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Dirty Dancing (1987)

Review

Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing‘s initial success in 1987 was probably a mixture of factors – Patrick Swayze’s anointment as a sensitive hunk, the fact that the movie’s sweetness was a change of pace from the loud, expensive blockbusters that dominated the landscape at the time and a pop soundtrack of golden oldies and then-current songs that flooded radio stations.

However, after watching the movie recently, the key to the movie’s limitless charm is revealed to be due to the presence of Jennifer Grey. Without her performance, the movie is a flop, Bill Medley isn’t cool again and, well, Swayze and Grey drift into irrelevance a year or two earlier.

Set at a posh Catskills resort in the summer of 1963, soon-to-be college freshman Baby (Grey) and her family are set to get some relaxation in. However, volleyball and lame dances don’t appeal to the worldly Baby. Out looking for some excitement, she stumbles upon the staff’s lodge, where much to her surprise, she sees a ton of young people set free of familial restraints. They’re grinding, they’re sweating, they’re dirty dancing.

The hero of this pack of well-toned hoofers is Johnny (Swayze), the resort dance instructor who plays by his own rules, but can’t get anyone else to play along. Baby falls instantly for him, and she sees her chance to get closer to him and that rebellion when his lifelong dance partner, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), suffers an unwanted pregnancy and botched abortion.

Though Johnny is a two-step taskmaster, he and Baby quickly become close. She gives him courage and confidence; he gives her the strength to break free from her family ties. Despite the syrupy dramatics, Dirty Dancing is still immensely appealing and Grey is the reason. Yes, I know Swayze became huge because of this movie, but I think it was more because of his physical presence. We all know he’s good looking, that women will fall for him like lemmings off of a cliff. But he has to fall for Grey, who is adorable, but certainly not a beauty queen. Most importantly, the audience has to buy them as a couple.

Grey doesn’t drip with teen sensuality or flash a come hither stare. She giggles inappropriately, she curses herself for not getting dance steps right. By embodying every awkward young adult emotion about falling in love, she makes you want the romance to work. In the process, she also validates all the soap opera theatrics that revolve around her. Credit must also be given to the late Emile Ardolino, who directs the intimate scenes with Swayze and Grey with a seductive restraint that borders on the unbearable – check out the bedroom slow dance. The movie eschews sex and teenage tomfoolery for real emotions and comes out of the corner dancing up a storm.

Whether the upcoming Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights does that is anyone’s guess.

Now on a special edition, 2-disc DVD, Dirty Dancing includes a bazillion features: an intro by Grey (it’s seven seconds long!), commentary from the writer, commentary from much of the supporting crew and cast, plus endless, endless interviews and tribute featurettes. Swayze’s nowhere to be found (what, Black Dog made him too famous?), but the trivia track is good for any number of drinking game permutations.

The new 20th Anniversary Edition DVD features mostly the same extras, sans Grey’s seven-second intro.