Dance-Movie Derby: Dirty Dancing
As I have said, I have a deep affinity for dance movies. I believe that it’s important to apply the skills of criticism and analysis to the things we love, rather than trying to mold our love around the criticism of others who are unceremoniously in charge of what is “good” and what is “art.” You can’t cement good or art. You can only discuss success and failure of intent.
To begin the Derby I want to examine what I consider to be one of the best dance movies of all time. I would also argue that it’s a very successful film in that it achieves what it sets out to achieve, handles problems, avoids extreme pitfalls, and is more complex than people give it credit for being.
Dirty Dancing depicts a meaningful relationship between two people separated by culture and socio-economic status. So, when you throw dance in as the medium through which they can connect, you have a classic dance movie. What is especially unique about Dirty Dancing is that the dancing is not just an arbitrary bridge, but rather a physical foundation for the characters to find themselves.
Baby is an articulate and intelligent young woman. Her anxieties in the film aren’t about her intellect or her future, but rather about her personhood in the world. By meeting Johnny and the staff kids at Kellerman’s she is suddenly aware of a new world; and the dirty dancing they do defines that world as a sexual/physical one. So, basically, I think Baby’s anxieties in the film are over her own sexual identity. Johnny really is a sexual beacon in her life. She wants to access his world, participate in his world, so as to have some hot-hot dancing sex to Cry to Me.
Now, you could argue that in a way Baby uses Johnny. This is definitely addressed in the scene where Baby and Johnny lie together post coitus and Baby suddenly glances up at her lithe lover and asks “Have you had many women?” Johnny’s sappy monologue poses the possibility that the male lead in this film is in fact a sex object. Is that feminist or some shit?
I wouldn’t call it feminist, obviously, but I don’t feel like writing about it. Though, you can knock yourself out on it in the comments.
Anyway, I don’t believe that Johnny is in fact meant to be an object in the film, but rather the symbol I mentioned earlier. He is a symbol of Baby’s sexual awakening. And perhaps he’s a weird success story ala Horatio Alger and pelvic thrusting. Through his honesty with Baby and eventually with the arbitrators of her world, he garners respect, admiration, and the further attention from the woman he cares for. Kind of a classic American up-by-the-bootstraps story, eh? Albeit with dance-fucking, unwanted pregnancy, and a badass soundtrack.
But before he achieves all that, Johnny initially rejects and sneers at Baby. He finds her attempts to access his world laughable and naive; even going so far to insult her attempt to help Penny procure her back-alley abortion (which should be insulted, but for being naive rather than being pathetic). Johnny doesn’t exactly whip out his boner on the dance floor as soon as he meets the lovely young daughter of a doctor. He is instead hostile, ridiculing. He is both the bridge (his penis!!!) and the wall between Baby and the sexy modern world.
Now, Baby eventually does get access to this cool world! I do not think it is exclusively through her goodness or her humanitarianism. This is supported by the utter failure of Penny’s abortion and the necessity of outside help from Lenny–I mean Dr. Houseman (RIP Jerry Orbach). Baby gets access to this world, her sexuality, when she asserts herself.
During her rehearsals with hip-roll Swayze she finally defends herself against his constant berating and impatience: “I’m doing this all to save your ass when what I really want to do is drop you on it.” She stands hands firmly on hips, effectively closing the gap between them. He no longer has authority over her. In fact, they need her. This, I think, is when they can first become friends. Following this fight Johnny suggests they “get out of here.” They remove themselves from Kellerman’s and head out into nature. In response to Johnny busting out his car window Baby exclaims “You’re wild!” And they share a laugh together.
A fight, a laugh, and an escape to nature. I would say something about Wordsworth and the clarity of the natural world but I hate Wordsworth. In reality, however, the two kids can finally really dance with each while they balance on a log, a bridge, two worlds.
There is something to be said for a traumatic incident spurring people to get it on, and Penny’s near-death experience is no exception. Johnny and Baby first united in order to save Penny. Her predicament is one exclusive to their world of sex. Baby has to note the dangers of the world of sex, and must in turn use her world’s skills in educational analysis to negotiate the truths of sexuality. I believe this is why she asks Johnny if he’s had many women. In a way it’s just practical safe sex; you share with your partner.
Now I’m sure a lot of people would tell me I’m over-thinking this film and all this stuff isn’t there, but I would put it to you to prove me wrong. I am working with the film on its own merits. The plot is more effectively woven together than a lot of people realize. For instance, I have heard people complain about the final dance sequence, how unrealistic it is.
Yet it is completely realistic! It was completely substantiated! When Neil busts in on Johnny and Baby getting cute at a “dance lesson” Johnny describes a new step he’s been working on with the staff kids, noting it has a Cuban rhythm. Though Neil rejects Johnny’s new ideas for the final dance of the season, his idea will be utilized at the end of the film.
Baby urges Johnny to stand up for himself, to “fight the boss man.” While Johnny makes valid points about the issues with accessing Neil’s, Baby’s, her father’s world, it’s totally possible for him in the context of the film. If Baby can have sexual access to him, then he can have social access to her.
At the end of the film, in their final dance, Johnny has the barrier of his job removed for him. Baby’s honesty does not ruin him as she laments, but instead kicks his ass in gear. He’s going to do his “own kind of dancing with a great partner.” They rock the stage, varying their previous mambo routine. Johnny leaps out into the audience (and their world) to lead the staff kids to freedom with his Cuban rhythm and a soul dance!
So…why the fuck did they put Baby in the corner? Or did somebody put her in the corner? Was it the literal corner? Symbolic? Social? Archetypal? There was a corner and she was in it…so what does that famous line really mean?
I could argue the obvious about the corner in which her parents put her, the corner in which she was put regarding proving Johnny’s innocence, the corner while within she has access to neither world she’s found at Kellerman’s. But, really, I don’t think such a line requires obsessive analysis or substantiating. If you don’t like it, I won’t convince you with a formal argument, and if you do like it you don’t need convincing of its merit.
The fact remains the line is transcendent. It’s about more than Baby. It’s about all of us who want to dance and fuck.
It’s about not repressing people as they grow up, as they change. Dirty Dancing is set in 1963: “Before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came…” and before kids wanted “trips to Europe…twenty-two countries in three days.” Everything is on the cusp of the radical. “It all seems to be ending” Max Kellerman laments.
With Baby finally free from the corner, with Robbie the creep revealed, with Johnny exonerated, and with the main floor covered with people grinding so hard they’ll need back-alley abortions, the film is resolved.
Baby and Johnny never say they love each other in this film. Didn’t know that, did you? They never do because they don’t have to. This film isn’t about language, words, labels. It’s about the tactile yet intangible. It’s motherfuckin’ Dirty Dancing.