RP010 Dirty Dancing

(1987, Drama/Romance, color)


Janet Varney and Cole Stratton

It’s kind of sad if the “Time of Your Life” is a summer camp dance recital.

Rating: ***

In a nutshell:

A girl named Baby learns to dance and falls in love at a family summer camp.


Strictly Dirty Ballroom Dancing.Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) arrives at a Catskills resort with her father Dr. Houseman (Jerry Orbach), as well as her mother and sister. The place seems sort of like a summer camp crossed with a luxury cruise ship, in that there are cabins, nature, and a lot of boring group activities, but also lots of servants, gourmet food, and an age range that skews towards the middle aged and elderly. Her father is friends with the resort owner, so Baby naturally finds herself paired off with the resort owner’s insufferably smug nephew Neil more or less by default.

During one of the evening dances, she sees the resort’s dance instructors Johnny and Penny (Patrick Swayze and Cynthia Rhodes) twirling sleazily to the music. Afterwards, she wanders off towards the staff quarters and meets a random staff member with an armful of watermelons. She awkwardly carries one into a dimly lit hall filled with hip, flexible youngsters dancing dirtily. This goes on for some time, and eventually Johnny pulls her onto the dance floor to teach her a few moves.

Soon afterwards, Baby finds herself wandering the kitchens at night with Neil when she sees Penny sobbing to herself in a corner. She maneuvers Neil out of the kitchen and runs to get Johnny, who carries Penny to her room. The story unfolds that Penny is pregnant by an unscrupulous waiter named Robbie, who now refuses to take responsibility for the baby. Penny needs $250 to get an illegal abortion, but no one she knows has the money.

Baby feels bad for her, and borrows the money from her father without telling him what it’s for. She gives it to Penny, but there’s another problem. The only time they can get a backalley abortionist to come out for the operation is during a scheduled performance at nearby club. If she misses the performance, she’ll lose her job. At the urging of Penny and other staff members, Baby volunteers.

Baby spends the next third of the movie in a series of training montages as she gradually learns the steps of the dance while gradually falling in love with Johnny. The training montage ends with a sequence in the water, where Johnny teaches her to do a lift. She does it right a few times, but lacks the confidence to do it in a competent but lackluster performance at the club. Still, they feel satisfied that it went, if not well, at least well enough.

When they get back to the resort, they find Penny all bloody and in pain from the abortionist’s hack job on her uterus. Baby runs to get her father the doctor. He sends everyone away while he patches Penny up. Then he stalks back to his cabin without speaking to any of them, having figured out that this is what his money has paid for. He forbids Baby from seeing any of the staff ever again.

Wheeeeeee!Baby sneaks out afterwards anyway to visit Johnny and apologize for her father’s behavior. This leads to dancing, which leads to sex, which leads to series of furtive meetings where they discuss their different backgrounds and the future of their relationship. Eventually, Johnny refuses the advances of a rich, older woman out of love for Baby. The scorned woman accuses Johnny when her husband’s wallet is stolen the next day. Johnny was with Baby that night, but he won’t give her as his alibi because he doesn’t want to get her in trouble. Baby hears about it and confesses the affair in front of her father. So Johnny’s off the hook for the theft, but he gets fired anyway for sleeping with the boss’s friend’s daughter. Johnny expresses his gratitude to Baby and drives away.

During an abysmal musical number at the resort’s talent show the next day, Dr. Houseman learns that it was Robbie, not Johnny, who was responsible for Penny’s unfortunate condition. Johnny shows up despite having been banned to deliver the immortal (and nonsensical) “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” He and his hip staff friends clear the stage so that he and baby can repeat their dance number from the night club, only good this time, and with a lift at the end. Afterwards, Dr. Houseman apologizes to them both, while men and women of all ages clear away the tables and chairs to dance the night dirtily away.


Before I start making fun of it, I have to admit that Dirty Dancing is a decently put-together movie. It’s filled with endearing characters, it’s well paced, and it ends happily. I can see why it’s considered a classic of its genre. That its genre generally involves young adults doing rock-stupid things in the name of “growing up” can perhaps be held against it, but that should not stop teenage females and people of similar temperament from having a good time. That said, I have a few points to raise:

I used to think of this movie as Red Dawn for girls, an assumption based on the way these two films share actors and a teenage target audience. Now that I’ve seen it, however, it seems far more accurate to call it the girly equivalent of The Karate Kid, a movie that convinced my younger self it was possible to go from a 98 pound weakling to a martial arts champion with a mere six weeks of yardwork-based after-school lessons. (Thankfully, none of Daniel-san’s training montages devolve into sex scenes.) If anything, Dirty Dancing out-Karate Kids Karate Kid in that Baby goes from a timid klutz to grace personified within a couple of weeks.

I'm pretty sure this is innuendo, but damned if I can figure out exactly what kind.Plot-wise, this movie is riddled with something Roger Ebert calls “Idiot Plot Syndrome”, i.e., containing plot-driving problems that wouldn’t exist if the characters weren’t idiots. Usually this involves a single phrase, which, if uttered by any of the important characters, would clear the air instantly. The important phrase in this case is “I’m not the father” (if you’re Johnny) or “Johnny’s not the father” (if you’re Baby). Seriously, if Johnny had made aborted child’s parentage clear during his first interaction with Dr. Houseman, well, Dr. Houseman would still be upset with Baby over being tricked into paying for an abortion, but there wouldn’t be all this rancor directed towards her boyfriend. When he inadvertently confesses at the end, even Robbie seems surprised that no one’s mentioned it yet.

Another bit that amuses me is the way Johnny gets mortally offended whenever someone assumes that he’s the father of Penny’s baby. I mean, just because he and Penny rub their genitalia all over each other during ordinarily chaste dance routines doesn’t mean they’re dating. How dare people jump to such a conclusion.

Another oddity is the double standard applied to sex and pregnancy. In this movie, everyone under a certain age sleeps around. Baby sleeps with Johnny. Robbie sleeps with Penny, rich older woman, and almost with Baby’s sister. The dirty dancing parties are just a single layer of fabric away from being orgies. According to Dirty Dancing, this is all perfectly normal, healthy behavior for the young and horny. But should someone happen to get pregnant... Gasp! Egad! Crikey! We should all pity poor, fallen Penny, who was stupid and naïve enough to let herself get knocked up. It’s as if no one knows or cares about the cause and effect relationship between intercourse and conception. Baby consummates with Johnny without any such consequences, so Dirty Dancing can be a fanciful tale about a young woman’s coming of age. If they’d banged at the wrong time of the month, however, it would have to have been a cautionary tale about a poor, stupid little girl’s path to sin.

Comedians and SF Sketchfest co-founders Janet Varney and Cole Stratton take the reins for this commentary, and for the first part of the film or so they seem a bit awkward and tentative. Maybe the dance and training montages inspired them, or maybe they just hit the point where they finally got comfortable, but as soon as the dirty dancing starts, they kick into gear with excellent timing and quality mockery. A few examples: When Johnny instructs baby to “feel the music,” Cole clarifies, “The officer needs you to point to the place on this doll where you felt the music”. After the slightly awkward dance club performance, Janet says, “That wasn’t half bad. It was more like 49% bad.” When Patrick Swayze song plays in the background of the tender goodbye scene, Janet says “Swayze can carry a tune like Baby can carry a watermelon.” During the painfully and deliberately bad talent show song, Cole says, “[It’s] like a nightmarish Pee Wee’s Playhouse episode.” The commentary starts slow, but it’s hilarious once it gets going.