Dirty Dancing: why it's the film we love

Julia Wagner analyses the lasting appeal of the film Dirty Dancing, 30 years since its release


Summer at Kellerman’s doesn’t have the same ring to it. But say these words to a film-lover of a certain age and one film will spring to mind: Dirty Dancing.

30 years since its release, Dirty Dancing has become one of the most well-loved films of a generation. Eleanor Bergstein’s screenplay and Emile Ardolino’s direction conjure an unforgettably joyous atmosphere of summer, dancing and first-love.

The film’s appeal is in the steps and the sex, but for many fans like me, Dirty Dancing’s Jewish themes secure its unique place in our hearts.

It tells the story of Frances “Baby” Houseman’s family vacation at Kellerman’s summer camp in 1963. Baby unlocks a passion for dancing thanks to snake-hipped dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) and as we all know, she has the time of her life.

Dirty Dancing became a staple for me and my peers at sleepovers. We sang along, learnt the lines and practised the steps. Baby’s transformation from naïve, middle-class daddy’s girl to sensual, fabulous dancer was fantastical but relatable. As Baby and Johnny danced on logs, in the rain, in their underwear, we danced in our pyjamas and dreamed of the possibilities that seemed to lie just a few years away.

Baby was a girl like us, a good girl who loved her parents, who wanted to study and to change the world. She also wanted to dance and make love to a real hunk. Baby was our superhero, who could transform like Clark Kent from geek to gorgeous; although it did take her a while to get the hang of the lifts. And she could never quite sort out her hair.

Kellerman’s was based on Grossinger’s, a real kosher resort in the part of the New York Catskills known as the Borsht Belt, where Bergstein had spent her family vacations. She depicts a self-contained world run by and for Jewish people, a bit like my childhood holidays in Bournemouth but on a larger scale and with much better-looking staff. And less rain.

The Jewish context is never discussed in Dirty Dancing. But it is evident in the characters’ names: the Kellermans, the Housemans, Mr & Mrs Schumacher the thieving elderly couple, smarmy waiter Robbie Gould, the ravishing Vivian Pressman. It’s in the family relationships, especially Jerry Orbach’s role as respected Dr Houseman, Baby’s father, and perhaps it underlies Baby’s ambitions for social justice.

Beneath the good-looks and power-ballads, Dirty Dancing is quietly subversive. Baby Houseman offered something new, a strong-minded female lead with a social conscience who is not a figure of fun. Instead, we laugh at her pretty, frivolous older sister Lisa.

While we also loved downtrodden Andie (Molly Ringwald) in Pretty in Pink (1986), Baby has a conventional suburban family, she is neither poor nor a social outcast. Baby’s struggle is one of desires and expectations, like the heroines of our beloved Judy Blume books.

Kellerman’s is an oasis of ease and enjoyment, but it is here that Baby unlocks a parallel universe that unsettles her world-view. When Baby helps to carry that watermelon into the staff dance hall, she is startled to discover what goes on behind closed doors.

She is confronted with pounding soul rhythms and sexually-charged dancing, and soon meets Johnny, the lead male dancer in the entertainment team. He teaches Baby to dance, they begin a clandestine romantic relationship, and she is called upon to fill in for Johnny’s dance partner, Penny.

I’m not sure at what age I began to understand that Penny was having an abortion. I remember I couldn’t follow the story about borrowing money and who was “responsible” for Penny’s “situation”. But as I watched Dirty Dancing again at different stages in my life, I began to appreciate the themes of empathy, humanity, personal and collective responsibility which Baby idealistically promotes. She makes references to Vietnam, famines and joining the Peace Corps, while other characters are absorbed in their personal problems.

As the summer closes, Baby realises not only that she won’t meet another man like her daddy, but also that her father is fallible. Essentially, she realises that patriarchy is not as great as she thought it was.

Although Baby’s relationships with men lie at the centre of her journey to maturity, and her mother has a comparatively small role on-screen, Dirty Dancing offers a profound reflection on the mother-daughter relationship. A teenager in 1963, Baby represents our mothers. Dirty Dancing, released in 1987, helps us to see our own mothers as young women, torn between tradition and trailblazing.

Like America in 1963, Baby was on the verge of great change. In hindsight, we are sure Baby will be involved in the momentous political and social movements that follow. She will stride into her future with Johnny’s words resounding: “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”.

Dr Julia Wagner is a lecturer and writer specialising in film, currently teaching Film Studies at JW3.



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