Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing is a 1987 romance film. Written by Eleanor Bergstein, the film features Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Cynthia Rhodes, and Jerry Orbach. The story details the moment of time that a teenaged girl crosses over into womanhood both physically and emotionally, through a relationship with a dance instructor during a family summer vacation. Around a third of the movie involves dancing scenes choreographed by Kenny Ortega (later famous for High School Musical), and the finale has been described as "the most goosebump-inducing dance scene in movie history".

Originally a low-budget film by a new studio and with no major stars (at the time), Dirty Dancing became a massive box office hit. As of 2007, it has earned $300 million worldwide. It was the first film to sell more than a million copies on home video, and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack generated two multi-platinum albums and multiple singles, including "(I've Had) The Time of My Life", which won both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song, and a Grammy Award for best duet. The film spawned a 2004 sequel, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, as well as a stage version which has had sellout performances in Australia, Europe, and North America, with plans to open on Broadway.

Plot summary

In the summer of 1963, 17-year-old New Yorker Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey) is vacationing with her affluent Jewish family at Kellerman's, a resort in the Catskill Mountains. Baby is planning to attend Mount Holyoke College to study economics and then to enter the Peace Corps. She was named after Frances Perkins, the first woman in the U.S. Cabinet. Baby's father, Jake (Jerry Orbach), is the personal physician of the resort owner Max Kellerman (Jack Weston).

Baby develops a crush on the resort's dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), part of the working-class entertainment staff. When Baby is invited to one of their parties, she observes for the first time the "dirty dancing" that the staff enjoys. Later, Baby discovers that Johnny's dance partner Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes) is distraught over being pregnant by Robbie Gould (Max Cantor), the waiter whom Baby's sister Lisa is dating. When Baby learns that Robbie plans to do nothing about the pregnancy, she secures the money from her father to pay for Penny's illegal abortion. In her efforts to help, Baby also becomes Penny's fill-in for a performance at the Sheldrake, a nearby resort where Johnny and Penny perform annually.

As Baby becomes Johnny's pupil in dance, tempers flare and a romance begins to develop. Their performance at the Sheldrake goes reasonably well, though Baby is too nervous to accomplish the dance's climactic lift. When they return to Kellerman's, they learn that Penny's backstreet abortion was botched, leaving Penny in agonizing pain. Baby brings her father, who is a doctor, to help, but he assumes that the pregnancy was caused by Johnny, and forbids Baby to have anything to do with him or his friends. Baby, however, defies her father and continues the clandestine affair. The relationship is revealed after Johnny is accused of stealing a wallet from one of the resort guests; to save him from being fired, Baby confesses that he could not have been responsible as she was with him in his cabin that night. Johnny is eventually cleared of the theft charge, but is still fired for having a relationship with a guest. However, Baby's selfless act inspires Johnny to realize that "there are people willing to stand up for other people no matter what it costs them."

In the film's climactic scene, Johnny, even though he has been fired, returns to the resort to perform the final dance of the season with Baby. He utters the film's most famous line, "Nobody puts Baby in a corner," as he pulls her up from her parents' table. Dr. Houseman learns that the true culprit in Penny's pregnancy was Robbie, not Johnny, and he apologizes (Robbie having accidentally confessed to his deed earlier in the scene, while talking to Dr. Houseman). The film ends with a major dance sequence, as Baby overcomes her fears to allow Johnny to lift her high into the air, and the room is transformed into a nightclub where everyone, staff and patrons, dances together.

Plot analysis

Dirty Dancing has been described as a coming-of-age tale showing the passage from adolescence to adulthood, in a classic hero's journey format similar to Homer's Odyssey. The hero, Baby, is an innocent who receives a call to adventure from a gatekeeper – one of the camp staff asking her in to the party – who invites her to cross a bridge (symbolically significant as it links different realms) and Baby passes into an unfamiliar world (the resort's staff and their more sensual dancing). Baby then proceeds through tests and trials (dancing lessons, taking the lead in dealing with Penny's abortion, preparing for and completing the performance at the Sheldrake, standing up for Johnny) to achieve personal growth, "knowledge acquired through personal experience". She is rewarded for her achievements, by sexual union with Johnny. At the end of the film she undergoes the supreme ordeal (dancing in front of her parents and the audience including the climactic lift), which she conquers, and is rewarded by being raised, both literally into the air and figuratively into divinity, demonstrating that the hero has achieved a new higher state of being, and has been permanently changed by the journey.



Dirty Dancing is in large part based on screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein's own childhood: She is the younger daughter of a Jewish doctor from New York, spent summers with her family in the Catskills, participated in "Dirty Dancing" competitions, and was herself called "Baby" as a girl. In 1980, Bergstein wrote a screenplay for the Michael Douglas film, It's My Turn. However, the producers cut an erotic dancing scene from the script, much to her dismay. She then conceived a new story, focused almost exclusively on dancing. In 1984, she pitched the idea to MGM executive Eileen Miselle, who liked it and teamed Bergstein with producer Linda Gottlieb. They set the film in 1963, with the character of Baby based on Bergstein's own life, and the character of Johnny based on the stories of Michael Terrace, a dance instructor that Bergstein met in the Catskills in 1985 while she was researching the story. She finished the script in November 1985, but management changes at MGM put the script into turnaround, or limbo. Bergstein then shopped the script around to other studios, but was repeatedly rejected until she showed it to Austin Furst, president of Vestron Pictures, a new studio in Century City, Vestron's vice-president Mitchell Cannold liked the story, as he too had spent some of his own childhood in the Catskills. He and fellow vice-president Dori Berinstein agreed to seek financing for the film, if an appropriate director could be found. Gottlieb and Bergstein chose Emile Ardolino, who had won the 1983 Academy Award for the documentary, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'. Ardolino had never directed a feature film, but was extremely passionate about the project, even sending a message from where he was sequestered in jury duty, insisting that he was the best choice as director. The film was approved, and budgeted at the relatively low amount of $5 million, at a time when the average cost for a film was $12 million.

For choreographer, Bergstein chose Kenny Ortega, who had been trained by the legendary dancer Gene Kelly. For a location for the film, they did not find anything suitable in the Catskills, so they decided on a combination of two locations: Lake Lure in North Carolina, and Mountain Lake Resort near Roanoke, Virginia, with careful editing making it look like all of the shooting was done in the same area.

Director Ardolino was adamant that they choose dancers who could also act, as he did not want to use the "stand-in" method that had been used with the 1983 Flashdance. For the female lead of Frances "Baby" Houseman, Bergstein chose the 26-year-old Jennifer Grey, daughter of the Oscar-winning actor and dancer Joel Grey of the 1972 film Cabaret. They then sought a male lead, initially considering 20-year-old Billy Zane, who had the visual look desired (originally the Johnny character was to be Italian and have a dark exotic look) but initial dancing tests when he was partnered with Grey did not meet expectations. The next choice was 34-year-old Patrick Swayze, who had been noticed for his roles in The Outsiders and Red Dawn, in which he had co-starred with Grey. Swayze was a seasoned dancer, with experience from the Joffrey Ballet. The producers liked him, but Swayze's agent was against the idea. However, Swayze read the script, liked the multi-leveled character of Johnny, and took the part anyway and Johnny was changed from being Italian to Irish. Grey was not happy about the choice, as she and Swayze had had difficulty getting along on Red Dawn. However, the two of them met, worked things out, and when they did their dancing screen test, the chemistry between them was obvious. Bergstein described it as "breathtaking".

Other casting choices were Broadway actor Jerry Orbach as Dr. Jake Houseman, Baby's father; and Jane Brucker as Lisa Houseman, Baby's older sister. Bergstein also attempted to cast her friend, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer to play Mrs. Schumacher, and Joel Grey as her husband. However, Westheimer backed out when she learned the role involved being a kleptomaniac. The role went instead to 79-year-old Paula Trueman, and Joel Grey was not cast. Another role went to Bergstein's friend, New York radio personality "Cousin Brucie". Bergstein initially wanted him to play the part of the social director, but then later asked him to play the part of the magician. The part of the social director went to the then unknown Wayne Knight (of later Seinfeld and 3rd Rock from the Sun fame). The part of Baby's mother was originally given to Lynn Lipton, and if you watch carefully in the beginning when the Houseman family first pulls into Kellerman's, Lipton is in the front seat for a few brief seconds; you can see her blonde hair, but that is the only indication. But she became ill during the first week of shooting and was replaced by actress Kelly Bishop, who had already been cast to play Vivian Pressman, the highly sexed resort guest. Bishop moved into the role as Mrs. Houseman, and the film's assistant choreographer Miranda Garrison took on the role of Vivian.


The tight schedule allowed only two weeks for rehearsal, and 44 days for filming as it was already the tail end of summer. The cast stayed in the same hotel at Mountain Lake Resort in Pembroke, Virginia (15 minutes from Virginia Tech), and rehearsals quickly turned into disco parties involving nearly every cast member, even non-dancers such as Jack Weston. The dancing and drinking went on almost non-stop and, immersed in the environment, the lead actors, Grey and Swayze, began identifying with their characters. Bergstein built upon this, encouraging the actors to improvise in their scenes. She also built the sexual tension by saying that no matter how intimate or "grinding" the dance steps, that none of the dancers were to have any other kind of physical contact with each other for the next six months.

Filming started on September 5, 1986, but was plagued by the weather ranging from pouring rain to sweltering heat. The outside temperature rose to , and with all the additional camera and lighting equipment needed for filming, the temperature inside could be as high to . According to choreographer Kenny Ortega, on one day 10 people passed out within 25 minutes of shooting. The elderly Paula Trueman collapsed and was taken to the local emergency room to be treated for dehydration. Patrick Swayze also required a hospital visit: insisting on doing his own stunts, he repeatedly fell off of the log during the "balancing" scene and injured his knee, so had to have fluid drained from the swelling.

Delays in the shooting schedule pushed filming into the autumn, which required the set decorators to spray-paint the autumn leaves green. The uncooperative weather then took a different turn, plunging from oppressive heat to down near , causing frigid conditions for the famous swimming scene in October. The crew wore warm coats, gloves and boots. Swayze and Grey stripped down to light summer clothing, to repeatedly dive into the cold water. Despite her character's enjoyment, Grey later described the water as "horrifically" cold, and she might not have gone into the lake, except that she was "young and hungry".

Relations between the two main stars varied throughout production. They had already had trouble getting along in their previous project, Red Dawn. They worked things out enough to have an extremely positive screen test, but initial cooperation soon faded, and they were soon "facing off" before every scene. There was concern among the production staff that the animosity between the two stars would endanger the filming of the love scenes. To address this, producer Bergstein and director Ardolino forced the stars to re-watch their initial screen-tests—the ones with the "breathtaking" chemistry. This had the desired effect, and Swayze and Grey were able to return to the film with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

Director Ardolino encouraged the actors to improvise, and often kept the cameras rolling even if actors went "off script". One example of this was the scene where Grey was to stand in front of Swayze with her back to him, and put her arm up behind his head while he trailed his fingers down her arm (similar to the pose that is seen in the movie poster). Though it was written as a serious and tender moment, Grey was exhausted, found the move ticklish, and could not stop giggling each time Swayze tried it, no matter how many takes Ardolino asked for. Swayze was impatient to finish the scene, and found Grey's behavior annoying. However, the producers decided that the scene worked as it was, and put it into the film complete with Grey's giggling and Swayze's annoyed expression. It became one of the most famous scenes in the movie, turning out, as choreographer Kenny Ortega put it, "as one of the most delicate and honest moments in the film."


The shooting wrapped on October 27, 1986, both on-time and on-budget. No one on the team however liked the rough cut that was put together, and Vestron executives were convinced that the film was going to be a flop. In May 1987 the film was screened for producer Aaron Russo. According to Vestron executive Mitchell Cannold, Russo's reaction at the end was to say simply, "Burn the negative, and collect the insurance."

Further disputes arose over the question of whether a corporate sponsor could be found to promote the film. Marketers of the Clearasil acne product liked the film, seeing it as a vehicle to reach a teen target audience. However, when they learned that the movie contained an abortion scene, they asked for that part of the plot to be cut. As Bergstein refused, the Clearasil promotion was dropped. Consequently, Vestron promoted the film themselves and set the premiere on August 16, 1987. The Vestron executives had planned to release the film in theaters for a weekend, and then send it straight to video, since Vestron had been in the video distribution business before film production. Considering how many people disliked the film at that point, producer Gottlieb's recollection of her feelings at the time was, "I would have only been grateful, if when it was released, people didn't yell at me."


For the film's opening, the August 16, 1987 edition of The New York Times published a major review, with a headline reading, "Dirty Dancing Rocks to an Innocent Beat." The Times reviewer called the film "a metaphor for America in the summer of 1963 – orderly, prosperous, bursting with good intentions, a sort of Yiddish-inflected Camelot. Other reviews were more mixed: Gene Siskel gave the film a "marginal Thumbs Up" as he liked Jennifer Grey's acting and development of her character, while Roger Ebert gave it "Thumbs Down" due to its "idiot plot", calling it a "tired and relentlessly predictable story of love between kids from different backgrounds." TIME magazine was lukewarm, saying, "If the ending of Eleanor Bergstein's script is too neat and inspirational, the rough energy of the film's song and dance does carry one along, past the whispered doubts of better judgment.

Regardless of reviews, the film drew adult audiences instead of the expected teens, with viewers rating the film highly as "would watch this again." Many filmgoers, after seeing the film once, went right back into the theater to watch it a second time. Word-of-mouth promotion took the film to number 1 in the United States, and in 10 days it had broken the $10 million mark. By November, it was also achieving international fame. Within seven months of release, it had brought in $63 million, and boosted attendance in dance classes across America. It was one of the highest-grossing films of 1987, earning $170 million worldwide.

The film's popularity continued to grow after its initial release. It was the number 1 video rental of 1988, and became the first film to sell a million copies on video. When the film was re-released in 1997, ten years after its original release, Swayze received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and videos were still selling at the rate of over 40,000 per month. As of 2005, it was selling a million DVDs per year, with over 10 million copies sold as of 2007.

A May 2007 survey by Sky Movies listed Dirty Dancing as number 1 on "Women's most-watched films", above the Star Wars trilogy, Grease, The Sound of Music, and Pretty Woman. The film's popularity has also caused it to be called "the Star Wars for girls." An April 2008 article in the Daily Mail listed Dirty Dancing as number 1 on a list of "most romantic movie quotes ever", for Baby's line "I'm scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I'm with you. The film's music has also had considerable impact. The closing song, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" has been listed as the "third most popular song played at funerals" in the UK.



Rehearsals for the dancing, and some of the filming, used music from Bergstein's personal collection of 45s. When it came time to select actual music for the film, Vestron chose Jimmy Ienner as music supervisor. Ienner, who had previously produced albums and songs for John Lennon and Three Dog Night, opted to stick with much of the music that had already been used during filming, and obtained licenses for the songs from Bergstein's collection. He also enlisted Swayze to sing the new song "She's Like the Wind." Swayze had written the song a few years earlier with Stacy Widelitz, originally intending for it to be used in the 1984 film Grandview, U.S.A..

The movie's incidental music score was composed by John Morris. The Kellermans' song that closes the talent show scene had lyrics written specifically for the film, and was sung to the tune of Annie Lisle, a commonly-used theme for school alma maters. Kenny Ortega and his assistant Miranda Garrison chose the song for the finale by going through an entire box of tapes listening to each one. According to Ortega, literally the last tape that they listened to had "The Time of My Life", which they saw as the obvious choice. Ienner then insisted that Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes record it. The song won the 1988 Grammy Award for Best Duet, an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.

The film's soundtrack started an oldies music revival, and demand for the album caught RCA by surprise. According to Previte, before a single had even been released, there were a million albums on back-order. The Dirty Dancing album spent 18 weeks at number 1 on the Billboard 200 album sales charts and went platinum eleven times, selling more than 39 million copies worldwide. It spawned a follow-up multi-platinum album in February 1988, entitled More Dirty Dancing, selling 32 million copies worldwide.

Songs from the album which appeared on the charts included:


The film's huge success had the paradoxical effect of backfiring on some of the participants. Patrick Swayze was routinely parodied in the media, and in 1989, received two nominations for worst actor from the Golden Raspberry awards, for his performances in Next of Kin and Road House. But in 1990, Swayze again had success in Ghost with Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg. Grey, for her part, had a rhinoplasty in the early 1990s, which changed her nose and made her face nearly unrecognizable from her "Baby" character. She was never able to find a role which matched the success that she had in Dirty Dancing. As for the studio, despite the film's huge monetary success, Vestron followed it up with a series of flops, and ran out of money. Vestron's parent company Vestron Inc. went bankrupt in 1990, and was bought out in January 1991 by LIVE Entertainment for $26 million. The rights to Dirty Dancing passed to Artisan Entertainment, and later to Lionsgate.

Jerry Orbach, already known as a successful Broadway actor, continued in different genres. He was the voice of the candelabra "Lumiere" in the 1991 Disney animated film, Beauty and the Beast and then took on his best-known role, detective Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order, which he played from 1992 until his death in 2004. Choreographer Kenny Ortega went on to choreograph other major pictures such as the 1992 Newsies and starting in 2006, the High School Musical series. He also became a director of film and television, including several episodes of Gilmore Girls, in which Dirty Dancing's Kelly Bishop had a starring role.

Various images and lines from the film have worked their way into popular culture. Johnny Castle's line "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" has been used in song lyrics, and was the title of an episode of the TV series Veronica Mars.

While the Mountain Lake Inn still stands in West Virginia, the site where the Lake Lure scenes were filmed at the old Boys Camp are long gone - some due to vandalism and some due to fire. As of 2007, the Kellerman's/Sheldrake Ballroom had burnt down, the staff cabins were gone, the dance rehearsal studio and the Dirty Dancer's hangout were all gone. All that remains of the site are the stairs that Jennifer Grey's character carries a watermelon up. As of 2008, the site has become private property for multi-million dollar lake homes.

Alternate versions

Stage version

The movie was adapted for the stage in 2004 as a musical, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage. Produced by Jacobsen Entertainment for $6.5 million, it was written by Eleanor Bergstein and had the same songs as the film, plus a few extra scenes. Musical direction was by Chong Lim (composer for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney), and the initial production starred Kym Valentine as Baby, and Sydney Dance Company's Josef Brown as Johnny. Although reviews were mixed, the production was a commercial success, selling over 200,000 tickets during its six-month run. It has also had sellout runs in Germany, and in London's West End, where it opened at the Aldwych Theatre on October 23, 2006 with the highest pre-sell in London history, earning £6 million ($US12 million). As of early 2008, over 350,000 people have seen the musical in London, with ticket sales of £40 million ($US80 million), selling out for months in advance. Josef Brown of Australia continues to play the role of Johnny Castle in London, while Georgina Rich made her musical debut as Baby. The show is scheduled to continue its run in London's West End through April 2009, and was scheduled to open in the Netherlands in the city of Utrecht in March 2008.

A New York production is in the planning stage, with the show first starting in other North American cities. It broke box office records in May 2007 for its first such venue, selling $1.8 million on the first day of ticket sales in Toronto, Canada. The production opened on November 15, 2007 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, with an all-Canadian cast. After Toronto, plans are to expand to Chicago in Fall 2008, followed by Boston, Los Angeles and possibly San Francisco before moving to Broadway.

Other versions

Dirty Dancing has appeared in other forms than the stage version. In 1988, a music tour named Dirty Dancing: Live in Concert featuring Bill Medley and Eric Carmen, played 90 cities in three months. Also in 1988, the CBS network launched a Dirty Dancing television series, however with none of the original cast or staff. The series was cancelled after only a few episodes.

In 2004, a sequel to the film was released, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Although not a remake, Havana Nights showcases a similar storyline about an American teenager learning about life through dance, when her family relocates to Havana, Cuba just before the Cuban Revolution. Patrick Swayze was paid $5 million to appear in a cameo role as a dance teacher – considerably more than the $200,000 he earned for the original version.

For the 20th anniversary in 2007, the film was re-released in theatres with additional footage, while the original film version was re-released on DVD with deleted scenes and writer commentary. At the same time, Codemasters released Dirty Dancing: the Video Game. In the United Kingdom the anniversary was marked by a reality TV show based on the film, The time of your life, filmed at the Mountain Lake resort.


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