From Baby steps to dance fever: How Dirty Dancing cleaned up on the stage

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in the 1987 film, Dirty Dancing
Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in the 1987 film, Dirty Dancing
Share this article
Have your say

As the stage version comes to Edinburgh, Claire Black, a fan, goes in search of the reasons for Dirty Dancing’s enduring appeal

MORE than a year ago, I was standing at the back of the main dance studio of Dance Base trying to be invisible. That’s not easy when you’re standing opposite a mirrored wall. I was watching a stream of young hopefuls being put through their paces in a casting process for the touring production of Dirty Dancing. It seemed that as well as a choreographer, Glenn Wilkinson, and a dance captain who was a performer from the massively successful West End production, nobody needed someone with a notepad and an unhealthy love of the original 1987 movie gawping at their every move.

Jill Winternitz and Paul Michael-Jones in the new stage production

Jill Winternitz and Paul Michael-Jones in the new stage production

That was then. Now, the national tour of the show has been on the road for six months. It’s been smashing ticket sales records – it’s the fastest-selling show in West End history – playing to packed and ecstatic audiences and picking up a People’s Choice Award nomination for Best Touring Production.

“The success of it is phenomenal,” says Wilkinson. “We’re in Cardiff at the moment and it’s over 95 percent sold, which is unheard of in theatrical terms. People just seem to have an affinity with this show. It’s unbelievable.”

Written by Eleanor Bergstein and choreographed by Kenny Ortega, you’d have to have been languishing in an extremely deep and dark cave to not know anything about Dirty Dancing. But, just in case, the essential details are as follows: released in 1987, starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, it’s a coming-of-age storyline – clever, plain Baby Houseman meets rough-and-ready Johnny Castle the dance instructor at the holiday camp where the Housemans spend their summer. He teaches her how to dance – and have sex – she teaches him to have some self-respect and gives him the opportunity to say: “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.”

No-one expected very much from it. It had a low budget and no big stars. But, almost instantly, the film was a success and now it’s a phenomenon. It’s taken hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office worldwide. It was the first film to sell a million copies on video. The soundtrack album went to 
No 1 and the theme song, (I’ve Had) the Time of My Life won an Academy Award.

In the 25 years since the movie came out, people have spent long, lonely hours trying to come up with the explanation for what makes Dirty Dancing – on screen and on stage – work? The kind of film that fans watch again and again, a movie that’s passed on from mothers to daughters, spawning new generations of fans who weren’t even born when it was made. It can’t just be “The Swayze”, can it?

I don’t want to underestimate the power of Patrick, but I think there’s more to it than just him and his naked torso insisting that “this is my dance space, this is your dance space”. There’s something about the plain girl getting the hot guy, about the bittersweet pleasure of first love and, of course, there’s the dancing.Truly, who doesn’t want to know one end of a pechanga from another? It’s certainly how Dirty Dancing creator Bergstein explains the movie’s success. Speaking at the time that the stage show was first being created, back in 2006, she said: “What I feel now is that everyone has a secret dancer in them. Everyone believes they can do what Baby does – they can learn to dance.”

That would certainly explain why the stage show has seamlessly continued the phenomenal success, albeit with tweaks and changes.

“Compared to some other movies that are about dancing, Dirty Dancing doesn’t have that much dancing in it,” says Wilkinson, explaining that the way that the dance scenes are filmed in close-up means that you don’t see much dancing at all. “We can’t do that on the stage, so what we’ve done is made the choreography really exciting, creating a choreographic language that goes all the way through the show.”

The film, and the stage show, is set in 1963. At that time people would have done a lot of ballroom dancing so Wilkinson used those steps to create the basis of what he calls the “upstairs dancing” – the traditional ballroom – and the downstairs, underground, dirty dancing.

At the auditions Wilkinson told the dancers to “be loose and let go” and utter panic ensued. Some were as rigid as boards, others looked freaked out at the proposition of making up their own steps. It wasn’t always comfortable viewing.

“It’s really challenging choreography, actually,” he says with a giggle. “We’ve just been in South Africa to put it on there so I’ve been away from the UK show for a couple months. I’ve been back in this last week doing some clean-up calls and just looking at everything. They’ve been on the road now for six months and a few of them have said to me that finally they feel like they’ve got it; it’s taken that long. It’s very stylised, it’s all partner dancing so for guys who have not done a lot of that it’s a whole different technique.

“It’s a conundrum because you’ve got to have all this technique beneath you, all this precision and then you’ve got to keep it under control and sort of throw it all away so that it looks like you’re making it up as you go along. That’s quite a skill.”

The other complexity is that in a touring production the cast members have to be able to cover the other parts, so everyone needs to be able to sing and dance and act. The open audition I watched was what can only be described as a mixed bag. There were dancers who were trained and ready to go; others were bringing mainly enthusiasm. Did they find any undiscovered talent?

“We really did,” he says. “We thought that would be a real coup if we found our Johnny Castle in Edinburgh. And the other thing was that people from other cities, who might be rough diamonds, probably wouldn’t come to London. It’s like The X-Factor – if someone doesn’t know how good they are at something then why would they travel 400 miles, spending their own money?”

Four or five from the regional castings did make the final cut – the stage at which Wilkinson and the director would be happy for them to be cast – but they didn’t get chosen by the producers who made the final selection. Wilkinson says though that auditioning is never a waste of time because it’s invaluable experience. He also acknowledges that what they were looking for was tricky.

“Trying to find someone to play Johnny Castle is tough. It has to be someone who’s a good actor, but they’ve also got to be a really a good dancer as well as being a big muscly guy. You’d think they’d be lining up but they’re not. It’s a really tricky thing to find even in the professional world.”

And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the one dance move everyone is interested in: the lift. It’s the pivotal moment, the physical manifestation of everything Baby has gone through. It’s the scene that gets played over and over on the DVD. In the film, Swayze and Grey practise in a lake. Louis Smith pulled it off with Flavia Cacace on Strictly a few weeks ago, but he is a gymnast. Surely the cast feel the weight of audience expectation each night they perform the iconic move? “The lift itself is not a hard thing,” Wilkinson says in a voice that sounds well practiced at reassuring nervous performers. “If you’re a trained dancer, it’s not that difficult. But it comes at a point in the show when there’s a very different kind of pressure because if the lift’s not achieved then the show sort of falls apart. But if we can’t do that and do it well and do what people expect then we might as well not bother doing the show.”

So how often does it work? “We have about 98/99 per cent success rate with it. Every now and again you’ll have a performance where it doesn’t quite connect, either it doesn’t work or they do a bad one or they have to come down quickly. But we’ve got a set regime of how to do it and I’m a great believer in spreading the myth that it’s really easy and then nobody thinks it’s hard.”

He says watching the face of a stand-in is “interesting” when they realise the pressure of doing it in front of a baying audience.

“In rehearsal they can do it over and over but you should see their face when they stand there waiting to do it in a live show. But even when it all goes a bit wibbly wobbly the audience still love it.”

• Dirty Dancing is on at the Edinburgh Playhouse, 4 December-12 January