How It Stands Up

'Dirty Dancing' Is a Supremely Ridiculous Movie

And yet my dance-obsessed 12-year-old daughter and I each found something to grab onto with gusto and enjoy

Baby cornered.

The first time I heard the immortal words "Nobody puts Baby in the corner," I was 19, and I had just spent an hour or so waiting on line with a bunch of my friends on a hot, sweaty summer night to see the new movie everyone was talking about. That line of dialogue—meant to express something deep and respectful, I suppose—was as ridiculous then as it is now, so who knew we'd be repeating the damn thing for the next 28 years?

Now here's the thing about "Dirty Dancing": It is a supremely ridiculous movie, with some truly terrible acting and writing (the rich-girl-meets-poor-boy plot seems to have been scribbled on the back of a napkin five minutes before the pitch meeting). But back during that sticky summer of 1987, it hit some giant, collective nerve, and all of a sudden, we all wanted to be Baby, rescued from her corner by big, beefy Johnny. What was it about that movie? Was it the sex appeal of Patrick Swayze's swiveling hips? The weird musical marriage of classic 1960s pop (the Ronettes and the Shirelles) with 1980s romantic-cheese pop ("I've Had the Time of My Life," "She's Like the Wind")? The corny Catskills jokes?

So on a hot, sweaty summer night in 2015, my dance-obsessed 12-year-old daughter and I decided to boot up Netflix and see how Baby and Johnny were doing after all these years. And while we both had a good laugh at some of the more pungently wretched lines (actual dialogue sample: "I'm nothing!" "You—you're everything!"), we each found something to grab onto with gusto and enjoy.

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For my daughter, it was the dancing. Sure, she was a little embarrassed by the crotch-grinding moves at the staff-only party (the underclass showing the stuffy establishment how to dance with more joy and sex is a classic movie trope, repeated everywhere from "Titanic" to "Hairspray"). But the scenes with Penny and Johnny, and then Baby and Johnny, demonstrating the mambo and the merengue, hold up surprisingly well. And in the era of "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance"—when even a casual viewer knows what the heck a mambo actually is—I think we appreciated Kenny Ortega's smart choreography even more.

For me, the key was nostalgia. Not necessary nostalgia for that summer of 1987, but for the movie's embrace of its own nostalgia—the way it created a heroine who looked and sounded as if she were one of my contemporaries (Come on, have you ever seen a photo of anyone in the early '60s with Jennifer Grey's shaggy perm? And would a "good girl" of that era even own a Lycra tank top?) and then plopped her down right in the middle of the lost paradise of the Jewish Catskills. Even Max Kellerman, the fictional resort's owner, comments at one point that the glory of the Catskills is coming to an end. Kids don't want to spend the summer with their parents playing Simon Says and learning to rumba anymore, they want to backpack through Europe, he says.

By the time I was in high school in the early 1980s, there were just a few of those resorts hanging on. I spent one mediocre weekend with my family at The Concord eating pierogies and pickles before the entire scene took one last cough and died. So while girls my age were sitting in the movie theater enjoying Swayze's abs, our parents were reminiscing about their own not-so-long-ago summers, maybe even their own Johnnys (though, as my mother pointed out to me at the time, the nice Jewish college girl would never have actually slept with him!).

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The really weird thing for me, though, was doing the math: "Dirty Dancing" came out in 1987 and takes place during the summer of 1963. That would be the equivalent of a movie coming out now steeped in nostalgia for the summer of 1991. Sure, some things would be different—we wouldn't all be face-planted in our iPhones every second of the day, and "Isis" was just the name of a short-lived "Wonder Woman" rip-off on TV in the mid-'70s— but those 24 years just don't seem as big a time-leap as they did back then. Of course, according to my daughter, who has never seen a dial phone or a cassette tape, 1991 might as well be in, well, er … the last millennium.

A few more thoughts as I watched the movie:

I know Patrick Swayze was a good guy and we lost him way too soon, but I think you're either a Patrick Swayze girl or you're not. Back then, I understood that he was supposed to be attractive, but his ducktail hair, baby face and broad shoulders did nothing for me, and they still don't. Give me a pale, slender guy with an accent any day (Hello, Jude Law and Ralph Fiennes!).

The abortion subplot was resolved a little too neatly, but actually opened up a good conversation with my daughter about the importance of Roe v. Wade.

Even though I laughed at the dialogue all the way through the movie, I have to admit that one tiny tear slid down my cheek at the end when the gruff but loving Dr. Houseman says to Baby, "You looked wonderful up there."

So while I still don't completely get why this trifle of a movie remains a cultural touchstone three decades later, I do tip my hat to its own belief in itself and its lovely depiction of an era I just missed. And you know what, on a sweaty, sticky summer night when you don't want to think too much, you could do a whole lot worse.

   
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