“Lots of changes. It feels it’s all slipping away,” says Max – the owner of Kellerman’s – the Catskill hotel in “Dirty Dancing” (1987). This lovely memory film is the coming of age story of Frances “Baby” Houseman. “That was the summer of 1963 when everybody called me Baby and I didn’t mind,” she tells us at the beginning. It’s been 33 years since its late summer release – and the romantic film’s underdog qualities still charm – if anything the years have been very good to it. I’m happy to report I loved sitting down last Saturday night to revisit it. To be honest, I was very emotional during it all – for it captures that period in your life when innocence starts slipping away – you start to come into your own and develop your own beliefs as well as feeling that unforgettable rush of first love. The dancing is terrific – but it’s the story, simply told, and the chemistry between Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze that make it so sturdy – plus it stealthily has lessons about social class and women’s reproductive rights. It’s an unpretentious feel good movie – and experiencing it gives you so much necessary relief from our unpleasant realities.
Based on screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein’s own childhood – the film follows Baby, her mom and dad and older sister, Lisa, as they attend an upscale Catskill resort. These resorts were visited often by middle and working-class Jewish New Yorkers in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Baby is a thoughtful young woman who’s planning to join the Peace Corps. “Our Baby is going to change the world,” her dad proudly says. She observes the owner Max instructing the waiters – most of them Ivy League students – to flirt with the guests no matter how unattractive – and while in contrast the working-class entertainment staff is treated with disdain. One evening, she stumbles into one of the staff’s secret “dirty” dancing parties, and is mesmerized by their sensuality –in particular by Johnny Castle and his dance partner Penny. Baby learns Penny is pregnant by Robbie – a waiter attending Yale School of Medicine –who denied his responsibility and to help her pay for the abortion. Baby borrows the money from her father to give to her – and she also volunteers to take Penny’s place in a performance at a neighboring resort so they don’t lose their salary. In order to do so, Baby has to learn how to dance and is trained by Johnny – and a romance blooms. The abortion procedure is central to the narrative – and the way it is compassionately handled is commendable. The focus is on the health of Penny and preserving her capability to have children in the future – instead of disparaging her choice. Johnny teaches Baby how to hold her space on the dance floor – and Baby learns to stand up for herself and for her working-class love. She tells her dad, “You told me you wanted me to change the world, to make it better. But you meant by becoming a lawyer or an economist and marrying someone from Harvard.”
There’s a no-frills and sensitive approach to the directing by Emile Ardolino. The story is grounded by the acting – which includes theatre legends and Tony winners Jerry Orbach (“Promises Promises,” “42ND Street”) and Kelly Bishop (“A Chorus Line”) as Baby’s parents. Ardolino, a former dancer, knew how to showcase the choreography – in full shots – and the dancing is very sexy – pelvic thrusting and all. There’s a beautifully edited sequence consisting of jump cuts of Baby dancing on a bridge which illustrates her learning progression. Jennifer Grey is nuanced, and her laughter is infectious. Swayze is a heartthrob – and this is his best performance.
Something else moved me while watching “Dirty Dancing” again. When I first saw the film – there was another pandemic killing Americans – AIDS. Director Emile Ardolino’s career was cut short by the disease – as were so many others. I took a dear friend of mine who was battling it to see this film on its opening weekend and it gave us much needed distraction.
Baby: “Me? I’m scared of everything. I’m scared of what I saw, I’m scared of what I did, of who I am, and most of all I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and Hulu and to rent on YouTube, iTunes, Redbox, Google Play, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft, DIRECTV and AMC Theatres On Demand.
Written by Eleanor Bergstein
Directed by Emile Ardolino
Starring Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Rhodes, Jack Weston, Jane Brucker and Kelly Bishop
Writing “Dirty Dancing”
“I used to go to the Catskills with my parents when I was a little girl. While they played golf (it was the only place women were allowed to tee off early in the morning along with the men and my mother was a champion golfer) I hit the dance studios. I pressed my ten year old nose against the glass windows and finally got to go inside. Every other night there was a champagne contest at the hotel, and I danced the mambo and the cha chas with the professionals and always won. My parents drank the champagne. I think it was the idea of this appetitive little girl in her organdy ruffled dress doing these sultry dances with such determination that brought the house down each night.Then in high school I dirty danced in basements with the street kids in my class. My parents were okay as long as I kept my grades up and was going on to college…it took me a long time for anyone to agree to make it after I wrote it — even though I had many pages of dance description in it, and a cassette of the soundtrack culled from my old 45s. I sent it all around together with no success. We had no hope of any impact of anything at all. We were told repeatedly, even by our studio producers that it was a movie that would go straight to video bins after a few days in the theater. It was our wonderful audiences who kept it in the theater and still keep it alive after all these years. By now a number of generations.
I had little hope that anyone would see the movie and even less hope that it would influence anyone — but just in case I put in the things that were important to me. Just in case. I think you can make a brilliant black and white documentary abortion and everyone who sees it probably agrees with you before the first frame. But if you make a movie in color with pretty people and music and sensual dancing and a beautiful blonde young girl with a face like a delicate princess having no choices and screaming in a hallway under a dirty knife — maybe you’ll change somebody’s mind about what they assumed before.” (greenwichfilm.org)
The Role of Dirty Dancing
The film’s choreographer Kenny Ortega explained, “Dirty Dancing is like soul dancing, only with a partner. A little mambo thrown in, a little Cuban motion thrown in. Sort of a conglomeration that’s based on all the original dancing of the early ‘60s. I think Dirty Dancing is the most intimate communication outside the bedroom. And it’s not dirty at all. But if two people are looking at each other, looking into each other’s eyes and trying to say, ‘I love you,’ it’s beautiful.”…Choreographer Kenny Ortega commented in the film’s original VHS featurette, “The dancing has a lot more to do with the continuity of the story and the development of the characters. Where in other musical pictures the dancing sometimes and often is separate from the story. Hopefully this picture will help to inspire people to get back out there and really dance together.” It did.” (lifeandstylemag.com)
About Choreographer Kenny Ortega
“…Ortega’s career really began in his childhood living room in California, where, mesmerized by Gene Kelly movies, he tried to follow all the star’s steps. Years later, Ortega not only met his idol, but actually got to direct him in the 1980 movie “Xanadu.”…Before Kelly signed on, he wanted to meet the choreographer, a day Ortega remembers well: “He said ‘If I were to dance — and I’m not saying I’m going to dance — but if I were going to dance, what would you have me do?’ And so I just said, ‘Well, why don’t we just start with some of the steps that you’ve already done which, to me are, you know, classic and timeless.’ And I got up and started doing some of his moves and he said ‘Oh, that’s the old Nora Bayes,’ and ‘That’s not right, it’s this way’ and suddenly we were dancing.” Ortega may have directed Kelly in those dance numbers in “Xanadu,” but it was Ortega who got an education. “He mentored me, and when the movie was over he continued to,” Ortega recalls. “He would invite me to his home and we would look at his films together and he would talk to me about how he designed choreography for the camera which was the greatest education I had received up until that point.” Kelly inspired Ortega to experiment with choreography, to play with space, and levels — and even water. (npr.org)
Choreographing and Filming “Dirty Dancing”
“One bit of movie trivia…That lake was frigid. In fact, Ortega says Grey ended up going to the hospital for hypothermia. “You’d never know it from the glee and the smile on her face, but in fact it was not an easy scene to shoot,” says Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote and co-produced “Dirty Dancing.” But the cold water didn’t deter Ortega; Bergstein remembers the choreographer got in the lake with Swayze and Grey. “He got in the water with them,” she says. “He was terrific.” “The movie is based on [screenwriter] Bergstein’s own experiences — dancing with her friends in basements in Brooklyn, just like you see in the movie. Turns out, Ortega had danced some of those same, evocative steps himself in California. “Street salsa, Colombian style salsa, Cuban rhythm step, R&B and street soul,” he remembers, “we were drawing from a number of different places to ultimately arrive at what “Dirty Dancing” became.” The movie was made on a shoestring budget. It was cold and rainy on location and Bergstein says none of the studio executives really believed in it. But she says Ortega was always upbeat with the cast and took every aspect of the filming seriously. “He went over everything with me,” Bergstein says. “You know, ‘Did Baby dance on her father’s feet when she was a little girl?’ We went over all the basic subtext of how I wanted everybody to move in it because he wanted to know everything.” (npr.org)
The Music of “Dirty Dancing”
In an interview with “The Guardian,” co-songwriter, Franke Previte, discusses the story behind “I’ve Had The Time of My Life.” “…I had a hundred bucks in my bank account. The label my band Franke and the Knockouts had been with had closed and I was trying to get another deal. I was selling cars out of my driveway, living on a prayer. Then I got a call from Jimmy Ienner, president of my old label. “I’ve got this little movie I’d like you to write a song for,” he said. “Jimmy,” I replied, “I don’t have time.” He goes: “Make time, because it’s gonna change your life. The film’s called “Dirty Dancing.” So my hand hits my forehead and I go: “Ah, poor Jimmy’s doing porn.” But he said: “No, it’s boy meets girl. It’s a good little movie. The bad news is, the song’s got to be seven minutes long.” So I’m thinking: “There’s no chance of this becoming a single.” I called [co-songwriter] John DeNicola and said: “We have a chance to write a song for this movie. Start it up front with the chorus in half-time, then when we hit the verse, double-time it so it creates a dance groove.” John sent me the instrumental track. I had a recording session booked that day, so I got in the car and put the cassette on. And as I’m paying the toll at exit 140 of the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, I’m singing: “I’ve had the time of my life.” What the hell was I saying? I didn’t know – but I scribbled it down on an envelope. The song was really written by the man upstairs, because I had no idea what the movie was about.
I met Patrick Swayze, who played the lead, when the song won the Academy Award in 1988. He told me they’d turned down 149 songs – our demo was the 150th. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “we all hated the movie. We filmed the final dance scene first, but we didn’t have a song then. So we were like, ‘Let’s just get this piece of shit over with.’ But when we heard your song, it changed everything about the movie – and how we reacted to our scenes. It just created this vibe.” They actually reshot that dance scene using my demo, which wasn’t too far off the final version recorded by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. I hear it in the supermarket, in elevators, on commercials constantly. It gives me chills every time. That so many people know a song that little Franke Previte from New Jersey wrote, who didn’t know how he was going to pay his next phone bill.” (theguardian.com)
About Director Emile Ardolino
“…Mr. Ardolino, who was born in Maspeth, Queens, developed an intense love for Broadway shows in adolescence and said he spent all his money on tickets, sneaking in for second acts when he couldn’t afford admission. He saw the original production of “Gypsy” 25 times, he told friends. Mr. Ardolino appeared in many theater productions as a student at Queens College. He studied dance with Matt Mattox and had a few acting jobs, including the role of the Boy in a road company of “The Fantasticks.” ‘Dance in America.’ He founded Compton-Ardolino Films with Gardner Compton in 1967, working as an editor, a director and a producer of documentaries, industrial films and multi-media stage productions through 1974. He won an Obie Award in 1969 for his films for the original Broadway production of “Oh! Calcutta!” and created films for the Joffrey Ballet’s “Astarte” and the New York City Opera’s “Makropoulos Affair.” He also designed the original multi-media concept for the Broadway production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Mr. Ardolino edited several documentaries for PBS and produced dance films commissioned by the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library for its Jerome Robbins Film Archive. In 1975, he and Merrill Brockway were named as producers of “Dance in America,” a television series devoted to American dance and broadcast on Channel 13 in New York. It was to play an important role in making dance popular in America.
Over the next decade, Mr. Ardolino directed and produced 28 programs for the series. He won an Emmy Award for his directing of “Choreography by Balanchine IV” in the 1978-79 season and a Directors Guild of America Award for “The Spellbound Child” in the 1980-81 season. Mr. Ardolino left the series in 1983, although he continued to create individual programs for it. It was Jacques d’Amboise, a principal dancer with the City Ballet, who set Mr. Ardolino on his Hollywood career with an invitation to direct “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’.” An account of Mr. d’Amboise’s work with children, which won Mr. Ardolino the 1983 Academy Award for best documentary feature, two Emmys, a Peabody Award and other honors. Three years later, “Dirty Dancing” made Mr. Ardolino a new director to be reckoned with in Hollywood. The story of an innocent young girl and a street-smart dance teacher at a Catskill hotel in the early 1960’s, “Dirty Dancing” was a low-budget movie that had a huge success at the box office. It made Patrick Swayze a star and also featured Jennifer Grey. Mr. Ardolino went on to make “Chances Are” in 1988, “Three Men and a Little Lady” in 1990, and “Sister Act,” starring Whoopi Goldberg, in 1992. He also directed television productions of three shows produced by Joseph Papp: David Henry Hwang’s play “The Dance and the Railroad,” Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” starring William Hurt, and “Alice at the Palace,” starring Meryl Streep. At his death, he had just finished directing a television production of “Gypsy,” starring Bette Midler, to be broadcast in December on CBS.” (nytimes.com)