One of my favorite ’80s movies popped up on TV the other day, and because the humidity was brutal and it was a lazy Sunday afternoon, I decided to rewatch “Dirty Dancing” for the hundredth time. This time, however, I really devoted myself to examining the film for more than just a dance flick.
As I watched Jennifer Grey learn all the hip thrusts, moves, and other kinds of pelvic sorcery that Patrick Swayze was teaching, I noticed something else as well. Though many people might see this as just another chick flick where a girl meets a guy and they fall in love even though it’s an odd or forbidden match, what I saw was completely different from what I thought was there before. Dirty Dancing was, from my eyes, a movie about a girl finding passion, maybe for the first time in her life, and the struggle to not only immerse herself in it, but to defend her love for it no matter the cost.
Frances “Baby” Houseman’s first lines of the movie set the scene up perfectly, not just for her but for the tone overall. “That was the summer of 1963—when everybody called me Baby, and it didn’t occur to me to mind.” That right there shows a girl who seems to be drifting through life and is OK with whatever reservations or opinions are thrown on her.
Even if you missed her narration in the beginning, the first five minutes should do the trick of showing how Baby doesn’t object too much, unless it’s her sister being a brat, and nods her head whenever her father says she’s going to do this or be that. That doesn’t mean, though, that she is completely silent. She states clearly how she wants to join the Peace Corps and study economics in college, all in confidence but with the smallest ounce of boredom displayed across her face.
In the moments we see Baby doing activities around Kellerman’s, the vacation camp her family visits in the summer, it was easy to tell that she wasn’t living for herself. Nothing truly gave her joy.
Instead, everything she did was done how her parents wanted their Baby to live. A good example of this is when she gives in and dances with Neil, even though she can’t stand his stupid, creepy grin and how he talks about how he’s the “catch of the county.”
However, it’s in Neil’s uncomfortable presence that she sees Johnny Castle and Penny Johnson, the “dance people” whose job it is to entertain and keep the guests happy. What Baby discovers, besides how well they can dance, is how much she wishes to be able to do that. It’s an inkling at first, but when she helps Billy, Johnny’s cousin, take watermelons up toward the staff hall, she sees the other kinds of dancing: the “dirty” dancing. People are moving solely based on where their hips are directed and there are so many people intertwined with one another, moving and grooving to the music.
It’s clear to see how interested Baby is, even if she looks insanely shy and uncomfortable at first. Who wouldn’t be? With all these people dancing so rhythmically, it almost seems wrong to look at such a thing, but to Baby it seems to feel right and her eyes can’t look away.
For those who have seen the movie before, you might say that the main plot of the movie starts off because of Baby’s crush on Johnny, and though it’s hard to deny the fact (I mean come on, it’s Patrick Swayze), I still believe that her desire to dance was the real reason the story kicks off. Not only that, but also her sheer will to not be told she’s wrong or she can’t do something.
When Johnny makes a joke that she should learn the routine, she dismisses it at first, thinking that it’s not something she could possibly do—not because she can’t learn, but because maybe it’s not what she’s supposed to do. It’s only when Johnny nails in that “she cannot do it” that her determination pushes away any kind of thought about what her family might think. It’s one of the best parts of the movie, seeing her face change and then automatically transitions into her dancing and stepping on Johnny. It also happens to lead to one of my favorite movie montages of all time, which shows all the frustration, sweat, concentration, and struggles she endures just to prove something.
That, I think, is the main reason why I love “Dirty Dancing” and Baby’s character so much. Though the romance between her and Johnny is sweet, albeit rushed like most summer romances, what I find much more rewarding is the fact that she achieved something with the end goal of helping someone else. That in itself not only shows the kind of person she is, someone who is understanding, helpful and willing to do anything, but also drives the point home that sometimes doing things you are afraid of can lead to finding something you’re passionate about.
If she hadn’t done what she did, Baby never would have stood up to her father and been honest about the complexities of their relationship. She would have never learned that facing your fears is part of life and that hiding in a corner was not how she should spend her life. Nobody puts Baby in a corner.
Most importantly, though, I’m sure Frances or Baby or whatever she liked to be called, would have never been able to get up on stage in front of all kinds of people and danced her heart out. Not because she was told to do it or because it was expected of her, but because she wanted to do it. Because she loved to do it.
Watching this movie again gave me lots of feelings about what I’m passionate about and it’s awesome to see that nearly 30 years later, the message of being true to who you are and what you love is still prevalent today. I learned while doing research for this article that a remake for “Dirty Dancing” is in the works and will star Abigail Breslin as Baby. Though I can’t imagine Breslin as anyone else but that sweet little girl in “Little Miss Sunshine,” I wish her all the luck in portraying this amazing female character.
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