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Why 'Dirty Dancing' is more than a teen flick

Courtney Tenz
August 17, 2017

Thirty years after its release, "Dirty Dancing" about a teen summer romance is as popular as ever, with a recent TV remake and sold-out musicals around the world. Here are 10 things you didn't know about the film.

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey on the ground in Dirty Dancing
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Artisan Entertainment

When "Dirty Dancing" was released 30 years ago, few would have predicted it would become a global sensation. Yet even before its 20th anniversary, the box office hit sold 10 million DVDs; it had already become the first film to sell over a million copies on home video.

Its record-breaking doesn't end there. A musical version of the story had record advanced ticket sales before its London debut in 2006 and in 2007, and a Sky survey listed it as the number one film women liked to watch over and over.

Film experts have been left scratching their heads: What exactly is the enduring appeal of "Dirty Dancing"?

In an ode to the film appropriately titled,"'Dirty Dancing' is the greatest movie of all time," Irin Carmon writes on Jezebel.com about what repeatedly draws her back to the 97-minute flick, set in 1963, long before her birth. "It's a great, brave movie for women."

"Jennifer Grey's Baby is a strong-minded idealistic young woman with her own interests, who doesn't have to change herself to get the guy even as she undergoes a transformation from gawky wallflower to confident onstage dancer," she writes.

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Perhaps that is why so many women can relate to the movie - it shows its heroine as being simultaneously average and extraordinary. And as a woman who can call the shots in her romance.

More than mere romance

Cynthia Rhodes, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing
Although only alluded to, abortion is a central plot point in the movieImage: Imago

The, as Carmon puts it, "ugly-ducking gets the guy" plotline, may have helped the movie gain commercial success, but "Dirty Dancing" is more than just a coming-of-age story or a teenage summer romance. It is at its heart a look at adolescence in 1960s America, replete with the class differences exemplified by the leading characters.

The daughter of a doctor, Baby is on a family holiday at the upscale Kellerman's Resort when she meets and falls in love with Johnny, a dancer from the working class who's been hired to entertain the guests.

Falling in love with someone from the wrong family is a common refrain in stories of teenage romance dating all the way back to "Romeo and Juliet" - a trope that led some critics, including Roger Ebert, to shoot down the movie before it even hit theaters.

Yet the film is more than what it may appear to be on the surface. At the heart of the movie, screenwriter and producer Eleanor Bergstein has said, was a subtle allusion to abortion that became so intertwined in the plot that it couldn't be removed.

Tackling the tough topics

Though not explicitly called out by name, abortion is central to the plot as it revolves around a dancer becoming pregnant and choosing to terminate the pregnancy by visiting a traveling abortionist - a procedure that was still illegal in the US in 1963.

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That wasn't something that went over well initially, including among studio executives and sponsors. As Bergstein recalled in an interview in "Bust" magazine: "The studio came to me and said, [okay] Eleanor, we'll pay for you to go back into the editing room and take the abortion out. And I had always known this day would come, and that I could then say, 'Honestly, I would be happy to, but if I take it out the whole story collapses. There's no reason for Baby to help Penny, for her to dance or fall in love with Johnny. None of these things will happen without the abortion, so I simply can't do it, even though I'd be so happy to do what you want.'"

Musical stars on stage dancing
Musical versions of the movie have sold record numbers of ticketsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen

That was something that Bergstein recalled as being important for her, despite the movie being made in 1987, more than a decade after the US Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal.

"Well, I don't know that it will always be [legal]," she told "Bust magazine. "And very young women didn't remember a time before Roe v. Wade, so I hoped they would learn not to take it for granted. I hoped they would know what it was like before."

A political plot for an everyday audience

While Bergstein may have been intentional in maintaining political undertones throughout, the movie was not so political as to turn off audiences. Many of those who watch the movie repeatedly do so for its ability to appeal to the everyman (and woman).

A summer in the Catskills, music and dancing. Overcoming obstacles. Learning to fly, being free of your family. It's a classic coming-of-age that keeps audiences entertained. Or, as star Patrick Swayze once said, "It is a movie that will not die."