Study Guide

Dirty Dancing Themes

  • Society and Class

    A film called Dirty Socioeconomic Class Differences would never do well at the box office. It's not a catchy title. It wouldn't fit comfortably on a poster. And who would star in it? Martin Shkreli? No, too dirty.

    We don't need a movie like that because Dirty Dancing is brimming with commentary on society. You've got the guests at the resort, who are obviously affluent enough to have a summer vacay in the Catskills, and the dancers, who have to accommodate their every request and deal with condescension and insults. Robbie's relationship with Penny is exhibit A in the class war: he can get away with bad behavior, and she and Johnny are presumed guilty.

    We're still not sure what the Pachanga is, but maybe it has something to do with not looking down on someone because of their social class.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How are the staff and the entertainment at Kellerman's divided? How is each group treated differently?
    2. How do Johnny and Penny initially see Baby? What does Baby do to change their minds?
    3. Why would Baby rather mingle with the dancers than with other guests at Kellerman's?
    4. Why does Baby's dad not want her to see Johnny? Do his reasons have to do with class or with something else?

    Chew on This

    By separating the dancers from the rest of the resort, Kellerman emphasizes the attitude that the dancers are social outcasts.

    Baby doesn't see social class, but a big reason for that is that she's grown up with a lot of privilege. What she learns at Kellerman's is truly eye-opening, and she wants to change it.

  • Principles

    Whether it's a politician, a business executive, or something other person in a position of power, if that person doesn't have principles, they're considered "dirty." From that definition, you'd think Dirty Dancing might be about a bunch of corrupt elites bumping and grinding in a filthy back room. That is not a movie we want to see. Or is it? It would definitely get a lot of ratings for TMZ.

    In Dirty Dancing the dancing itself is different than what most of the guests at Kellerman's are used to, so it gets labeled "dirty. So do the people who do it. But as Baby learns when she stops simply observing and decides to dance a mile in their kitten heels, the dancers might actually have principles more in line with hers.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What cause does Baby believe in most?
    2. Robbie has different beliefs than Baby, but that doesn't mean he lacks principles. What does Robbie believe in, and how do his beliefs make Baby feel?
    3. What principles do Baby and her father share? What are their differences in beliefs?

    Chew on This

    As Baby gets involved with Johnny, she learns that her principles mean nothing if they aren't turned into actions.

    Johnny's most attracted to Baby not when she follows his direction, but when he sees her stand up for what she believes in.

  • Innocence

    We can't think of a more innocent name than Baby. Except maybe Pope(s) Innocent I-XIII, but we can't imagine them doing the flamenco. At least not while the Cardinals are watching.

    So until the inevitable Da Vinci Code/Dirty Dancing crossover, we have Baby. She's a seventeen-year-old known as Baby, which is like a giant being called "tiny" or a celebrity called "humble." She's innocent in many ways—sexually, which gets resolved by the end of the film, and socially, which, ditto.

    Today we literally have babies dancing on Dance Moms, but in Baby's day, when she takes the stage, she's not a little girl anymore.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. What do you think is the most defining moment in Baby's coming of age?
    2. How does Baby's dad react to her growing up? How does he ultimately come to terms with it?
    3. Baby isn't the only character who grows up. What other forms of innocence are lost or changed during the film?

    Chew on This

    Losing innocence isn't about having sex for the first time. Baby grows up by realizing that she needs to live in reality if she wants her dreams to come true.

    Because this is a dance movie, we need a dance metaphor. You could say that being an adult is about knowing when to lead and when to follow. Baby becomes an adult when she finally takes the lead.

  • Love

    Kellerman's doesn't seem like much of a love nest. Plenty of guests and staff are on the prowl, but it sure ain't love they're after. But you can't have a romantic movie without love, and Baby and Johnny come through for us by the film's conclusion. Baby's relationship with her father is also obviously very loving, and she's quick to express it to him. It's what gets them through the crisis about Johnny.

    Baby's love for Johnny is pretty transgressive. He's poor and uneducated, he's from a different social class, and he's in a profession that most of her family thinks is questionable. Cross-class love is a pretty popular theme in film and fiction: think Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett; Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester; Rose and Jack. The point is always that love transcends all kinds of boundaries.

    You could reasonably argue that Baby's relationship with Johnny isn't love at all, just a summer infatuation that's very appealing because it's transgressive. But we'll give our happy couple the benefit of the doubt and say there's something authentic there. They both make serious sacrifices for each other and stand up to people in their life because of their love.

    We'd have to wait for the sequel to find out if this love endures. Maybe Baby gets a nose job and Johnny loses respect for her. Unfortunately, there can't be a sequel. There will never be another Patrick Swayze.

    Questions About Love

    1. What makes Baby fall in love with Johnny? What makes Johnny love Baby? How do they express their love?
    2. How does Baby's love for her father (and vice versa) grow and change during the film?
    3. Why does Penny try to tell Johnny not to associate with Baby? Does she think Baby doesn't love him? Or is does she worry about what Johnny will do if he falls in love with her?
    4. Is Baby's love real? Is she just infatuated by someone new, gorgeous, and different?

    Chew on This

    Love in Dirty Dancing is shown through dancing and expression more than words.

    The two people who express their love in words are Baby and her Dad. Father/Daughter Dance Night must have been discontinued at Kellerman's.