Dirty Dancing (1987): Ardolino’s Enjoyable Musical, Starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey

It may be a tad too nostalgic and predictable, but Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing is nonetheless a well-produced and extremely enjoyable zeitgeist picture, which also managed to deliver a poignant message about the issue of abortion, particularly among young working-class women.


Lazy loaded image
Cynthia Rhodes and Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing VESTRON PICTURES/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION


Set in 1963 at a Catskill Mountain resort hotel, the saga, based on Eleanor Bergstein’s memoirs, relates a coming-of-age story of a Jewish princess named Frances (“Baby”) Houseman (Jennifer Grey), who tastes romance and independence for the first time in her life upon meeting Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) a sexy dancer, who performs there with his troupe.

Intelligent and sensitive but inherently insecure, Baby gets quickly bored with the company of her parents and the daily routines of the place. She nonetheless begins to explore the lifestyle of the employees by entering into their off-limits areas.  Baby first witnesses the hotel staff engage in “dirty dancing,” with their bodies rubbing against each other while dancing to pulsating music.

The resorts’ management and older inhabitants are familiarly obnoxious and the film encourages Jewish stereotypes of yesteryear, such as the aggressive business owner, the responsible and moralistic father doctor (Jerry Orbach), the loyal, conservative wife (Kelly Bishop), the shy and nebbish daughter.

Dirty Dancing‘s cultural legacy may be most strongly associated with Johnny and Baby’s chemistry and sweet dance moves. But at the heart of Eleanor Bergstein’s script is a clear and unapologetic argument for reproductive choice.

The drama sees a working-class girl named Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) left in pain after a botched back-alley abortion: “The guy had a dirty knife and a folding table,” her friend says. “I could hear her screaming in the hallway.”

However, Penny’s choice to abort is never questioned, not even by Baby’s strict father, a doctor who helps her heal afterward. Instead, the film lays the blame–at least implicitly–for her socio-economic status and legal barriers, obstacles that kept Penny from a better and safer procedure.

The subplot of Johnny’s partner, Penny Johnson getting knocked up and needing money for abortion, was relevant in the late 1980s–and may be more relevant even today.

It not only serves a crucial plot point, but it also allows for Baby to mature rather quickly as an open-minded and sexual young femme.

Despite textual flaws, “Dirty Dancing” captures the zeitgeist of the early 1960s, when youth could still be naïve, innocent, and idealistic (Baby is an activist), just before the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War, which launched an era of cynicism and distrust.

Partly due to the top-selling soundtrack, the movie was hugely popular at the box-office, grossing over $65 million.  Patrick Swayze, who dances and moves more excitingly than he acts, became a star for a few years, but Jennifer, daughter of Oscar winner Joel (“Cabaret”) Grey, could not segue to other major roles, and this still is her best-known part.

Oscar Alert


Oscar Nominations: 1


Original Song: I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” music by Franke Previte, John DeNicola, and Doonald Markowitz, lyrics by Franke Previte.


Oscar Awards: 1




Oscar Context


The other nominees were: “Cry Freedom” from Cry Freedom, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from Mannequin, “Shakedown” from Beverly Hills Cop II, and “Storybook Love” from The Princess Bride. 


End Note


The movie later became a stage musical




Produced by Linda Gottlieb

Director: Emile Ardolino

Screenplay: Eleanor Bergstein

Camera: Jeff Jur

Editor: Peter C. Frank

Design: David Chapman

Costumes: Hilary Rosenfeld

Music: John DeNicola, Donald Markowitz, John Morris, Franke Previte


Running Time: 96 Minutes




Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey)

Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze)

Jake Houseman (Jerry Orbach)

Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes)

Max Kellerman (Jack Weston)

Neil Kellerman (Lonny Price)