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'Dirty Dancing'

By Rita Kempley
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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Hot, hot, hot, hot, hot. "Dirty Dancing" is "Saturday Night Fever" with merengue on top, a "Flashdance" of the Borsch Belt, a razzle-dazzler of a romance set to the sultry sounds of the '60s.

Do you love me? asked that music, and young America said yes, grinding out affirmation in dance as erotic as foreplay. Will you still love me tomorrow? the music asked again. And again the answer was yes, as the dancers touched and arched their necks and teased the night.

In 1963, even the president was sexy -- a grand time to come of age. Take Frances (Baby) Houseman, a 17-year-old Daddy's Girl whose family vacation in the Catskills turns into a torrid rite of passage when she falls for a working-class dance instructor named Johnny Castle. It's a wonderfully corny story, performed exuberantly by Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. When these two get together, you practically have to get out the fire extinguishers.

It was a risky but inspired casting call, for they're as improbable a pair as ever lit up a screen. Grey, daughter of Joel, inherited her father's mischievousness. She's an unusual love interest, with her small Streisand nose and imploring brown eyes and a face as easily read as a children's book. She's showed comedic clout as Ferris Bueller's bratty kid sister, but her dance career had been limited to a Dr Pepper commercial.

Cynthia Rhodes, a leggy Flashdancer, glides far more grandly as Johnny's partner Penny. She's a polished, hard-luck professional who is sidelined early in the story. And Baby volunteers to fill the void. Johnny teaches Baby to merengue, expressing his contempt for this rich kid with provocative badgering. But Baby's a quick study and her awkwardness turns to agility. Then the whole movie becomes an excuse to watch this pair move, their gorgeous bodies caressed by intimate cinematography.

Swayze, who studied ballet with the Joffrey, takes the lead. A dark blond with a heavy, sensual face, he moves with macho grace, a cross of Brando and Balanchine. From the neck up, he looks like a guy who could fix your carburetor; from the neck down he has the body of an Olympian.

This odd couple dance to Kenny Ortega's choreography all movie long, so don't expect a lot of dialogue. It's supplementary to Ortega's love-story-in-motion, an abandoned rock waltz with dips we haven't seen since silent movie sheiks. The sound track, with its black and Latin roots, is a pre-Beatles me'lange meant to presage the decade to come. That was the context for the screenplay, according to Eleanor Bergstein, the coproducer and screen writer, who bases the movie on her own dirty dancing days.

She sets this story at Kellerman's, a summer camp for the Scarsdale crowd, where doctors' daughters are entertained by Ivy League waiters -- potential husbands. "Keep your fingers out of the water, the hair out of the soup and show the daughters a good time. Even the dogs," barks host Max Kellerman (a deft spoof by Jack Weston). The busboys, dishwashers and dance people live in social apartheid in quarters off-limits to guests. When Baby crosses the line and sees the staff in an orgy of dance, she's never daddy's girl again.

Jerry Orbach plays Baby's father, a compassionate family man who's losing his best girl. And what pathos this pro brings to this pivotal role, despite the occasional soppy line. Mr. Houseman turns to his elder daughter Lisa (promising Jane Bruckner), a princess whose fashion sense and inflated ego contrast with Baby, the brainy favorite who plans to save the world as a Peace Corps volunteer. Of course, in the arms of her Pittsburgh pug, Baby learns what an armchair altruist she really is. And Johnny, destined for a career as a house painter, gains a whole new upwardly mobile outlook on life thanks to Baby's encouragement. It's an endearing romance, with an ending to rival a "Rocky" finale.

There's a lot of growing up in this feverish fairy tale, a "Sleeping Beauty" with bagels. It's precisely directed by Emile Ardolino, who won an Oscar for his documentary "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancing." He, too, is a man who makes you feel like dancing. Dirty Dancing is at area theaters and rated PG-13 because it includes adult situations and profanity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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