Shot in shaky black-and-white and presented in hypnotic stop-motion, the opening sequence of Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing floods the screen with a whirring array of moving bodies. They’re clutching at one another in a slowed-down frenzy that is best described by the movie’s title (itself emblazoned across the screen in a daringly pink, lipstick-on-mirror font that later turned into a bankable logo). The pervading sense of uncorked voluptuousness—barely kept in check so as not to push the movie beyond its PG-13 realm—makes the scene play like a watered-down version of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, itself shot in the summer of 1963 (which is when Ardolino’s film takes place). As different as it can be from Smith’s Utopia of successful gender blur, Dirty Dancing nevertheless shares a crucial quality with Creatures…: namely, it’s a sexual reverie.
The plot unravels in a dear-diary mode of gentle recollection. When one Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey) goes to a Catskills resort to spend her pre-college summer with her parents and annoying sister, she gets so much more than she could have possibly asked for. Instead of a quiet prelude to a fastidiously planned future (joining the Peace Corps; studying “economics of underdeveloped countries”; possibly giving a single-handed boost to the latter), the summer of ’63 proves to be a time of sexual awakening, combined with a crash course in applied class relations. Baby falls for a underprivileged dance instructor named Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), brings out the best in both him and herself, as well as recognizes the pettiness of those perched on the higher steps of the social ladder. When Johnny’s dancing partner Penny (Sylvia Rhodes) gets impregnated by a sleazy medical student named Robbie (Max Cantor), Baby not only recognizes his moral repugnancy (signified by a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead he wields), but also organizes a hasty abortion. After it’s botched, she turns to her doctor daddy (played by Jerry Orbach) for help and then spends the rest of the movie regaining his respect after having violated his trust (it’s him, after all, who had unwittingly paid for the procedure). And what better way for a dimpled babe to make up with her grumpy pops than to do a great dancing routine…? Ask Shirley Temple, she’ll tell you.
While seemingly a typical young adult story, the film is surprisingly levelheaded in its avoidance of agitation about matters of sex. Apart from the steamy dancing they practice together, Baby and Johnny have no coital scenes—those are always nipped out by a discreet cut—and not once are we forced to witness Baby being stereotypically smitten by her first lover’s assumed prowess. These kids are a pair of instantly mature lovers, enjoying sex without freaking out about it. They don’t need that old Blue Lagoon magic of naïve, touchy-feely discovery of orgasm as a revelatory experience—and even though the movie is willfully sappy in presenting their bond as unbreakable (if not downright sacred), this certainly isn’t a union in which the woman succumbs to the man as the sole provider of pleasure.
The movie is many things at once: a distaff coming-of-age story, a Marxist parable of dancing and sex as simultaneously class-reaffirming and class-leveling forces, a period piece, as well as a backstage musical, with an unwanted pregnancy enabling the aspiring performer to get her big break and shine (thus replacing the traditional 42nd Street ankle injury). Contrary to another celebrated generation gap musical—Bye Bye Birdie, shot the same year Baby’s adventures take place—Dirty Dancing is not a spoof of the early 1960s’ pop-fueled teen discontents, but rather a loving recreation of an era that’s deliberately rendered just this side of goofy. The Catskills resort itself, with Wayne Knight ostensibly fine-tuning his later Newman-cackle in the role of an outlandish barker-cum-emcee, seems like a funhouse image of lazy, exaggerated privilege. The cynical owner of the place (played by Jack Weston), as well as his reptilian princeling (Lonny Price) are mere ciphers, designed to provide a trial for Baby’s classless creed and moral resilience, both of which prove to be unbreakable.
The film’s oddest creation is by far Patrick Swayze’s Johnny. While there can be no doubt that this is Baby’s story (since the entire plot serves to vindicate her correct moral instincts), Johnny is a fascinating specimen of Frankenstein-like approach to patching a character together from assorted pieces of pop mythology. Athletic and forlorn, aloof yet affable, forever hinging at the cusp of gulp-inducing shirtlessness, Swayze is part Marlon Brando, part Conrad Birdie in the making. His looks are destined to make the audience swoon; his righteousness starts as abrasive (when he treats Baby with derision) and ends up being celebrated (when Baby’s dad apologizes to him for priggishly assuming he was the father of the aborted child). Johnny is presented as both victim of sex-starved older women he depends on and as a near-virgin (he’s been saving his heart, so to speak). He’s both experienced and pure: a perfect teenage-girl-fantasy construct. (It is in that context that Richard Kelly’s salient joke of casting Swayze as a smarmy charlatan-pedophile in Donnie Darko acquires its full flavor.) At the same time, there’s an unmistakable streak of James Dean-like pain in Johnny, who longs for fatherly acceptance and even confesses to Baby that he dreamed of her dad putting his arm around him.
Dirty Dancing proved apparently too much to handle for the dying Communist regime in Poland, and thus remained unreleased in this writer’s homeland until 1989, when people were already subconsciously preparing for a mambo danced upon the remnants of the Berlin wall, and the phrase “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” was about to acquire a new, ecstatic meaning. Rendered near-impossible to get into for me and my horny older friends by its Polish distributor’s suicidal title change (“Mom, can I go see Spinning Sex…?” is a don’t-try-this-at-home line if there ever was one), the film gained its second life within the burgeoning VHS-craze of the early Nineties.
The glow given off by Patrick Swayze’s fantasy incarnate—as silly as it is irresistible—has enveloped an entire generation and to this day is being referred to as a landmark of erotic assurance (except when it’s parodied as Ken-like narcissism, which was best proven by Ryan Gosling’s recent ironic homage in Crazy Stupid Love). Twenty-five years after its premiere, Dirty Dancing is still the ultimate, filth-free teenage dream of sex as a fiery fulfillment of the era-defining fantasy of making love, not war—which at the time of the film’s opening must have felt much more quaint than “dirty.”