Dirty Dancing


Reviewed by: Chris

Dirty Dancing
"Swayze toned down his abilities as a dancer to play Castle, but still looks riveting." | Photo: Courtesy of EIFF

After the decline of ballrooms as a popular night out, partner dance enjoyed a revival with the rise of mambo and various forms of salsa in the US. The Eighties also saw an upsurge of partner dance in Britain with the development of modern jive, a simple dance that anyone could learn. Tapping into this enthusiasm comes Dirty Dancing (1987), a well-constructed if cheesy love story that has partner dance at its core. Fronted by the charismatic Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, it also contains a note of rebelliousness that appeals to its teenage target audience.

The opening credits (in luminous pink) set the tone with sepia shots of sexy dance routines, slowed down to emphasise sensuousness. The Sixties Ronettes song, Be My Baby, hearkens back to an era before the Beatles, before the death of Kennedy.

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Baby - the insultingly diminutive name for the heroine (Grey) - is a young girl ahead of her time. She can't wait to join the Peace Corps. But for now, she is being whisked off to summer camp with her protective parents and her superficial sister, Lisa. "Baby's going to change the world," quips her father, whereas Lisa's going to decorate it...

At the camp, glamorous female dance teacher Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) has the job of making staid dances, like line dancing, look appealing to the masses. Baby, however, chances upon the staff's private party, where a much raunchier dance is practiced. Johnny Castle (Swayze) is a downtrodden instructor from the streets. In contrast to the Harvard and Yale educated (and outwardly respectable) youngsters, he is labelled with an unfairly bad reputation and with strict instructions not to flirt with guests. As Castle and Baby follow their hearts, each striving towards a moral high ground forsaken by society, they are drawn inevitably together.

Why such a formulaic and much copied movie has held such fascination is sometimes a mystery. Its strengths are the tightness of its construction and the first rate dancing abilities of its stars. With the gradual demise of studio based song-and-dance films, associated with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, came a shortage of stars who could both dance well and act. Swayze not only had considerable acting experience, but was born into a dance family and trained with the prestigious Joffrey Ballet School. As is evident from the companion (dance instruction) video, Swayze Dancing, he toned down his abilities as a dancer to play Castle, but still looks riveting.

Mambo, which can be performed in a very erotic and sensual manner, is sometimes called "diabolo" - the devil's dance. Unlike many dance/romance movies that followed, this one features many actual dance sequences, augmented by a spontaneous style of acting, but with the dancing obviously performed for real, rather than produced as a result of extensive fast editing cuts, as was the case, for instance, in films like Chicago (2002).

The dirty dancing in the film is ultimately a mix of styles, principally mambo and showcase, which provided momentum for many of the popular dance schools of the time and in the years that followed. The film is part of the wave of Eighties indie films that convinced the big studios to diversify and join forces with independents to capture teen audiences. Its sexiness combines with a James Dean style defiance, appealing to male fantasies.

While Dirty Dancing lacks greatness, its enduring qualities are too easily overlooked. If nothing else, it provided a template for dozens of lacklustre movies that followed its song and storyline formula without emulating its strengths.

Reviewed on: 23 Dec 2006
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Dirty Dancing packshot
A lonely girl finds romance with a dance teacher at a holiday resort, but her strict parents disapprove.
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Director: Emile Ardolino

Writer: Eleanor Bergstein

Starring: Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Rhodes, Jack Weston, Jane Brucker, Kelly Bishop, Lonny Price, Max Cantor, Charles 'Honi' Coles, Neal Jones

Year: 1987

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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