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'Dirty Dancing'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 21, 1987


Emile Ardolino
Jennifer Grey;
Patrick Swayze;
Cynthia Rhodes;
Jerry Orbach;
Jack Weston
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent
Original Song

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Eleanor Bergstein's script for "Dirty Dancing" aims for that post-Ikeinterlude before the mid-'60s storm -- pre-protest, pre-Beatles, pre-JFK assassination. Big girls didn't cry and pop culture was still Harry Belafonte and "Oklahoma!"

But there was a countercultural outlet for the frustrated, other than re-viewing "Rebel Without a Cause" and "The Wild One." It was a thing called dirty dancing, performed far from parental eyes; a rite of stylized sleaze, where you bumped, rubbed and agitated against your spontaneous partner to the music of Otis Redding, the Contours and others.

"Dirty Dancing," directed by Emile Ardolino, uses a Catskills resort as the microcosmic venue to portray this subculture. A liberal Jewish family (father, mother, two daughters) arrives at Kellerman's Mountain House for the annual ritual of organized entertainment -- cards, archery, door prizes and mambo dancing. But the items on the activities board for smart daughter "Baby" Frances will include dirty dancing, witnessing an abortion and love for a blue-collar gentile. Baby (played with ugly duckling grace by Jennifer Grey -- Joel's daughter), about to join the Peace Corps, plunges in and comes out different; especially after falling for dance instructor Johnny (Patrick Swayze).

Unfortunately, the idea for "Dirty Dancing" exceeds the execution. As a study of counterculture, Baby's coming of age, the last gasp of Kennedy's Camelot, class differences or a message about standing up for your friends, "Dancing" is rather lightweight -- coming off like those TV dramas where some kid learns that making the team or being popular ain't everything.

Baby borrows money from Dad without telling him it's for camp dancer Penny's (Cynthia Rhodes) abortion. Dad (Jerry Orbach), a doctor, finds out the hard way, when he's asked to complete the botched job, and his liberal outlook is tested to the core. Later, Baby has to speak up for Johnny (wrongly accused of lifting money). But to do so she has to reveal she slept with him.

The film shines mainly in the sheer sweaty joy of dirty dancing (Kenny Ortega's choreography). Swayze's movements are highly trained, muscular and sexy. His dances with first partner Cynthia Rhodes are exhilarating. And, as the tragic blue-collar dance instructor/gigolo who teaches steps on the floor and between the sheets, he has a certain "West Side Story" poignance.

But the dancing suddenly gets anachronistically updated to "Solid Gold." The dance finale between Gray and Swayze, although an obvious crowd-pleaser, is performed to a contemporary song clearly intended for the charts, which blows the period feel right off the dance floor. And the story resolves itself all too conveniently in that final scene -- the loose ends are tied up, generations are bridged, father makes up with daughter, and everything is solved, as if this were another episode of "Fame."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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