Dirty Dancing:

Summer is both a season and a metaphor. Literally, it’s a time of sun and heat and outdoor activities. Emotionally, it represents freedom, coming of age, and self-discovery. Written by Eleanor Bergstein and directed by Emile Ardolino, Dirty Dancing is a 1987 movie that seeks to combine these messages- making it the ultimate summer movie about perspective, understanding, and adolescence.

Dirty Dancing takes place over the summer of 1963, when the Houseman family takes a vacation to the Catskills Resort. At the head of the household is Dr. Jake Houseman (Jerry Orbach) and his wife Marjorie (Kelly Bishop). With them are their two daughters, Lisa (a stereotypical girly-girl obsessed with aesthetics, played by Jane Brucker) and Frances ‘Baby’ (a worldly teenager planning to work for the Peace Corps, played by Jennifer Grey). On their first night at the resort, Baby finds herself drawn to the dancers employed by Catskills. Chief among them are Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes) and Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). When Penny finds out she is pregnant, both her and Johnny’s paycheck for the summer is put at risk. Unfortunately, the only time Penny can get an abortion is during the most lucrative day of the summer. Wanting to help, Baby volunteers to learn the routine and dance with Johnny. As time passes, the pair grows closer even as outside events threaten their relationship. 

Despite the studio’s uncertainty about the movie, Dirty Dancing would go on to make over 200 million globally according to Box Office Mojo.

The music and choreography (done by Kenny Ortega) are the most oft remembered aspects of Dirty Dancing, and it’s easy to see why. The dancing is beautiful, interesting, and energizing, and the music is subversive. What Dirty Dancing understands is that the movement is not just an aesthetic choice- it’s symbolic. The young characters know how to dance, but their style of dancing is considered vulgar to older audiences. When the dancers perform for audiences, they are constrained and polished. When they have staff parties or are by themselves, their dancing is looser and more freeing. Dance isn’t only an occupation, it’s the way the young characters express themselves and their frustrations with the world. This anger is only emphasized by the soundtrack, which utilizes a lot of soft, bubblegum pop. The contrast of the harshness of the dancing with the gentle, domesticity of the music makes the dancing subversive. The dancing feels taboo when underscored by the Ronettes singing ‘Be My Baby’. 

Through dance, the movie shows how characters progress over time. Baby starts out as a rigid dancer, knowing only ‘traditional’ dances that are reminiscent of cotillion socials. By the end of the movie, as Baby has become romantically involved with Johnny, and become more aware of life and society at large, she dances more modernly. Her movements are less inhibited, and she is less scared of how others will perceive her and those around her. Johnny has a similar arc, with his dancing becoming more creative as the film progresses. We see that he has grand ideas and plans, but, until meeting Baby, hasn’t been pushed to share his ideas. When the adults finally begin to understand their children, they dance for the first time.

In this same way, dance also communicates power. Catskills is stratified by class, and this is communicated nonverbally to the audience through movement. The lower class characters dance the most- whether it be their job or a way to earn extra money- while the upper class characters don’t dance as much. To some, dance is a necessity, while for others, it is an inconsequential pass-time. Even when the customers of Catskills engage with the dancers, there is always a silent judgment. The customers think the workers are beneath them, or think that they are required to service them in any way. Johnny recounts that the older women at the resort often proposition him or otherwise use him. Yet, he is not free to reject their advances at risk of losing his job. When Penny falls pregnant, she cannot hold the father of her child accountable because he has more money than her, and is part of the waitstaff- therefore being more powerful. 

Even Baby faces this challenge with her father, though their power imbalance has to do with age and seniority rather than wealth. The more Baby tries to help Penny and Johnny, the more isolated she becomes from her father as she knows he will disapprove of her actions. When her father realizes that Baby has borrowed money from him to pay for Penny’s abortion, the two argue and have a falling out. 

Dirty Dancing warns us that power dynamics are crucial, but not often seen. Power is communicated through clothes, through opportunities, through the ways we treat one another. 

This is what makes Baby and Johnny’s romance so triumphant. While they initially don’t get along, and often clash, they both have mutual respect for one another. From this, the two of them are able to understand their similarities- chief among them, their desire to help those they love. This understanding gives way to attraction, and eventually, love. Yet, while the chemistry between the two is undeniable, they also understand the context of their situation.

When faced with the prospect of the future, both of them understand that there is uncertainty in whether or not they will be able to stay together. But the two of them don’t view this as disastrous, but rather, this makes their time together all the more precious. They allow themselves to exist together in a world that is almost separate from everyone else, a place where there are no forces working against them.

As they approach the end of the summer, they begin to fight more often. Johnny doesn’t think Baby is confident enough in their relationship to make it public, and Baby is questioning what she wants from her future. They split apart briefly, attempting to reconcile their pain and their frustrations. However, the two are able to reconcile.

The ending scene of the movie shows the two of them dancing in front of the entire staff and resort-stayers. There is joy in the scene (and an incredible lift stunt) but there is no promise given for how the rest of their lives will play out. It is up for the audience to decide what they think Baby and Johnny will do in the future. It is for the audience to imagine what the next five years will look like for these characters, and for the world around them.

Dirty Dancing was not only relevant when it was initially released, it is still startling in its importance now. The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade connects directly to Penny’s story, or rather, Penny’s story is one of the millions who will be affected by the lack of access to abortion. The wealth gap present in our world now reflects Johnny’s situation, or Johnny’s story is that of millions of people who are underpaid and overworked. The disillusionment of young people with their parents and with traditions of the past is Baby’s story, but really, Baby’s story is one that adolescents experience even now.

It is a beautiful watch, a funny watch, and a thought-provoking one. It is a movie that has stood the test of time, and will continue to endure so long as we return to it.

10/10 would learn to dance at a stuffy resort again

Further breakdown:

Writing Quality: 9.5/10                   Enjoyability: 10/10

Pace: 10/10                                        Visual elements: 9.5/10

Plot development: 10/10                Insightfulness: 10/10 

Characters: 10/10