Study Guide

Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing Introduction


Release Year: 1987

Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance

Director: Emile Ardolino

Writer: Eleanor Bergstein

Stars: Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey


When you think of dancing in the 1980s, you might think of synthesized music, parachute pants, and colors bright enough to detach your cornea. Kinda like this, right?

But there's one iconic '80s dance movie that's in a class by itself.

We're talking about Dirty Dancing.

If the holy trinity of '80s dance movies—Footloose, Flashdance, and Dirty Dancing—danced for their lives on So You Think You Can Dance, then Dirty would be the last one standing, no questions asked. This movie went way against the '80s grain.

Here's how: Although it sizzled onto screens across the U.S. on August 21, 1987, it's set in the 1960s, before "neon" became the country's official national color. With a script by by Eleanor Bergstein, Dirty Dancing is a loosely autobiographical coming-of-age story. A young girl with the nickname Baby (Jennifer Grey) goes on vacation with her family at a typical Borscht Belt summer resort. There, she learns a few dance moves and a lot of life lessons from sexy dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze).

You might say it's the time of their lives. You might sing it.

The blockbuster hit raked in $170 million worldwide in the year of its release, and has been one of the all-time winners in VHS and DVD sales. Which is totally ironic, since test audiences hated the movie so much that the producers were thinking of sending it straight to video (source). A major sponsor, Clearasil, even pulled out when they found out about the abortion plotline.

The film made instant stars out of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Swayze continued kicking butt and winning hearts across the world in Road House (1989), To Wong Foo… (1995), and Ghost (1990) before breaking everyone's heart and becoming a ghost himself when he died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. Shmoop still can't believe he's gone.

Jennifer Grey's career took a different turn after Dirty Dancing. A drastic nose job made her basically unrecognizable and unbankable in Hollywood (source). She was also injured in a mysterious car crash in Ireland with driver Matthew Broderick (her Ferris Bueller bro) that left a mother and daughter dead (source). But as with Baby, nobody puts Jennifer Grey in a corner. She returned to TV in the Seinfeld-esque sitcom It's Like, You Know… in 1999 and won the mirrorball trophy on Dancing with the Stars in 2010.

All that without having to do that death-defying lift ever again.

  

The on-screen stars weren't the only ones to keep rocking out. Famed choreographer Kenny Ortega went on to bring High School Musical to the world in 2006. And consider this: Without Dirty Dancing, we wouldn't have Zac Efron. It's almost like Patrick Swayze is his father.

We said almost.

The film's director, Emile Ardolino, who also directed Sister Act (1992), sadly died of AIDS-related complications in 1993. The 2004 prequel, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, featured a cameo from Swayze, but no one else involved in the beloved original. Everyone hates the prequel (source). No one wants to see Fidel Castro try the classic lift. Unless Swayze drops the dictator on his face.

But back to the good news. The film won an Academy Award: Best Original Song for "(I've Had) The Time of My Life." Singers Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes might not owe it all to Patrick Swayze, but they do owe a good bit of it to the late, great, gorgeous genius.

Catchy music, unforgettable performances, perfect costumes, great hair, and of course, amazing dancing, made this film an instant classic. Like dance itself, the movie transcends time. Even today, Swayze and Grey's on-screen chemistry still inspires people of all ages— whether they saw it yesterday or thirty years ago—to get down, get dirty, and dance.

What is Dirty Dancing About and Why Should I Care?

Dirty Dancing is a coming-of-age movie.

Often, "coming of age" and "loss of innocence" go together like peanut butter and jelly. Except in this case, the word "loss" suggests that when you bite into that mouth-watering PB&J, you find out you have severe nut allergies, swell up, and almost die.

Coming of age often includes sexual activity as a defining moment in transitioning to adulthood. Baby's "first time," as icky as that phrase might sound, is part of Dirty Dancing, but this film redefines "loss of innocence" by keeping Baby in control of her sexual agency at all times. Baby doesn't "lose" her innocence. She examines it, realizes she wants to grow up, and makes a conscious decision to set it aside.

Why don't more films take this female-centric approach? It's not because "examining innocence and deciding to put it away and grow up" is less catchy than "loss of innocence." It's because many films, even if starring a young woman as the main character, take a male-dominated approach.

Take Flashdance (please), one of the other big dance films of the 1980s. In Flashdance (1983), Alex is a welder in a world made of steel. She wants to take her passion and make it happen. She's an exotic dancer by night and dreams of making it to the ballet. But her boss initiates a relationship with her, his 18-year-old employee. He's at least 20 years older than she is, which coincidentally is about the same age as screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Alex is dependent on her boss, which diminishes her accomplishments at the end of the film.

Only four years later, Dirty Dancing, written by a woman, is a breath of fresh air. In this film, Baby's the one who makes the first move.

Eleanor Bergstein, the film's writer, never liked the fact that people initially tagged the movie as just an "ugly duckling gets the guy" story:

I conceived of her and made her a fighter. A girl who just won't give up... and who doesn't expect the world to be handed to her. There's a lot she doesn't understand, but she works very, very hard. (Source)

Decades after the film came out, Bergstein got piles of mail from women who watched the movie as teens and thanked her for pretty much writing their lives. They related to how Baby, despite being scared to death, stood bravely up to her father, took risks (although, honestly, is Patrick Swayze a risk?), and learned to make her own decisions. These women never thought it was just a girl-gets-guy flick. They knew that Johnny may lead Baby on the dance floor, but Baby takes the lead everywhere else.

And she never has spaghetti arms, either.

Trivia

Before Anna Faris played herself in Keanu or James van der Beek played himself in Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23, Jennifer Grey played herself on the short-lived ABC sitcom, It's Like, You Know… In the words of creator Peter Mehlman, "she was kind of perfect." We've seen Dirty Dancing, so we already knew that. (Source)

Jennifer Grey walked away with the Mirrorball trophy on Dancing with the Stars in 2010. Her win came only a year after Patrick Swayze's death, so there were lots of flashbacks and memories to a different time of her life. (Source)

Eleanor Bergstein, writer of Dirty Dancing, was inspired by her family vacations to Grossinger's resort in the Catskills. Grossinger's shut down around the time Dirty Dancing was filmed, but the building still stands. If you do any dirty dancing there, make sure to get a tetanus shot. (Source)

Vivian Pressman isn't just the resident bungalow bunny at Kellerman's. The actress who portrays her, Miranda Garrison, is the film's assistant choreographer. She also choreographed Evita (1996) and Selena (1997). (Source)

Patrick Swayze might be a perfect man—no arguments—but he didn't always have perfect judgment. He thought the line "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" was corny. "Nobody puts Baby in a corny," doesn't have the same ring to it. (Source)

Dirty Dancing Resources

Websites

A Dirty Website
The Dirty Dancing website is completely safe for work.

Book or TV Adaptations

Moonlighting
Before working in The Office, Melora Hardin (Jan) played Baby in the short-lived Dirty Dancing TV series.

Little Miss Sunshine
We got to know Abigail Breslin almost when she was a baby. Now we'll get to know her as Baby in the live TV musical of Dirty Dancing.

Articles and Interviews

Bittersweet Memoir-ies
In Patrick Swayze's memoir, he recalls some pain from the Dirty Dancing set, and not from the dancing either. Jennifer Grey annoyed him by acting too much like her character's nickname.

One and Done
If we were doing the iconic lift, we'd want nets, air bags, and a safety harness. Jennifer Grey threw herself into Patrick Swayze's arms once, and never did the lift again.

A Feminist Take on Dirty Dancing
Decades after she wrote the film, Eleanor Bergstein finds herself surprised at how many women related to Baby and her effort to define herself on her own terms in spite of social pressures from all sides.

Behind the Scenes
HuffPost answers all your burning question about the film.

Happy 25th Birthday
Jennifer Grey looks back on the film on the 25th anniversary of its release.

More Inside Info
Here's what Moviefone thinks thinks you should know about DD.

Shades of Grey
Jennifer remembers Patrick.

Video

Swayze Dancing
Jane Fonda wasn't the only one getting fit in the 80s. The whole Swayze family teaches you to get crazy with Swayze in this video from 1988.

Imitation Dirt
Something's a little off in the opening for the Dirty Dancing show from the 80s. No wonder it didn't last. This is hardly the time of 30 minutes, much less the time of your life.

Not Another Remake—Please
Jennifer Grey has some ideas about who'd she cast in a—perish the thought—remake.

Grey Spills to Diane Sawyer
Baby reflects on the film's 25th anniversary and why people went gaga over the movie.

Swayze Speaks
Our boy talks about what it was like working with Jennifer Grey and making the film. It's one of his last interviews.

What You Didn't See
Here's a compilation of deleted scenes. Why they'd delete anything with Patrick Swayze in it we just can't understand.

Patrick in His Prime
Swayze talks about the making of DD. This is how we like to remember him.

Audio

He's Like the Wind
Swayze's "She's Like the Wind" plays in the background of one scene. Put it in the foreground. No one puts Swayze in the background.

The Time of His Life
Swayze narrates his memoir, which he published shortly before his death. R.I.P. Patrick.

Images

Uplifting
This minimalist poster strikes the perfect balance.

"I Posted a Watermelon"
This minimalist poster, on the other hand, takes a cheekier tone.

Speaking of Watermelons…
That awkward moment.

Classic
If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one's a dissertation.