Summer Classics: "Dirty Dancing" Review

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Spending the summer in a holiday camp with her family, Frances "Baby" Houseman falls in love with the camp's dance instructor Johnny Castle.
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Rating: PG-13
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: August 21, 1987
Directed by: Emile Ardolino
Genre: Drama / Music / Romance

It's 1963, and Daddy's little girl Frances "Baby" Houseman finds herself swept up in a passionate summer romance with Johnny Castle, a dance instructor from a decidedly working-class background. Baby already knows what her life is going to look like. She's going to attend Mount Holyoke College, study the economics of underdeveloped countries, enter the Peace Corps and make her affluent Jewish family proud. Johnny has no ambitions in life -- except the secret one of opening his own dance studio and proving everyone wrong about him. "Dirty Dancing" tells the classic story of a young woman and man from wildly different origins falling in love one summer while they dance to rock and roll.

The movie opens with Baby musing over the events of the summer of 1963 when she and her family are vacationing in the Catskill Mountains at a resort owned by her father's friend Max. It's already clear that the weight of her father's expectations have been on Baby's shoulders since birth as her name is a reference to Frances Perkins, the first woman in the U.S. Cabinet. Baby is initially paired with Max's grandson Neil, who works at the resort as the entertainment director, but Baby has little interest in him. However, Baby takes notice of Johnny, whose lively performance on the dance floor with his partner Penny couldn't be more electrifying or different from Neil. Trying to avoid Neil, Baby encounters Johnny's cousin Billy and witnesses the secret staff party. She notices Johnny, who gives Baby an impromptu dance lesson, shocking her into full awareness for the first time.

As the summer continues, Baby grows closer with the staff, sympathizing in particular with Penny, who confesses that she's pregnant. Baby initially assumes that Johnny is the father, especially since he offers to pay for the abortion, but Penny turns him down, refusing to place the burden of that responsibility on him. Besides, his salary can't cover the cost of the abortion. It's also revealed that the father of her child is Baby's sister's boyfriend, who refuses to assume responsibility because of Penny's working-class background and his own ambitions. Baby asks her father for the money and, trusting her, he agrees. However, the only day Penny can receive the abortion is the day she and Johnny are scheduled to perform or lose their jobs. Baby fills in as Penny's substitute, and the attraction between her and Johnny quickly grows. Johnny and Baby perform, but Baby cannot bring herself to complete the climactic lift of their dance.

Unfortunately, Penny returns from her abortion sick. Baby pleads for her father to help, and he assumes Johnny is responsible. He forbids the two from seeing each other. However, they continue to do so in private and confess their feelings. The two are confronted by their mutual cowardice. Johnny is too afraid of losing his job to stand up for himself in the face of his ignorant employers while Baby cannot bring herself to reveal the relationship to her father and risk disappointing him. Eventually, however, these fears must be confronted when their relationship becomes Johnny's alibi. In order to defend him against the accusation of theft, Baby confesses his whereabouts at the time of the theft -- he was with her. Johnny is fired but returns during the climax of the movie to make a speech about his love for Baby, after which they perform the famous dance scene and lift, symbolizing Baby's full trust in him at last.

"Dirty Dancing" functions as both a romance and a coming-of-age story for Baby. Her father's high expectations are stifling. She doesn't realize the extent of this, though, until she encounters Johnny and is forced to confront not only the realities of his situation but also her father's class prejudices, disillusioning her. Baby might be going to college, but she's unquestionably a child until Johnny's presence sparks a mental puberty in her and causes her to not only discover and embrace her sexuality but to step outside of the confines of childhood. Even Penny's abortion, a reminder of the realities of sex and how relationships between the rich and poor usually end, becomes a part of the metaphor. Undeniably, Johnny is the only character who sees Baby as anything other than a child, forming the basis of Baby's own attraction to him.

The passion of the summer romance and the dirty dancing in question do little to disguise how innocent and romantic "Dirty Dancing" is at heart. A story about overcoming prejudice and lies, the movie is filled with a rough energy that livens up a fairly typical plot.

"Dirty Dancing" is a sweet, fun movie that captures the desperate yearning of teenage love, brimming with idealism and despair. Baby and Johnny are immortal in the minds of the audience, forever caught in that beautiful leap where they loved each other deeply and were able to express it.