The 80s blockbuster is so much more than just a film, says superfan and comedian Katy Brand – it’s a manual for life.
My obsession with the smash-hit dance-romance film Dirty Dancing began the first time I saw it, aged 11. It dazzled me, it thrilled me and it changed my life. I still remember climbing the stairs to bed after watching it on TV, in a daze, not wanting to break the spell. I couldn’t remember life before it. I couldn’t believe anything had mattered.
Dirty Dancing was released in 1987, starring Jennifer Grey as heroine Baby Houseman and Patrick Swayze as lord of the dance (and the bedroom, as it turns out) Johnny Castle. Set in New York State’s Catskills area in 1963, it follows a middle-class family on a three-week holiday in an all-inclusive resort – Kellerman’s – and for Baby, the younger daughter, it certainly is all-inclusive. After getting into a staff party by carrying a watermelon, she becomes entangled in the lives of the dance instructors in a way she could never have imagined, and would ultimately never want to change. Because, yes, you guessed it, she has the time of her life.
When I first saw it in 1990, it captured my heart, my soul and various other parts of my body perhaps not suitable for discussion on a Sunday morning. After managing to tape it on to a spare VHS, I watched it every day for three months, until my dad confiscated it for my own safety. I found it, then continued to secretly watch it every day until I wore the tape out. And the obsession has not died, for I even watched it on the evening of my recent 40th birthday with my very understanding husband. Earlier this year, I went on a personal pilgrimage to the place where much of it was filmed, Mountain Lake Lodge, Virginia. This was a kind of heaven for me, surrounded by familiar scenes and kindred spirits in Dirty Dancing T-shirts. When anyone says, ‘Think of your happy place’ in a moment of stress, I now know what to do.
What I have also realised is that Dirty Dancing is not just a movie, it is also a manual for life. There are so many lessons packed into its one-hour-46-minute running time that I have had to write an entire book in order to do it justice. But here are a few of my favourites…
If you want him, go get him
One of the greatest things about Dirty Dancing is the seduction scene between Baby and Johnny. Now it’s easy to assume if you have never seen the film that Johnny seduces Baby, but no, no, no. It is Baby who comes to Johnny’s cabin late at night after their dance triumph at the nearby Sheldrake Hotel, and in direct disobedience to her father, who has banned her from seeing him. She can’t help herself – there is unfinished business here. So the virginal Baby seduces the vastly more experienced Johnny this time, and of course they begin with a dance, a sexual volcano of a dance in which there is blouse crumpling and buttock squeezing, until they inevitably fall into bed.
I was agog when I watched this as a teenage girl – can you really go and get a man if you want him? Can you just turn up at his door, no games, no trying to be cool? Dirty Dancing showed me that you can. The rules of attraction don’t have to be a long-winded, carefully managed mind game full of deception and teasing. You can just take the most direct path, and be rewarded with a truly erotic experience.
One failed romance will not break you
Too many films imply that if you meet someone you like at a young age, and you fall in love with them and have a fling, then you will be broken when it ends. Not Dirty Dancing. The scene where Johnny has to leave Kellerman’s after being fired for his dalliance with a guest (who is Baby, of course) and drives away from her is striking because it is so calm, so mature, so reasonable. They kiss, they smile, they hug and he says he’ll ‘never be sorry’. Then off he goes in his beaten-up car, and she stands for a moment waving, then heads back to her family. She’s sad, but she’s not destroyed. She will continue with her plans. As we know, Johnny comes back for one last dance, but how dignified she is when he does. It’s so great to know as a young girl that you can have some cracking sex, and lose your heart a little, but when it ends you don’t have to fall apart.
You should take risks
I have always tried to take any opportunity offered to me so long as it isn’t life-threatening or illegal. In Dirty Dancing, Baby does just this by grabbing an opportunity for a little excitement (when she has to step in and learn a dance to professional standard in less than a week), and in the process she finds she is stronger than she thought. And she has her first proper orgasm. What’s not to like? Just do it.
Women can and should ask for sex
In the past few years, Dirty Dancing has experienced a renaissance. The film has always been considered a commercial success, but there is more to it. New articles, blogs and interviews with its creator Eleanor Bergstein all underline its feminist credentials. As I have mentioned, it is striking how Baby initiates sex with Johnny, but what is even better is how much she clearly loves it. They do it a lot after the first time and there is never any shame attached to it. She doesn’t feel disrespected or concerned for her reputation. As Deborah Frances-White, founder of the wildly popular Guilty Feminist podcast, says, ‘Baby doesn’t lose her virginity; she sheds it.’ There is never any suggestion that she is a ‘slut’ – that most hateful of words. Sex between two consenting people is good and natural – this is a core message of the film. Of course, it helps if one of those people is Patrick Swayze, but you can’t have everything.
Help others without judgment
Baby leaps before she looks when a dancer at Kellerman’s reveals she is in trouble. Penny Johnson, played by Cynthia Rhodes, appears the epitome of glamour, but the secret she is hiding is her unplanned pregnancy by sleazy waiter Robbie Gould (Max Cantor), who now wants nothing to do with her. With no family to turn to, and her job on the line, Penny must arrange an illegal termination. She needs money for the termination and for someone to cover for her at a regular gig where she and Johnny are performing. Baby provides both, almost without thinking, and the rollercoaster of the story takes off. Johnny is supportive of Penny and his cousin Billy makes the arrangements. There is no judgment from any of them, only concern for a friend. Even Baby’s father rushes to Penny’s aid without question when things go wrong. It is a lesson for anyone in asking for help when you need it, and trusting that someone will step up.
Be nice to your sister
Baby Houseman’s elder sister Lisa is her polar opposite. Where Baby is cerebral, concerned for the political state of the world, and spends most of her time in denim shorts, Lisa is glamorous, superficial and unlikely to be heading any Nasa Mars missions any time soon. Yet though they have their tensions, in the end it is Lisa who comforts Baby when Johnny leaves. And Lisa who delivers that lovely line, ‘You’re pretty in your own way’, as she stroked Baby’s unruly curls. Sisters have a way of getting to the heart of the matter, even if they seem oblivious. So even though Baby and Lisa seem to be at odds for most of the film, that moment brings it into sharp focus. Women are important allies to have, and there will be no greater ally than your own sister when the right words are needed.
Our parents are not always heroes
When I visited Kellerman’s earlier this year (or Mountain Lake Lodge, as it’s known to non obsessives), one of the locations I was keen to see was the gazebo where an intense scene was filmed. It is where Baby confronts her father, Dr Jake Houseman, after she has been forced to reveal she is having a relationship with Johnny (she is his only alibi to clear his name after a false accusation of theft), even after it has been forbidden. Her father sits quietly, a tear in his eye, as she tells him the things he is so certain about in the world – who is decent and who is not – have been proved wrong in this case, and he has let her down as much as he feels let down himself. He doesn’t say a word. It is a reckoning that all parents of adult children will recognise on some level, and it’s hard to take. But it’s also a healthy rite of passage. Nobody has all the answers, not even our parents. To truly grow up, as Baby does before our and her father’s eyes, we all have to come to this hard realisation sooner or later in life. Dirty Dancing tells us it’s OK.
Don’t let anyone put you in a corner
In the scene leading up to their final dance, Johnny walks over to Baby and says, ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner.’ Perhaps this is the most powerful lesson the film has to offer. You have a light; let it shine. People will try to beat you back, but you have to keep believing in yourself. Baby makes all the action in the film happen – she is never passive. On the many occasions when I have felt bruised by criticism, I have thought of Dirty Dancing, and muttered to myself, ‘Nobody puts Katy in a corner’, and pressed on. It hasn’t always worked out, but I know I tried my hardest. And that is a reward in itself. So thanks, Dirty Dancing, for all the help. I’ll never sit meekly in a corner, when I could be out there, having the time of my life.
I Carried a Watermelon: Dirty Dancing and Me by Katy Brand will be published by HQ HarperCollins in hardback, price £12.99, ebook and audiobook on 10 October.