Renowned film critic Roger Ebert said Dirty Dancing "might have been a decent movie if it had allowed itself to be about anything." In this broadly researched and accessible text, Stephen Lee Naish sets out to deconstruct and unlock a film that has haunted him for decades, and argues that Dirty Dancing, the 1987 sleeper hit about a young middle-class girl who falls for a handsome working-class dance instructor, is actually about everything. The film is a union of history, politics, sixties and eighties culture, era-defining music, class, gender, and race, and of course features one of the best love stories set to film. Using scene-by-scene analyses, personal interpretation, and comparative study, it's time to take Dirty Dancing out of the corner and place it under the microscope.
Released in 1987, Dirty Dancing is one of those films that is almost impossible to not know about, but it’s also one that’s probably not taken very seriously. The story of privileged Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) and hunky heartthrob Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) has been watched over and over again, gaining a larger audience as the years have passed by. Certain songs have become synonymous with the film, dialogue will be quoted, and how could any of us ever forget some of the most iconic scenes of the film. It’s a fantastic film, but one that most people will dismiss as a “chick flick”. At least you will until diving into author Stephen Lee Naish’s book, “Deconstructing Dirty Dancing“, available from Zero Books. Naish looks at the film through a new lens. By exploring the political subtext, the way the film celebrated women at a time where this was a rarity in Hollywood, gender, class, race, and how Dirty Dancing was a perfect blend of the ’60s and the ’80s, Naish will make you think a lot more deeply about the movie. He breaks the film down scene by scene, picking some of the larger moments as well as the tiniest bit of dialogue to make his points. It’s not only a wonderful look back on the movie, but a fantastic way to see the themes many of us have probably missed. Coming in at under 100 pages, “Deconstructing Dirty Dancing” is also a very brisk read. Naish doesn’t slow things down with overly intellectual text. There’s no need to have completed your thesis to enjoy the book. However, Naish doesn’t just offer a surface level reading of the film either. He’s even bold enough to compare the film to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in a mostly convincing way. While I’m still not completely on board with that comparison, Naish does manage to point out the similarities with certain characters effectively. In a year dominated by aggressively macho films like Predator, Running Man, RoboCop, and Lethal Weapon, Dirty Dancing seemed to come out of nowhere. At the time, few people probably even bothered to wonder why. That’s what makes Naish’s book so interesting. He looks at how the film was able to capture the hearts and minds of people by exploring the way it fit so perfectly into the culture of the ’80s, even though the film is set in the ’60s. The problems presented in the film were things that may not have been as large in the ’80s, but they were still problems we continued to face. Class, gender, and race are still incredibly relevant social problems, so Dirty Dancing continues to be a film we can look at now, 30 years later. Thanks to Naish, it’s even easier to see how those themes are explored in the film. Since “Deconstructing Dirty Dancing” is a rather short book, it’s quite easy to get swept up in reliving the film and read from beginning to end. In the same amount of time you would spend watching the movie, you are able to relive every important moment while also gaining a better understanding of the film. Naish’s words bring the film to life, and although I haven’t watched this movie in years, I felt as if I had just watched it yesterday. That speaks not only to Naish’s talent, but also the power of the film. I can remember all the little moments of the movie, despite having only watched it a handful of times. For diehard fans of Dirty Dancing, this book will certainly be appreciated even more. Naish finally makes Dirty Dancing more than just a “chick flick” that is overlooked. Whether you’re a huge fan of the film or not, I can’t recommend “Deconstructing Dirty Dancing” more highly. ~ Will Brownridge, Toronto Film Scene
I accidentally ended up with this book from NetGalley and I was in two minds about whether to read it or to just contact the publisher and explain my error. In the end I decided to read it. I think everyone my age will have watched and loved Dirty Dancing when they were around their early teens. I know so many people who still consider this one of their favourite films. It was my favourite feel-good film for many years. This is a wonderful book for anyone who considers themselves a fan of the film as it really does look at all the key moments, and allows you to re-live them. I liked the descriptions of some of the deleted scenes from the film and the discussion on how they may or may not have added to the storyline had they have been left in – it’s made me want to buy the special edition DVD so I can see those deleted scenes now! Occasionally there are really interesting references to other studies that have discussed Dirty Dancing and I would have loved more of that, but it has led me to look at the bibliography at the back of this book so that I can maybe read more on the subject another time... I found the author’s analysis of the end of Dirty Dancing utterly fascinating. I’ve watched the film numerous times and I’ve always thought that the ending was just super romantic and a perfect end to the film. Naish considers the idea that the whole ending was just a fantasy that Baby was having, it was what she imagined happened and that really the love story between her and Johnny was over when he left Kellermans earlier in the the film. I actually see that this is entirely plausible and it has made me really think about whether this is more likely than how I’ve always viewed it. All in all this is an interesting, nostalgic look back on a great film and if you’re a Dirty Dancing fan I think you’ll very much enjoy this book – I definitely recommend it. ~ Hayley C, Rather Too Fond Of Books
Dirty Dancing is just a chick flick, right? Stephen Lee Naish argues that the movie is more than that. In his book, he explores the topics of gender, class and transitioning from child to adult that can be found in the movie. He even compares Dirty Dancing with a movie by David Lynch. That may sound a little crazy and I was wondering how he was going to do this. But his argumentation is comprehensible and a lot less far-fetched than I feared it might be. He takes the reader through the movie scene by scene, explaining quickly what happens in that scene before analysing it. That made it easy to follow even though I watched the movie only once some time ago. In the end, there's a short essay on his personal experience watching Dirty Dancing several times in his life. I really appreciated a male's perspective on what is considered to be a movie that only women like. And I also enjoyed learning about the underlying topics in the movie and seeing that it's more complex than it seems to be at first sight. Another thing that I thought was interesting was that he showed how the lyrics of the soundtrack correspond to the story because I hadn't paid attention to that. Now I'm looking forward to watching the movie again and finding some new details that I hadn't noticed before. I would recommend this book to anyone that likes or even loves the movie. It might also be helpful for students that want to write a paper on Dirty Dancing or movie analysis in general. ~ Ylva Schauster , NetGalley/GoodReads
A must for an Dirty Dancing or film critic! I read the whole piece in one sitting and was fascinated by the nuances of the film that I had never noticed before. I loved how the author not only analysed each scene but also defended the plotline choices made to show why they were vital for the audience's reaction to the film. ~ Kate Klassa, NetGalley/GoodReads
5/5 Stars - My library will purchase this book. Thankful for early access to this little gem through NetGalley. As someone who can't count how many times I've watched this movie, it's nice to have it legitimized with some well thought out explanations of the cultural and political representations portrayed in the film, as well as the enduring impact it has had on so many. Naish walks through the movie in sequence by film timing, and I found myself reciting the lines in my head before he could even get to them. While I didn't gain any mind-blowing insights from his meditation on Dirty Dancing, I delighted in reliving the movie (yet again) from a different perspective and felt a justifiable camaraderie with him and my other (probably secret) Dirty Dancing loving peeps. ~ Stephanie Rosso, Librarian, NetGalley
Dirty Dancing is one of those movies that I have seen a hundred times, but maybe only watched from the beginning a handful of those times. It is one of those movies that you just start watching wherever it is in the film and you get sucked in all over again. I was really excited to read this book, because, like many others, I love the movie so much. I really enjoyed the scene by scene breakdown and I could envision the movie the entire time I was reading. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the movie. And I especially liked the alternative interpretation of the ending. It made me think and makes me want to watch the movie again to see. ~ Jennifer Giles, NetGalley
In the blurb for Deconstructing Dirty Dancing, the author Stephen Naish describes it “as a film that has haunted him for decades” and it’s a feeling that I can more than identify with. Whole sections of dialogue can be recalled verbatim just from a chance phrase encountered in day-to-day life. I find myself humming the Kellerman Anthem while washing up. Hearing a song from the soundtrack instantly triggers an overwhelming wave of nostalgia for the late eighties when I first encountered the film, which I went on to watch, with my sister, over a hundred times. I’m probably quite a tough audience for a book on Dirty Dancing. Naish’s basic premise is of Dirty Dancing as a story about the loss of personal innocence that reflects the societal loss of innocence in 1960s America. It may not be a staggeringly original one, but it’s a valid argument which he reiterates through a scene-by-scene interpretation of the film. He highlights some interesting parallels with Lynch’s Blue Velvet, another film which exemplifies the innocence lost in the transition from childhood to adulthood, the corruption of the American Dream and which stylistically draws on the distinctive early 60s and late 80s periods... I was particularly struck by the suggestion that Penny’s interception of Dr Houseman during the merengue class he and Baby attend symbolises the role she will play in coming between the two characters. Similarly, the idea that Plight of the Peasants, the book Baby is reading at the start of the film foretells her own critical reevaluation of the role of class plays in her life I found fascinating. I’d never even noticed the title of the book before, perhaps I can blame the dodgy quality of VHS. The biggest revelation for me, however, was Naish’s suggestion that the final scene is interpreted as fantasy. It had never occurred to me how my own nostalgia for the film had blinkered my interpretation of it, which has always been as a straight narrative. Naish persuasively argues that Johnny driving away is the ‘real’ ending of the film, pointing out the signposts that indicate we are leaving reality and entering cinematic fantasy courtesy of Baby’s imagination. A suitably Lynchian interpretation and one which has for me ignited a desire to re-watch Dirty Dancing in a completely new way, which considering my history with the film is high praise indeed. ~ Hazel Smoczynska , GoodReads/ThePloughmans Lunch
I read this all in one sitting! A must for any Dirty Dancing fan! I particularly liked the snippets of information that I did not know existed such as alternate deleted scenes and the reasons for their exclusion. The romantic in me would like to believe that the ending is real to the film's narrative though and is not just Baby's fantasy! Interesting and enlightening read! Would recommend! ~ Jo Cameron-Symes, NetGalley
Many, many philosophical interpretations in addition to the plain-Jane synopsis/behind-the-scenes info that other movie-related books usually offer. Lee Nash does a full, scene-by-scene watch-thru of the movie and intersperses his writing with input from the screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein, and other cinema writers; particularly Michele Schreiber and her book, American Post-Feminist Cinema (which I should really try and track down to read, too). I really enjoyed the reference to Dirty Dancing as being 'Star Wars for girls,' commonalities between it and that of the movie 'Blue Velvet,' Schreiber's interpretation of the plot as being First Meeting/Courtship/Consummation/Problem/Resolution/End (with the Transformation being love as a transformative agent for someone to become a better version of themselves), the character Robbie being a Randian Egoist and a literal Fountain of water being poured on his Head, Patrick Swayze's belief in Johnny & Penny's relationship being the one that lasts after the events of the movie occur, and deleted scenes that would've changed an audience opinion against Johnny or the owner's nephew, Neil. ~ Kristine Fisher, GoodReadins
For all those inexplicably drawn to Dirty Dancing again and again, here's a book that will finally make it feel like more than a "guilty pleasure," that will intellectually legitimize your love for the movie you'd never previously admit is your real and forever favorite, at least not in front of polite company. Stephen Lee Naish helps the 80s gem rise up the cinema ranks. The moment you put the book down, you'll want to put Dirty Dancing on for another spin. ~ Holly Grigg-Spall, author of Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control
This is a remarkable achievement. Using a single film as a case-study, it asks the reader to re-think their own relationship to cinema, calling into question the narratives, memories and assumptions we construct through and about popular culture. This unique and innovative analysis offers a great deal to any reader, from the film studies professor to the occasional cinema goer. A must-read book or anyone interested in popular film. ~ Alfie Brown, University of Manchester and Editor at Everyday Analysis
Dirty Dancing has quietly evolved from a film to enjoy, to one you can admire -- helped along by Stephen Lee Naish's Deconstructing Dirty Dancing. A model of detailed textual analysis, Deconstructing Dirty Dancing reveals what Dirty Dancing’s devoted fanbase has known for years: that the film tackled sophisticated, progressive themes with dignity, courage, and a catchy soundtrack. Rest assured, the political can indeed be pleasurable ~ Liza Palmer, Managing Editor of The Moving Image, Co-Editor-in-Chief of Film Matters, Contributing Editor of Film International
That was the summer of 1987, when Dirty Dancing blended a 1963 setting with distinctively ’80s fashion, dancing and music, and it didn’t occur to us to mind. That was before Robert and Kristen, and Kate and Leo, before Jennifer Grey got a nose job, when we couldn’t wait to anoint Patrick Swayze as the next John Travolta, and we thought we’d never find a better director of PG-13 movies than Steven Spielberg.
That was the summer we went to Kellerman’s. All of us. Johnny. Baby. Girls who wanted to feel like young women. Boys who wanted to be grinded on like young men. Nervous mothers who wanted to grab their children by the arm and drag them out of the theater before the end of the opening credits.
Dirty Dancing was the No. 11 movie of the year and inspired a soundtrack that topped the charts for 18 weeks. It made a new generation hip to songs like The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” and Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” and, in addition to “Hungry Eyes” and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” it launched one of the 1980s’ most inane yet indelible singles, “She’s Like the Wind,” and climactic movie lines, both of which were performed by Swayze.
Since then, the movie has been championed by Conan O’Brien and saluted in Crazy, Stupid, Love. It’s inspired sloppy spinoffs on the big screen and the small one. In short, it has refused to be put in a corner, and with good reason. Uplifting, energetic, romantic, tender, touching and fun, Dirty Dancing stands proudly as one of the most unforgettable and quintessential movies of its decade. It’s a sweet and sweaty dry-humping masterpiece.
I was only 10 when Dirty Dancing was released, so I know I didn’t see it in the theater, less because it looked to my young eyes like an icky “girl movie” than because, as far as parents of the era were concerned, it was PG-13 going on X. The raw sexuality was right there in the title: “Dirty Dancing.” Whatever that was, you didn’t need Ronald Reagan to tell you it wasn’t wholesome.
The kids rolled their eyes at their parents’ prudishness, but it turned out there was truth in advertising. Dirty Dancing begins with pink-lettered opening credits appearing over slow-motion black-and-white images of teenagers dancing so closely that you’d be forgiven for assuming they’re trying to start a fire. It’s a collage of hands, hips, lips and skin, and it’s recreated in color only 15 minutes later, when Grey’s Baby gets her first look at the rowdy staff quarters of Kellerman’s, the Catskills-esque summer resort where she’s vacationing with her family, and Swayze’s Johnny parades around the room with his head and shoulders approximately three feet behind his thrusting pelvis.
From there, Dirty Dancing deals with back-alley abortion, guys who want only one thing and, not to be forgotten, the romantic deflowering of the good girl by the dangerous yet sensitive guy, more or less right under the noses of her unsuspecting parents, each of which ranks fairly high on the Parental Nightmare List. Yet Dirty Dancing, written by Eleanor Bergstein, is just clothed enough, just vague enough, just free of bodily fluids enough, to package itself as a PG-13.
Many movies are destroyed by their MPAA ratings, as a director’s vision is mangled to meet the requirements of an R, or as audiences are kept away by an NC-17, but Dirty Dancing is enhanced by its rating. Most obviously, by stopping short of the R, director Emile Ardolino ensured that teenage girls, the audience most likely to identify with Baby’s evolution into young womanhood, could attack the box office. But much more importantly, the constraints of a PG-13 prohibited the movie from trying to swim in the strong current of truly adult themes that would certainly have drowned it.
From the get-go, Dirty Dancing is throbbing with sexuality, yes, but its hormones are distinctly adolescent. It taps into a time in our lives when dancing isn’t just a stand-in for or a gateway to sex but is a perfectly fulfilling erotic exercise all its own. Seen through Baby’s eyes, the movie is dominated not just by experimentations with adulthood, a common theme at the multiplex, but something much rarer: the discovery of adulthood.
It’s there in the beautiful slow-zoom on Baby’s face the first time she spots Johnny and Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) showing off at Kellerman’s. It’s there again the next time Baby spots Johnny and Penny in the famous watermelon scene. It’s there, too, when Johnny first puts his hands on Baby and tries to show her how to dance. And it’s there again and again in the scenes dealing with Penny’s unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Most movie characters understand something the moment they see it. Baby takes time. Sex, abortion, Baby is aware of these things, but for much of the film everything “adult” takes place behind closed doors in what might as well be some other world.
In an R-rated movie, could we have felt Baby’s naïveté? It seems unlikely. Similarly, in an R-rated movie Baby’s maturation almost certainly would have been highlighted by the loss of her virginity—an event that Ardolino would’ve felt compelled to choreograph as if it were a dance scene. Instead, as produced, Baby’s sexual activity is almost an afterthought.
Sure, if you’re old enough to understand what usually happens when two people take off their clothes and get into bed together, as Johnny and Baby do several times, Bergstein and Ardolino leave no mystery. But here Baby “becomes a woman,” as they say, in the way she grows as a dancer, in the way she starts to exude confidence with her body, in the way she starts to understand the complexities of Penny’s predicament, in the way she relates to her sister and, maybe more than anything, in the way she relates to her father.
Dirty Dancing is, no doubt, a romance between Baby and Johnny, but it’s also something of a breakup movie for Baby and her doctor father, played by Jerry Orbach. It’s not just that Baby professes her love for her dad in her opening voice-over and then falls for Johnny. It’s that over time Baby allows herself to become a woman in her father’s eyes.
This, as I’ve been told numerous times by female friends, can be one of the most difficult transitions a daughter makes. It’s one thing to have sex. It’s another thing to allow your father to know you’re having sex, and that you see yourself as a woman, and that you’re not his perfect little girl anymore, as much as you’ll always love him.
In one of the movie’s best scenes, Baby confronts her father and accuses him of insincerity and classism, as he stares out into the distance, only occasionally glancing his daughter’s way, saying nothing. That’s a big deal: to call the hero of your youth a liar. But the part that really stings is when Baby admits, “There are a lot of things about me that aren’t what you thought.” That’s the heart of the matter, and it breaks both of their hearts to confront it.
Later, Johnny will thank Baby for sticking up for him, praising her for her heroism, but even he won’t understand what it costs Baby to let her father see the truth. It’s an incredibly brave act—Baby standing before her father much more so than standing up for Johnny—and it’s evidence of the movie’s greatness that her face-to-face admission seems so genuine, that Baby’s evolution feels so complete. As Baby storms off, Ardolino’s camera studies her father’s pained face as he bites his lip and briefly turns in his daughter’s direction, devastated at his own hurt, and Baby’s too, clearly wanting to call out to her but not knowing what to say. It’s a gracious shot that you won’t find in a lot of movies, and it’s a testament to the film’s understanding heart: watching your daughter become a woman before your eyes isn’t easy either.
It’s scenes like that one, as much as Johnny’s climactic line (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner”) and the triumphant final dance, that made a generation identify with and fall in love with this film. I can’t tell you the number of women roughly my age who remember seeing Dirty Dancing for the first time the way guys my age remember their first R-rated movie. For many, Dirty Dancing was, much like Baby’s experience at Kellerman’s, a stepping stone toward an enticing yet intimidating new phase of life.
Cinephiles love to debate about what became of Ben and Elaine in The Graduate, a movie that came out two decades earlier, but the future of Johnny and Baby is equally indistinct. Swayze was 35 and Grey 27 when the film was released, and even though they’re both playing characters much younger it’s hard to mistake that Johnny is at least one life phase ahead of Baby. It’s hard to imagine where they go from Kellerman’s, but it’s notable that when Johnny and Baby first part, before his surprise return, there are no tearful goodbyes and Johnny’s parting words are simply, “I’ll see ya.” So it’s safe to speculate that what happened at Kellerman’s probably didn’t stay at Kellerman’s.
But watching Dirty Dancing all these years later, the magic of that place remains, right where we left it—a hybrid of 1963 and 1987, and yet timeless.
I suppose it’s fitting that Grey got one of the most appearance-altering cosmetic surgeries I’ve ever seen. Her squinty-eyed, arched-nose beauty of 1987 is of a different era than this one, and now it’s preserved there. Personally, I wish current cinema gave us more faces like Grey’s first one, and I find it tragic that the actress who so memorably portrayed a character who finds beauty in herself either didn’t have the same appreciation for her looks or felt that Hollywood didn’t. But I guess that Baby-face was only meant for Johnny.
From the watermelon to the log, from the crawl to the lift, Dirty Dancing is responsible for some of the most memorable images of its era. Twenty-five years later are there 25 better American 1980s movies? I’m not so sure.
Then again, 25 years later, I’m still not sure what “she’s like the wind through my tree” is supposed to mean.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema atThe Coolerand coauthors The House Next Door’s “The Conversations” series with Ed Howard, currently on hiatus while Ed settles into fatherhood and Jason practices his lifts.