As the stage version of Dirty Dancing hits Edinburgh, Chitra Ramaswamy explains her lifelong love of the hip-grinding film
FOR most women, the first few bars of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby are all it takes. Now add some scuzzy, slow-mo, monochrome shots of couples grinding pelvises like there’s no tomorrow. Some opening credits in the kind of hot pink scrawl that can only mean you’ve gone back to the 1980s. A voiceover by an unlikely heroine with big ideas, big hair and a big nose: “That was the summer of 1963,” she famously begins, “when everyone called me Baby, and it didn’t occur to me to mind. That was before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad.”
It is, of course, Dirty Dancing, one of the most successful films of all time. The first film to sell a million copies on VHS, and it continues to sell a million DVDs each year. The most watched film ever by women, beating Grease, Pretty Woman and Mamma Mia! The film dubbed Star Wars for girls, which, if you think about it, makes Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman our very own Luke Skywalker. And she truly is as kickass as a Jedi Knight. After all, how many romantic heroines do we encounter who are majoring in the economics of under-developed countries, who can pull off Keds and a cardie, and who have fantastic sex and don’t get punished for it? What’s more, our heroine is named after the first woman in the US cabinet. And she carried a watermelon! Not even Elizabeth Bennet can make such claims.
This week the first ever national tour of Dirty Dancing hits Edinburgh. If it’s anything like the original West End production, which broke records in the UK for having the highest advance ticket sales in history, it’s going to be bigger than Johnny and Baby’s hair combined. But how is it that a low-budget flick about dancing, sex, idealism and class continues to delight, move and – go on, admit it – titillate across generations?
Like most people, I first saw Dirty Dancing when I was a teenager. I was transfixed and spent the rest of that summer rewatching it every single day and taking desperate leaps off the sofa in a tragic solo attempt at “the lift”. I have since seen it hundreds of times. I don’t think I’ve watched any film more. Which begs the question: why? It’s not as though the plot of Dirty Dancing in any way original: good middle-class girl (Jennifer Grey) meets working-class, leather-jacketed boy (Patrick Swayze), they embark on a steamy holiday romance via the convenient metaphor of dance, daddy disapproves, they win him over and, hooray, they do “the lift”. So far, so derivative.
It’s everything else that makes it. Like the soundtrack, which is so brilliant – Otis Redding, The Shirelles, The Drifters (you can even forgive the incongruous addition of Patrick Swayze warbling She’s Like The Wind). There’s the double whammy of nostalgia. First, for the idealism of the early 1960s (the film is set just months before Kennedy is shot and right around the time of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech). Second, for the overblown, trashy yet irrepressibly sexy 1980s: a decade that made the late Swayze’s Johnny – decked out in shades, vast shelf of hair and permanently thrusting pelvis – a genuine sex god. The funny thing is that Dirty Dancing is both entirely familiar yet unlike any other film. It’s more grown-up than The Goonies, more fun than Flashdance, and more sexy than Footloose. It actually gives you the time of your life.
And yet, beneath all that bumping, grinding, lifting and log-balancing, there is something else going on. Dirty Dancing may ostensibly be a film about dirty dancing, but it’s also about, say, abortion. Set in a time when abortion was still illegal in the US, a whole ten years before the landmark Roe v Wade ruling, Dirty Dancing revolves around a surprisingly sophisticated moral dilemma for a mainstream romance. Penny, Johnny’s dance partner, has been “knocked up” by the reprobate Robbie Gould, a man who makes notes in the margin of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and thinks “some people count, and some people don’t”. Baby asks her father for $250, refusing to tell him that it will pay for Penny’s backroom abortion. This is a naïve and idealistic act on her part. She is a heroine who wants to change the world and she will pay the ultimate price: ceasing to be daddy’s girl. And it doesn’t work out. The abortion is botched and Baby has to call on her father, a doctor, for help. But this is the reason why Johnny loves her, because she is the kind of person who looks at the world and thinks she can make it better. Theirs is a relationship based on mutual respect and common understanding as well as the desire to do it in a log cabin. Not so derivative after all.
Dirty Dancing is also a film about sisters and sisterly behaviour. Baby is the clever, principled one who wants to give her leftovers to starving children and help a woman (Penny) in need. Lisa is the vacuous, vain one who sees forgetting her coral shoes as a tragedy and is unable to sing, dance, or stop talking about the whereabouts of her beige irridescent lipstick. It’s Baby we admire: the one who can stand up for herself as well as, eventually, dance. What a shame that it’s Lisa, not Baby, who we see more in films today.
Dirty Dancing was written and produced by Eleanor Bergstein, who based the story on her own coming-of-age experience. Perhaps that’s why it still rings true for the millions of women who continue to watch it. Baby is the best kind of heroine because she is real. She is capable of saying stupid things about watermelons and dancing like a robot (yes, I am talking about those first, excruciating moves with Johnny). But then she can stand up to a man she hates by telling him he makes her sick and pouring a jug of water over him. She is unapologetically brave, sexual and smart. She doesn’t judge people by their social position but by what they say and do. Which is why, for years to come, we will keep refusing to put Baby in the corner. «
Dirty Dancing runs at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, from Tuesday until 12 January. www.dirtydancingontour.com