Dirty Dancing is one of those films that has a (mostly) one-gender fan base. It's the kind of film that gets brought out for girly sleepovers and any time you're not feeling well and want to curl up on the sofa with a large box of chocolates. Suggest watching this film to most men and you'll be met with a large groan and the Die Hard DVD box set being waved in your face.
The film is set in the 1960s at Kellerman's, a holiday camp in the Catskill Mountains, New York. The Houseman family have just arrived and are going to be staying there for three weeks but the cost of the vacation may have been slightly alleviated by the fact that the father, Dr Jake Houseman (Jerry Orbach) is the personal physician to Max Kellerman (Jack Weston), the owner of the resort, who is delighted to tell anybody who will listen how the doc once saved his life.
The main protagonist is the seventeen year old - and tweely-named - Baby (Jennifer Grey). This is obviously not her real name, but she was christened Frances, so you can see how she was caught between a rock and a hard place on the old moniker front...She's preparing to go to college in the autumn (sorry, 'fall') and then enter the Peace Corps, so she's looking for a little fun before the hard work starts. Whilst there are a lot of activities going on at the camp (‘Hey guys, how about taking part in a still life art class or a croquet tournament?’), for a teenager there’s precious little excitement around. Baby doesn’t want to follow the example of her older (and infinitely shallower) sister Lisa (Jane Brucker) who is starring in the end of season talent show and spends most of her time caterwauling her way through song practice. However, Baby soon spots the muscled majesty of dance teacher Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) and thereafter can think of little else than him (or more likely his bottom; he wears very tight trousers throughout the film).
The moment she actually meets him for the first time is the bit that always struck a chord with the teenage me when I first watched Dirty Dancing. She helps his cousin (who also works at the camp) carry watermelons to a secret staff party, and when she finds herself in front of the handsome hip-swiveller she utters the immortal line ‘I carried a watermelon’ by way of an explanation as to why she was there. As an opening gambit with an attractive man, that was up there with some of my best (which I won’t be sharing with you, as even now, twenty odd years down the line they still make me cringe down into a small sweating ball on the floor) – although I never went to a party where watermelons featured.
So, the party. These are a regular occurrence after hours in the staff housing area, complete with the dirty dancing of the film’s title. It’s actually a heated version of the mambo, and by today’s standards fairly tame stuff, but obviously back in 1963 it was pretty near the knuckle. The camp holds regular dance lessons but these are not the moves the dance instructors are paid to teach the guests and sheltered Baby is transfixed by it all. She gets more obsessed with learning the sexy moves later on when Johnny gives her a short, personal tutorial. Well, who wouldn’t?
Johnny’s dance partner is Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes, who also starred in Flashdance and Staying Alive and she’s married to US balladeer Richard Marx) and Baby discovers that she’s pregnant by resident camp creep, waiter and serial cheater Robbie. He refuses to help Penny, so Baby (who by now has burrowed her way into this dancing underclass) offers to help her pay for an abortion. She asks her father for the money, requesting that he trusts her and doesn’t ask what it is for. He agrees, as she’s always been so truthful and responsible in the past.
Not only does Baby aid Penny, she also manages to assist Mr Sex-on-Legs in the process. Whilst she has no dance experience Johnny is finally persuaded that she has the potential to learn and can replace the absent Penny in an important annual event at the Sheldrake Hotel; it’s vital that the dancing duo attend otherwise their contract won’t be renewed for the following year, and more crucially, Johnny and Penny will lose their salary from Kellerman’s for the entire season.
The practice is gruelling; the show is in a couple of days and the moves must be perfect. Johnny is a tough teacher, but whilst Baby grumbles at his intensity she realises how much is riding on this show for him, and hey – who’s going to complain at spending so much time pressed up against the Swayze? This part of the film features the famous lake scene, where Johnny practices lifting Baby above his head – the finale of their routine at the Sheldrake. Gratuitous wet, clinging clothes scene alert!
Throughout all of this the tension is rising; their sharp barbs directed at each other reflect not only the pressure that is on them both to get their routine right but also their growing attraction.
The Sheldrake show arrives; the pair perform well, but as it’s Baby’s first time in the spotlight it’s no surprise that she is nervous. She fluffs the lift, but invents her own nifty steps to cover this and they get away with it. Tension lifted, they return to the camp only to discover Penny writhing on her bed in agony - her abortion has been messed up. Baby runs to wake her father who, wearing his doctor’s hat, rushes immediately to Penny’s side (did doctors wear hats in 1963? I must check). Jake asks who is responsible for her, and Johnny replies that he is, meaning that he looks after her welfare, but Jake takes this to mean that Johnny got her pregnant. Once Penny is out of danger Jake lays into Johnny for his irresponsibility and Baby for her deception, telling her that she is no longer allowed to spend any time with the camp staff, particularly Johnny. Baby, however, is in too deep now and barely allows her father any time to get back to sleep before she’s snuck back to her twinkle-toed tempter. We’ll draw a discreet curtain over her soon-to-be horizontal mambo I think…
Secret relationships never stay secret for very long, and when Johnny gets accused of stealing from a hotel guest the only way Baby can stop him from being sacked is to provide him with an alibi; she knows Johnny couldn’t have done the crime as she was with him in his cabin when it happened. Confessing this to Max Kellerman means coming clean to Jake about her dishonest behaviour, and Johnny is amazed that she would again risk the wrath of her father in order to ensure that he is exonerated. Unfortunately, whilst Johnny now can’t be fired for theft, he can be sent packing for liaising with a guest – something that is strictly forbidden in the camp rules. Cue a tearful separation as Johnny swings his dancing shoes over his shoulder and heads into the sunset.
The final scene is the end of season show. Baby is miserable, missing Johnny, and is slumped at her parents’ table in the corner (note: remember where she’s sat, it will be brought up again in a minute) not enjoying the display of talent that is being put on before her. Jake, still under the illusion that it was Johnny who got Penny pregnant, is about to give waiter Robbie money to help him pay for his place at medical school, when Robbie happens to mention that it was actually him who did the knocking up bit. Jake is angry that he needlessly blamed Johnny, and takes the money back.
Now, just as you’re wondering ‘where the hell is that Johnny character, surely the film can’t be about to end without him returning?’ – guess who returns? Yay, you’re right, it’s Johnny! Seeking out Baby like a ridiculous-name-seeking-missile he utters the most famous line of the entire film (‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’) and drags her up on the stage with him. After giving a quick speech to the audience about how marvellous she is, they perform their own dirty dance to party favourite ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,’ and whaddya know? Baby gets the lift spot on this time!
After their fancy footwork has dazzled their audience, Baby’s father apologises to Johnny for incorrectly accusing him, and tells Baby she looked wonderful when she was dancing. Loose ends all tied up, smiles are back on faces and dirty dancing is now obviously en vogue, as everybody – staff, management and guests – are now doing it, and having a damn good time as well.
And the moral of this story? Life would be much better if everybody mamboed everywhere.