First Love and First Mambo

Oct 6, 2017 by Nick Staff on The Nickelodeon Blog

In advance of the Nickelodeon’s Dirty Dancing screening, staffer Lillian Burke explains exactly why the film remains so meaningful to its legions of fans. Join Lillian on October 14 at 10pm to mambo, chacha, play trivia and enjoy a special “I Carried a Watermelon” cocktail.

My first memories of Dirty Dancing are of the music. If I close my eyes I can still perfectly visualize riding shotgun in my sister’s black Ford pickup truck, windows rolled down, as our cassette tape of the soundtrack flowed from the speakers. Something about the sound of Otis Redding and The Ronettes made even strip malls and South Carolina suburbs feel like a movie.

Dirty Dancing is a classic coming of age tale of first love and first mambo. During the summer of 1963, Baby, played by Jennifer Grey, and her family set off to vacation at Kellerman’s, an old-school resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. Johnny, played by Patrick Swayze, is one of the lodge’s dance instructors; he entertains guests by teaching them the steps to the foxtrot and the merengue. On a late night walk Baby discovers that during their time off, Johnny and the other entertainment staff prefer to do a different kind of dancing – hip grinding, heart pumping, up-close and intimate dirty dancing. She stands to the side of the room watching, full of curiosity and awe, until Johnny takes her out on the dance floor. From first full hip roll with his guiding touch, Baby is totally smitten, both with the dancing and with Johnny.

I can’t remember the first time I was allowed to see Dirty Dancing, but I do remember that from the beginning, I was hooked. I loved it for the rhythm and the movement that still has me itching to dance while I watch it. I loved it for its aesthetic, a perfect mash-up of the style of the 1980s (when the film was released) and the 1960s (when the film is set) – those big bangs, saxophone solos, and Patrick Swayze’s mullet aren’t fooling anybody about their decade of origin. But I mostly loved it for its main character Baby. I relate to Baby in a way I don’t often relate to movie characters, in a way that is almost visceral. Baby, whose real name is Frances, is seen by her family and by most others as a sweet, smart, and naive girl who would do anything for the approval of her father. With her crooked nose, big curly hair, and white keds, she isn’t your ideal vision of beauty nor is she particularly wild or rebellious. However, what Baby ultimately shows herself to be is a hardworking yet fiercely idealistic young woman whose naivete informs a belief that anything is possible. In short, she’s a dreamer and when she sees something wrong, she wants to make it better. It is this Baby that Johnny gets to know and eventually falls in love with.

Despite being a relatively low-budget teen romance that was intended to go straight to VHS, this movie has withstood the test of time and 30 years later it still shines bright. Some of the magic can be attributed to writer and co-producer Eleanor Bergstein who largely based the story on her own life. She was Jewish, the daughter of a doctor, and grew up attending a mountain resort much like Kellerman’s every summer with her family, where she too discovered her passion for dancing. As a woman, Eleanor didn’t shy away from tough topics. This is why Dirty Dancing presents a critical view of social norms, especially with regards to class and gender, in its narrative of two worlds colliding.

Johnny is working class with no formal education. He must either rely on his physical body and his dance skills to keep himself afloat or become a house painter like his uncle. He is constantly treated as inferior by the other lodge workers and guests. Baby is Jewish, the daughter of a doctor, and getting ready to head off to women’s college Mount Holyoke to study the economics of underdeveloped countries. She has never faced financial hardship. When Penny, Johnny’s dance partner and fellow dance instructor, becomes pregnant by one of the lodge’s cocky, Ivy League waiters, Johnny and Baby’s worlds collide. Penny needs an abortion and the only time she can get one is the night of a big performance she and Johnny have scheduled at a neighboring hotel. Baby steps in to learn Penny’s part and perform with Johnny. It is through practicing the dance and helping Penny that the two begin to truly get to know one another.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that Dirty Dancing would not be the exceptional film it is without the talented Patrick Swayze and the chemistry between him and leading lady Jennifer Grey. Swayze, a true renaissance man, raised in Houston, Texas, grew up playing football, doing martial arts, riding horses, acting, and was classically trained as a ballet dancer from a very young age. An artist dedicated to his craft, Swayze’s unique upbringing and personality made him perfectly suited to bring such strength and vulnerability to a character like Johnny. His skill mixed with Jennifer Grey’s natural ability created powerful moments of real chemistry, frustration, and admiration between the two of them that translate on-screen to pure movie magic.

Dirty Dancing will always hold a significant spot in my heart. In a world rampant with harmful messages directed towards young women and femmes, Baby’s story presents an alternative: It’s okay to be yourself. It is good to be outspoken and fight for what you want. It may be seen as just another teen romance by some, but the wise among us know that Dirty Dancing is a powerful film that gives us a beautiful love story, relevant critique of gender norms and continues to deliver some of most sensual moments in cinema history.