal 2017 TV movie remake—not to mention hundreds of first wedding dances and the best scene in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Still, nothing compares to the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of the original, a 100-minute feel-good film that’s got quite a bit of depth beneath its colorful, anachronistically styled surface. That there’s something a little bit ridiculous about Dirty Dancing only adds to its earnest, thoughtful appeal.

Dirty Dancing’s most quoted line is about Baby and her corner, but what’s more remarkable is the way Johnny describes her in his subsequent rebellion against his uptight employer: “I’m gonna do my kind of dancin’ with a great partner who’s not only a terrific dancer, but somebody who’s taught me that there are people willing to stand up for other people no matter what it costs them. Somebody who’s taught me about the kind of person I wanna be.” Dirty Dancing isn’t just about the ability to use privilege for good, it’s about the ethical obligation to do so. That makes it the rare rom-com to position moral integrity as the sexiest quality of all.

Next time: Practical Magic is the ultimate spooky season rom-com.