We’ve Had the Time of Our Lives for 30 Years of ‘Dirty Dancing’

They’re gonna fall in love, but Dirty Dancing is so much more.
Dirty Dancing - Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze
By  · Published on August 21st, 2017

Lives can change forever in the heat of the summer, especially at Kellerman’s resort. Dirty Dancing has been called “the ultimate chick flick“, especially with the focus on dancing and romance. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey exchange longing glances at every opportunity. Did I mention that a major plot point of the film has to do with a woman getting an abortion in the 1960s? Needless to say, Dirty Dancing has enjoyed a ‘girls club’ status but it really doesn’t deserve to be placed in such a constricting definition. There are so many goofy, sexy, and memorable moments that it can easily be enjoyed by anyone. What was originally expected to bomb upon release, Dirty Dancing has exceeded expectations at every turn. Even as studios have tried to replicate the magic between Swayze and Grey with countless remakes, the original still reigns supreme.

When Dirty Dancing was released, there wasn’t much hope of it connecting with audiences. The film was made for a minuscule budget of $5 million and featured topics that were/still are highly controversial. Well, the teenage coming-of-age film about a wealthy, intelligent young woman falling for the hunky professional dancer became one of the biggest-grossing films of the year.

Dirty Dancing follows the summer vacation of the Houseman family. The wealthy family decides to spend their summer at a resort that offers plenty of amenities; golfing, painting, and dancing among others. Frances “Baby” Houseman is the youngest of two daughters and while her parents want her to date a specific young gentleman, she has much more interest in the dance instructor. She ends up finding Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) and many others “dirty” dancing. Let us get what exactly Dirty Dancing is out of the way first. Perhaps for the time the film takes place (the 1960s), this kind of bumping and grinding would be considered “dirty”. In the year 2017, this is the type of dancing that regularly gets featured on television. Not so dirty anymore. That aside, Baby is instantly smitten with Johnny Castle and will do whatever it takes to get close to him. Even if that includes becoming a substitute for Castle’s dancing partner.

It is easy to only focus on the love story that is so predictable for a story like this and miss many of the other statements Dirty Dancing tries to make. It is a look into adolescence during a very difficult time in America. It takes place pre-JFK assassination, pre-The Beatles, when there was a certain innocence in the world. There’s also a heavy subtext of class relations throughout the film. The wealthy should only marry or associate with the wealthy and the lower-class should never mingle with the upper-class unless they are waiters or servants. Of course, Johnny Castle would be responsible for whatever goes wrong in the movie because of his background and class.

In that instance, of course, Johnny is blamed for the pregnancy and subsequent botched abortion for his partner. Abortion was illegal at that time and was done in a back alley by a shady doctor in this instance. Apparently, Dirty Dancing lost a pretty important sponsor since the screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein, refused to take the abortion plot point out of the movie. In an interview with Bust magazine, Eleanor said about taking that plot element out, “if I take it out the whole story collapses. There’s no reason for Baby to help Penny, for her to dance or fall in love with Johnny. None of these things will happen without the abortion, so I simply can’t do it, even though I’d be so happy to do what you want.” Even though Roe v. Wade had made abortion legal in the 70s, Eleanor thought, “‘Well, I don’t know that it will always be [legal].’ And very young women didn’t remember a time before Roe v. Wade, so I hoped they would learn not to take it for granted. I hoped they would know what it was like before.” There is a certain truth to her statement that is frightening and realistic. Thankfully, Dirty Dancing kept the plot intact and it is all the more important because of that.

The subtext of Dirty Dancing cannot be understated, but there are more reasons why the film continues to excite audiences all these years later. Perhaps the heart of it all was Patrick Swayze. His upbringing made him perfect for the film, what with his mother owning a dance studio and having dance in his life throughout many of his years before hitting the big screen. Even though there have been countless attempts to remake Dirty Dancing, including an ill-conceived TV movie starring Abigail Breslin, none have come close to the original. There is even a Broadway musical adaptation that is absolutely horrendous.

There are plenty of other performances that make Dirty Dancing the success it is.  While Jennifer Grey will always be the original Baby, it wasn’t exactly her screen presence that made the movie shine. It was in her chemistry with Swayze that the movie really works. There are some signature sequences in that film that like when Baby is practicing the steps for the mambo, one of the big events featured.  The most memorable moments come with Swayze and Grey sharing the screen like the famous “lift” sequence in the water or the epic final dance. The cast was filled out with other quality performers like Jerry Orbach as Dr. Houseman and Jack Weston as Max Kellerman. The relationship between Baby and her father, Dr. Houseman, is extremely important to the overall plot and says a lot about parents who actually care what their children are up to. Kellerman on the other hand only has eyes for money and keeping his patrons pleased at whatever the cost. 

Despite all these ingredients, Dirty Dancing does not become a sensation without its hit soundtrack. Four of the original songs for the movie hit the Billboard charts including “Yes” by Merry Clayton, “Hungry Eyes” by Eric Carmen, “She’s Like the Wind”, performed by Patrick Swayze, composed by Lee and Stacy Widelitz and the smash-hit “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, performed by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” combined with the crowd-pleasing finale and iconic line, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” cemented Dirty Dancing‘s place in cinema history.

Thirty years on and there is still only one Dirty Dancing. While there have been many attempts to recreate the chemistry between Swayze and Grey, none have come close. For a film made in the mid-80s about the early-60s, many of topics explored beyond the main romance remain relevant. Even now, a great separation between classes in America and abortion, although legal, is still a hotly debated topic. Dirty Dancing may enjoy a reputation of being an all-time “chick flick”, but it has so much more to offer. So take a trip to Kellerman’s resort, chances are you’ll have the time of your life.

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.