That was the summer of 1987, when Dirty Dancing blended a 1963 setting with distinctively ’80s fashion, dancing and music, and it didn’t occur to us to mind. That was before Robert and Kristen, and Kate and Leo, before Jennifer Grey got a nose job, when we couldn’t wait to anoint Patrick Swayze as the next John Travolta, and we thought we’d never find a better director of PG-13 movies than Steven Spielberg.
That was the summer we went to Kellerman’s. All of us. Johnny. Baby. Girls who wanted to feel like young women. Boys who wanted to be grinded on like young men. Nervous mothers who wanted to grab their children by the arm and drag them out of the theater before the end of the opening credits.
Dirty Dancing was the No. 11 movie of the year and inspired a soundtrack that topped the charts for 18 weeks. It made a new generation hip to songs like The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” and Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” and, in addition to “Hungry Eyes” and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” it launched one of the 1980s’ most inane yet indelible singles, “She’s Like the Wind,” and climactic movie lines, both of which were performed by Swayze.
Since then, the movie has been championed by Conan O’Brien and saluted in Crazy, Stupid, Love. It’s inspired sloppy spinoffs on the big screen and the small one. In short, it has refused to be put in a corner, and with good reason. Uplifting, energetic, romantic, tender, touching and fun, Dirty Dancing stands proudly as one of the most unforgettable and quintessential movies of its decade. It’s a sweet and sweaty dry-humping masterpiece.
I was only 10 when Dirty Dancing was released, so I know I didn’t see it in the theater, less because it looked to my young eyes like an icky “girl movie” than because, as far as parents of the era were concerned, it was PG-13 going on X. The raw sexuality was right there in the title: “Dirty Dancing.” Whatever that was, you didn’t need Ronald Reagan to tell you it wasn’t wholesome.
The kids rolled their eyes at their parents’ prudishness, but it turned out there was truth in advertising. Dirty Dancing begins with pink-lettered opening credits appearing over slow-motion black-and-white images of teenagers dancing so closely that you’d be forgiven for assuming they’re trying to start a fire. It’s a collage of hands, hips, lips and skin, and it’s recreated in color only 15 minutes later, when Grey’s Baby gets her first look at the rowdy staff quarters of Kellerman’s, the Catskills-esque summer resort where she’s vacationing with her family, and Swayze’s Johnny parades around the room with his head and shoulders approximately three feet behind his thrusting pelvis.
From there, Dirty Dancing deals with back-alley abortion, guys who want only one thing and, not to be forgotten, the romantic deflowering of the good girl by the dangerous yet sensitive guy, more or less right under the noses of her unsuspecting parents, each of which ranks fairly high on the Parental Nightmare List. Yet Dirty Dancing, written by Eleanor Bergstein, is just clothed enough, just vague enough, just free of bodily fluids enough, to package itself as a PG-13.
Many movies are destroyed by their MPAA ratings, as a director’s vision is mangled to meet the requirements of an R, or as audiences are kept away by an NC-17, but Dirty Dancing is enhanced by its rating. Most obviously, by stopping short of the R, director Emile Ardolino ensured that teenage girls, the audience most likely to identify with Baby’s evolution into young womanhood, could attack the box office. But much more importantly, the constraints of a PG-13 prohibited the movie from trying to swim in the strong current of truly adult themes that would certainly have drowned it.
From the get-go, Dirty Dancing is throbbing with sexuality, yes, but its hormones are distinctly adolescent. It taps into a time in our lives when dancing isn’t just a stand-in for or a gateway to sex but is a perfectly fulfilling erotic exercise all its own. Seen through Baby’s eyes, the movie is dominated not just by experimentations with adulthood, a common theme at the multiplex, but something much rarer: the discovery of adulthood.
It’s there in the beautiful slow-zoom on Baby’s face the first time she spots Johnny and Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) showing off at Kellerman’s. It’s there again the next time Baby spots Johnny and Penny in the famous watermelon scene. It’s there, too, when Johnny first puts his hands on Baby and tries to show her how to dance. And it’s there again and again in the scenes dealing with Penny’s unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Most movie characters understand something the moment they see it. Baby takes time. Sex, abortion, Baby is aware of these things, but for much of the film everything “adult” takes place behind closed doors in what might as well be some other world.
In an R-rated movie, could we have felt Baby’s naïveté? It seems unlikely. Similarly, in an R-rated movie Baby’s maturation almost certainly would have been highlighted by the loss of her virginity—an event that Ardolino would’ve felt compelled to choreograph as if it were a dance scene. Instead, as produced, Baby’s sexual activity is almost an afterthought.
Sure, if you’re old enough to understand what usually happens when two people take off their clothes and get into bed together, as Johnny and Baby do several times, Bergstein and Ardolino leave no mystery. But here Baby “becomes a woman,” as they say, in the way she grows as a dancer, in the way she starts to exude confidence with her body, in the way she starts to understand the complexities of Penny’s predicament, in the way she relates to her sister and, maybe more than anything, in the way she relates to her father.
Dirty Dancing is, no doubt, a romance between Baby and Johnny, but it’s also something of a breakup movie for Baby and her doctor father, played by Jerry Orbach. It’s not just that Baby professes her love for her dad in her opening voice-over and then falls for Johnny. It’s that over time Baby allows herself to become a woman in her father’s eyes.
This, as I’ve been told numerous times by female friends, can be one of the most difficult transitions a daughter makes. It’s one thing to have sex. It’s another thing to allow your father to know you’re having sex, and that you see yourself as a woman, and that you’re not his perfect little girl anymore, as much as you’ll always love him.
In one of the movie’s best scenes, Baby confronts her father and accuses him of insincerity and classism, as he stares out into the distance, only occasionally glancing his daughter’s way, saying nothing. That’s a big deal: to call the hero of your youth a liar. But the part that really stings is when Baby admits, “There are a lot of things about me that aren’t what you thought.” That’s the heart of the matter, and it breaks both of their hearts to confront it.
Later, Johnny will thank Baby for sticking up for him, praising her for her heroism, but even he won’t understand what it costs Baby to let her father see the truth. It’s an incredibly brave act—Baby standing before her father much more so than standing up for Johnny—and it’s evidence of the movie’s greatness that her face-to-face admission seems so genuine, that Baby’s evolution feels so complete. As Baby storms off, Ardolino’s camera studies her father’s pained face as he bites his lip and briefly turns in his daughter’s direction, devastated at his own hurt, and Baby’s too, clearly wanting to call out to her but not knowing what to say. It’s a gracious shot that you won’t find in a lot of movies, and it’s a testament to the film’s understanding heart: watching your daughter become a woman before your eyes isn’t easy either.
It’s scenes like that one, as much as Johnny’s climactic line (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner”) and the triumphant final dance, that made a generation identify with and fall in love with this film. I can’t tell you the number of women roughly my age who remember seeing Dirty Dancing for the first time the way guys my age remember their first R-rated movie. For many, Dirty Dancing was, much like Baby’s experience at Kellerman’s, a stepping stone toward an enticing yet intimidating new phase of life.
Cinephiles love to debate about what became of Ben and Elaine in The Graduate, a movie that came out two decades earlier, but the future of Johnny and Baby is equally indistinct. Swayze was 35 and Grey 27 when the film was released, and even though they’re both playing characters much younger it’s hard to mistake that Johnny is at least one life phase ahead of Baby. It’s hard to imagine where they go from Kellerman’s, but it’s notable that when Johnny and Baby first part, before his surprise return, there are no tearful goodbyes and Johnny’s parting words are simply, “I’ll see ya.” So it’s safe to speculate that what happened at Kellerman’s probably didn’t stay at Kellerman’s.
But watching Dirty Dancing all these years later, the magic of that place remains, right where we left it—a hybrid of 1963 and 1987, and yet timeless.
I suppose it’s fitting that Grey got one of the most appearance-altering cosmetic surgeries I’ve ever seen. Her squinty-eyed, arched-nose beauty of 1987 is of a different era than this one, and now it’s preserved there. Personally, I wish current cinema gave us more faces like Grey’s first one, and I find it tragic that the actress who so memorably portrayed a character who finds beauty in herself either didn’t have the same appreciation for her looks or felt that Hollywood didn’t. But I guess that Baby-face was only meant for Johnny.
From the watermelon to the log, from the crawl to the lift, Dirty Dancing is responsible for some of the most memorable images of its era. Twenty-five years later are there 25 better American 1980s movies? I’m not so sure.
Then again, 25 years later, I’m still not sure what “she’s like the wind through my tree” is supposed to mean.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler and coauthors The House Next Door’s “The Conversations” series with Ed Howard, currently on hiatus while Ed settles into fatherhood and Jason practices his lifts.