The Spoiler Alert: Dirty Dancing

Great American Films Limited Partnership

The essentials: | Genre: Romance | Director/Writer: Emile Ardolino; Eleanor Bergstein

The statement, “I have never seen Dirty Dancing” is evidently alarming.

I have mentioned that I have not seen this movie perhaps a half dozen times in social contexts and, each time, the reaction is undue alarm. It’s as if I said, ‘oh, me? No, I don’t have nipples.’ It flabbergasts people. They are shocked to the core.

And nipples may actually play an outsized role in why that shock occurs. Because, now that I have seen it, I realize Dirty Dancing is inextricably linked to a distinctly American sexual awakening. The collective American consciousness of 1987 somehow harnessed all of its yearning — hot breath, wet T-shirts, muscled thighs and biceps — and birthed a movie that might as well be sold with a wallet-worn condom.


The movie opens with Jennifer Grey, sitting in the back seat of an old Cadillac, wistfully announcing the era: “that was the summer of ’63 when everyone called me Baby and it didn’t occur to me to mind.” In come the Ronnette’s with “Be my Baby” and suddenly we are in a wide-eyed-wonder version of adolescence — a cinematic universe as fantastic and improbable as those of The Princess Bride and Lord of the Rings. Sure, Baby admits that its pre-Kennedy-assassination and thus pre-60’s sexual awakening, but it’s also — at least as the setting is initially portrayed — maybe a touch prelapsarian.

Baby is on the way to a ‘family camp’ in New Paltz, New York along with her sister, Lisa (fairy-tale wicked with a chip on her shoulder), her mother (a cookie-cutter stereotype of a vanilla mid-century housewife), and her father, Dr. Jake Houseman (a stern but fair Jerry Orbach). The ‘camp’ is a place for Princeton and Harvard boys to spend their summers waiting tables as they woo the daughters of American business royalty. It’s also a place that emphasizes ‘family’ with a not-so-subtle undercurrent of ‘family values.’ The values, in this case, seem to be a) not mingling with the poors b) ignoring sex among adolescents, and c) pretending that black people don’t exist. ‘C’ is not explicitly stated, but I counted exactly two on-screen appearances by a black person: one in the first five minutes, one in the last three.

We are in a post-war white suburban Eden. And so, of course, we will need a snake. A sexy sexy snake. Enter Patrick Swayze.

As minute 6:00 of the movie rolls around, Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes burst into “Time of my Life,” and in walks Swayze, with muscled arms, a chiseled jaw, and a wrong-side-of-the-tracks bad-boy charm only slightly undermined by a couple decades of ballet and jazz training. His character: Johnny Castle — a name that, with ever-so-slight synonymic substitution, becomes ‘Dick Palace.’ I’m a man with a long, comfortable history of heterosexuality behind me. But yes, I get Baby’s swooning look: I’d fuck that guy.

The family camp’s director, Max Kellerman (Jack Weston) takes an immediate, hard stand against Johnny Castle’s very existence. And why wouldn’t he? Kellermen is our token villain so he really ought to contrast Swayze’s Castle as much as possible: rich v. poor; egg-shaped v. hard-bodied; waddle v. stride; mambo v. pachanga. We’ve got our conflict.

From here on out, there’s not a lot you couldn’t predict about how the movie is going to go. The rough-and-tumble Swayze is going to fall in love with the Doctor’s daughter. Baby is going to grow up. There will be dancing. Dirty Dancing. The movie is about 1963, but was made in 1987, so there will need to be some snide commentary on the politics of the earlier era: a botched back-alley abortion, Baby’s prescient alarm over a monk burning himself on the streets of Saigon as US ‘advisors’ expand their military presence in South Vietnam, the end of big band music and the onset of rock and roll. And, of course, there will be the heroic end: Swayze sweeps back in to blow away the old guard with his all-too-hip hips as Jennifer Grey knocks her father’s socks off with her new found moves. Swayze lifts Grey into the air and metaphorically busts through the unjust social barriers that prevent a white, working-class adonis from banging the nearly-as-hot Jewish daughter of someone ever-so-slightly above his social station. The American dream wins again!

(The black actors, meanwhile, are quietly ushered off the sound stage. They have had their sixty seconds of screen time.)

But this isn’t a movie about plot.

This is a way sexier version of the chest-bursting creature in Alien. Copyright Great American Films Limited Partnership

If you cut out every piece of dialogue in it, you wouldn’t lose much: Swayze’s oft quoted “nobody puts baby in a corner” and a couple good zingers. (Dr. Houseman: Max, our Baby’s going to change the world. Max: [to Lisa] And what are you going to do Missy? Baby: Oh, Lisa’s going to decorate it.)

No, this is a movie about music and bodies.

It’s a movie about Jennifer Grey splashing around in a lake wearing a white top tank top. It’s a movie about Patrick Swayze practicing shirtless for their upcoming performance. It’s a movie about The Four Seasons, The Contours, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, The Surfais, Eric Carmen, and The Ronnettes. The soundtrack sold 32 million copies worldwide. It spent 18 weeks in the #1 spot in the Billboard top 100.

Dirty Dancing is a movie about being young and discovering dance and music and their necessary corollary: sex. And that, it seems to me, is why everyone was so alarmed that I hadn’t seen it. What was I doing during the sleepover where everyone else was watching these dance montages — these celebrations of youth and strength and love — while the air around them was pregnant with unconsummated desire and their parents were upstairs and very unwelcome to join?

It’s a movie about an era’s vision of bygone adolescence. And since it has been twenty-nine years since that movie came out — five years longer than the gap between the time of its setting and the time of its release — it might be worth asking how Hollywood’s perception of adolescence has changed. What’s the modern corollary to Dirty Dancing? There haven’t been a whole ton of big market dance movies in the past decade. Pitch Perfect with it’s sardonic musical numbers? A Drum Line? Step Up? Or perhaps we ought to think of it as a movie trying to capture a time, twenty years bygone. Then maybe The Squid and the Whale? Or Napoleon Dynamite? Or maybe just a hagiographic view of teen romance? Then theTwighlight series seems to fit the bill.

But whether it’s the tongue-in-cheek humor of the modern dance movies, the outright sadness or awkwardness of the 80’s reenactments, or the vampire fantasy imposed on ideal teen romance, none of these seem to quite fit the bill. I think that’s perhaps what makes Dirty Dancing so memorable for its many aging fans: they miss the way the movie remembers. 1963 as it was presented in 1987 was a halcyon time, uncorrupted by awkwardness or insincerity, untainted by social problems any more complicated than an easily permeable class barrier. Dirty Dancing presents a world where we can all be briefly infantilized inside a fantasy of a world that never was. It reminds us of a time when — if someone called us baby — it wouldn’t occur to us to mind.

Great American Films Limited Partnership

-Nicholas Brown