Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing

One cannot truly grasp the nuances of a movie, especially one that deals with social issues, unless she understands the times in which it was set. Dirty Dancing takes place in the summer of 1963. It was a time of transition in the USA.

That summer in an act of racial violence, four Negro children were killed in a church bombing in Alabama, an act that contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act; it was the year The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan was published, sparking the Women’s Liberation Movement. It was the year Bob Dylan released 'The Times They Are A-Changin’.'

Dirty Dancing captures that moment in time when the people of a society stop and look beyond their own needs, desires, and preconceived notions to see the unjust experiences endured by others. This moment in time is expressed by the phrase coined by feminists, 'the personal becomes political.'

Like a person falling in love, it’s that moment when the awareness of the other stops her cold in her tracks and she forgets herself and feels energized, curious, and changed.

In 1960 Senator John F. Kennedy, future president of the United States, challenged college students to volunteer a portion of their lives to providing assistance to the people of developing nations. Less than a year later the Peace Corps became a reality with a mission to 'promote peace and world friendship.'

Talented, resourceful young people with an optimistic belief in their ability to make positive contributions to those less fortunate accepted the challenge to join the organization upon graduation from college. Dirty Dancing tells the fictional story of the summer vacation experience of Frances 'Baby' Houseman, one such optimistic, young woman.

'Big Girls Don’t Cry' is playing on the radio as the Houseman family pulls into the secluded, mountain resort. Kellerman’s Resort employs white, well-to-do college students as waiters. A talented, but financially struggling couple serves as Latin dance instructors. White, Negro, and Hispanic young people fill the other staff positions. Accurately depicting the times, Dirty Dancing displays the different social/economic class distinctions of these workers and the prejudices and resentments that engenders.

The waiters are accepted as equals to management and guests and are encouraged in their work and aspirations; the others are not. The waiters are allowed to spend time with the daughters of the guests; Mr. Kellerman orders the male dance instructor to stay away from the daughters.

The staff’s living quarters are strictly off limits to resort guests. But Frances 'Baby' Houseman (Jennifer Grey) ignores the rule and follows the music up the hill.

The song 'Do You Love Me' invites Baby into a world of aliveness and energy like none she has ever experienced. Although mesmerized by the staff’s dirty dancing, Baby declines an invitation to join the suggestive swaying. But soon her shoulders rock, her hips roll, and her feet refuse to remain still.

The rock and roll music of the early 60s was spawned from rockabilly, Negro spirituals, and rhythm and blues. The songs of the crooners had become oldies; the Beatles had yet to launch the invasion of British rock and roll onto the American music scene.

In this era, rock and roll music expressed the combination of energy, angst, and longings feared by parents and authority figures. Bear in mind that the rock and roll in the staff’s quarters was not the twist that was forbidden at school dances around the country that year. This was rhythmic dancing - up close and personal.

Johnny and Penny, the talented and handsome dance instructors, arrive to take center stage. When Johnny (Patrick Swayze) looks into Baby’s eyes and beckons her, she steps into the dance.

One evening soon afterwards, Baby finds Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) crying in a darkened corner of the restaurant kitchen. She is pregnant by Robbie, a waiter and medical student, whom she mistakenly thought cared for her. When Baby beseeches him to help, he callously states, 'some people count, some people don’t.'

Most pregnant women (definitely unmarried ones) were routinely dismissed from their jobs at that time in history. Surely, no visibly pregnant woman could hope to be hired for a job for which she was unfamiliar. Birth control pills had become available to married women the year before, but the legalization of abortion was a decade away.

Penny has no family to help her. Penny has learned that a doctor who performs abortions will be in the area for one day the next week. Johnny, her long-time friend, doesn’t have enough money for the procedure. Besides, they are contracted to dance at a nearby resort that same evening.

This turn of events sets Baby into motion. By lying to her father, she secures the money for the abortion. Baby and Penny convince a reluctant Johnny that Baby can learn the steps and fill in for Penny on stage. Dance practice becomes Baby’s devoted pastime.

Johnny and Baby’s dancing debut is a success and a spine-tingling adventure for Baby. But their joy is checked when they return and find Penny in severe pain from the hands of a butcher. She refuses to go to a hospital. Baby runs for her father.

Dr. Houseman takes pride in Baby’s dedication to liberal causes. But he is surprised and disappointed with Baby’s involvement in this incident. She apologizes. He tells her to have nothing more to do with 'those people.'

That night alone in his room Johnny admits that he allowed the rich, bored, female guests (women suffering from the feminist mystique) to use him, to buy him, for their own pleasure. Johnny admits that he admires Baby’s courage. He remarks, 'I’ve never known anybody like you. You look at the world and think you can make it better.'

She replies, 'I’m scared of everything, scared of what I saw; I’m scared of what I did, of who I am.' Baby has learned that in this dance of life an innate eagerness to help is not enough. There are no easy solutions to the problems of prejudice, exploitation, and unwanted pregnancy.

But what frightens her more is the possibility of walking away and losing the intensity of her newfound liveliness. Baby says that, most of all, she is 'scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel with you.' They dance to 'Cry to Me' and the dirty dancing becomes a prelude to more intimate moves. This time it is Baby who, with tenderness, beckons.

Neil, Mr. Kellerman’s grandson, who has eyes for Baby, wants to change the dance routine at the summer’s grand finale performance. Johnny suggests a new dance he has been perfecting. Neil arrogantly follows his grandfather’s insulting managerial style when he reminds Johnny that he controls the program and the employment options in this establishment. Neil insists on his own uninspired dance sequence. Johnny acquiesces.

It is this 'us versus them' attitude, this sense of privilege and superiority that causes women (and sometimes men) to become abandoned sexual playthings. It is this attitude that causes many workers’ wages to remain below livable standards, health care to remain unavailable to a large percentage of the population, and causes many people to miss the opportunities for realizing their true intellectual or artistic potential - all factors in Penny’s decision to seek an abortion.

Baby wants Johnny to stand up for himself, give some push back to this type of treatment and fight harder for his ideas. Johnny needs the job and the promise of a return engagement the next summer.

Meanwhile, Baby’s older sister, Lisa, has been flirting with Robbie - with her father’s blessings. She confides in Baby that she has decided to 'go all the way' with Robbie. Baby tries to talk her out of the idea but refuses to break her confidence with Penny.

Late at night Lisa sneaks out of her parents’ cabin to join Robbie. But the goings and comings at the staff cabins set up a chain of events that get Johnny unjustly accused of a crime.

Baby must make a courageous stand that proves her dedication to the cause of justice but risks her reputation. Afterwards, she and Johnny say goodbye to the music of 'She’s Like The Wind,' written and sung by Patrick Swayze and Wendy Frazer. But the story doesn’t end there.

Johnny was correct when he told Baby that she has what it takes to make a difference in this world. She treated the instructors as equals, accepted their problems as her own, encouraged their talent, and inspired Johnny to act on his own behalf. This led her father and the management of Kellerman’s to glimpse the worth of these talented, young people.

The proof of this change comes to the accompaniment of the Oscar winning song for Best Music, Original Song, '(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.'

The film’s screenplay was written by Eleanor Bergstein; the dances were choreographed by Kenny Ortega. Its popularity over the decades may be due to the fact that it engages the viewers’ emotions more than their intellect. Jennifer Grey’s sensational portrayal of Baby as enlightened, yet one who expresses youthful innocence and vitality, is the catalyst that holds the plot, the message, and the pulse of the movie together.

Dirty Dancing bears witness to some of the social issues of its time. Without addressing the moral controversy of abortion, it shows how these issues affected Penny’s situation. Baby represents the voice of change and the hope for greater acceptance and equality.

Like real life, the story is told to the backdrop of awesome music - music that makes your shoulders rock, your hips roll, and your feet refuse to remain still.

by for www.femalefirst.co.uk
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