A couple of years ago, on a night out with three friends, a shocking revelation came to light. During a random chat about films close to our once-teenage hearts, one of our number took a deep breath and blurted out that she’d never seen Dirty Dancing. Three sets of eyes widened and stared. “But . . . but . . . how? Why?” one of us stuttered. It was like admitting you had never watched Top of the Pops, eaten a cool-pop or jumped off a wall while simultaneously attempting the splits after one too many episodes of Fame.
Without exception, every girl I knew in 1987 had not just seen Dirty Dancing, but the number of viewings per girl bordered on obsessive compulsive. We would quote lines (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner” was the perfect melodramatic opener or door-slamming endpoint to any teenage strop) and try to recreate the film’s famous “lift” scene, often resulting in sprained shoulders and pulled muscles. And then there was Patrick Swayze, all tousled quiff and cut-glass cheekbones – not to mention those snake hips. Sadly, there were no sexy dance instructors on any of our collective family holidays growing up. The daydream of meeting some mentor-ish older man who would liberate your teenage self through the medium of dance was one harboured by several friends.
The film’s slightly cheesy and deliberately provocative title always (I felt) did the film a disservice. It wasn’t about dancing. And it was only barely about the dirty elements of said dancing. It was a story about growing up, about asserting your independence and about tentatively cutting the apron strings. In every sense, it’s a classic bildungsroman, where over one long, hot summer, a young girl comes of age.
The casting of Jennifer Grey was also inspired. A complete unknown, she was pretty but not gorgeous. She was also the precursor to Britney’s Not a Girl, Not Yet A Woman and completely relatable to a generation of girls who wanted to grow up fast after two hours in the cinema. As films about awakening sexuality go, it rates highly and captures Baby’s journey from girl to woman in a way that many Hollywood films bungle.
Horrified at the glaring gap in our friend’s film history, a Dirty Dancing screening was organised. A special edition DVD was purchased and we duly trooped over to our unenlightened friend’s flat. What struck me most about the experience was the reminder that, in all the times I’d seen the film, I had rarely watched it alone. It had always been a communal experience, involving singing along with the songs and shrieking at Patrick Swayze’s moves. Would it hold up all these years later? Well, yes and no.
Like many films, it’s very much of its time. The dancing – surprisingly – was far more risqué than my younger self remembered, but the story of one girl finding love with Mr. Wrong who becomes Mr. Right is fairly timeless. Much cringing and laughter accompanied the scenes as we heard those familiar lines again (“Go back to your playpen, Baby”). Our friend declared herself largely unimpressed – but, then, 20 years on, we expected as much. Dirty Dancing spoke to a generation of idealistic girls not just about boys, but about being assertive and being yourself. It was also meant to be watched with a banana comb in your hair and sporting a batwing jumper.
As with John Hughes’ classics The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, abandon hindsight and cynicism and watch them for fun with open-minded nostalgia. You might even have the time of your life (and you’ll owe it all to Patrick Swayze).
(by Sinéad Gleeson)