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Nobody puts Baby in a corner

Patrick Swayze died and took the early girlhoods of the Western world with him. When his name is mentioned, hetero men still roll their eyes and swear they’ll never watch the film; hetero women roll their eyes, but for a different reason. Some of it is about the obvious: tight black trousers go a long way towards getting your message across.

But some of it isn’t about the obvious. Anyone who’s ever worked in a bar, a restaurant, a nightclub, a strip joint, a classroom, gets Dirty Dancing. The film is a polemic on class relations, and what happens when the swell of discontent of a servile underclass washes over the shoes of the people shouting orders and waving their wallets. It is a movie about disillusionment, about growing up, and about the discovery that adulthood may be less about liberation than it is about responsibility. But it is also a movie about what it means to keep yourself sane when your life is relentless grinding, banal, difficult, brutal. It’s not too much of a stretch to apply the theory to miners, say, or domestic workers – anyone who knows what it is to live below the line.

The devolution of social power Dirty Dancing documents is unconsciously engineered by Baby, the narrator and protagonist who is the bridge between two worlds: the underworld of the people whose lives begin once the sun sets — the day-jobbers, the wage labourers, the people to whom she would like to belong — and the people from whom she comes — the doctors and lawyers and unironic wearers of golfing trousers.

The medium that allows her to be the bridge is, of course, the dancing. And dirty ii certainly is. In being introduced to the world of night, sex and the ostensible freedom that these things promise, Baby also faces the attendant problems that night, sex and ostensible freedom tend to bring in their wake.

The dance sequences begin in the studio, continue on the tree trunk across the river (and in the water), and end on the bed of the dancing master.

Or do they? The mistake that those eye-rolling hetero men make is thinking that Dirty Dancing is about Swayze. He is only the conduit for Baby’s terrifying, exhilarating discovery that everything she knows is wrong: life is not fair, self-respect counts, and People Like Us can be bastards. (Consider the villains of the piece: the middle-aged lush who pays the waiters and dancers for sex, and Robbie, who impregnates his working-class girlfriend — tantamount to social homicide in the cloistered atmosphere of the Fifties — and then abandons her for law school.)

The real ending of the Dance is on the stage of the meta-production at the end of the movie, the gormless end-of-season finale directed by the hotelman’s son, who was initially earmarked as suitable for Baby. It is here that her parents understand that her disobedience is meaningful, and it is here that her two worlds briefly merge. We understand — as she does — that this is temporary, and that she will have to leave the resort and go home again, where there will be no more dancing. We’re talking about nothing less than enlightenment.

It took Patrick Swayze in tight black trousers to spread the word. That isn’t a bad legacy to leave.


  • Diane Awerbuck

    Diane Awerbuck's first novel, Gardening at Night, struck it lucky. She writes textbooks and fiction (most recently, Cabin Fever) and reviews books for the Sunday Times. Her doctorate, The Spirit and the Letter: Warblogs, Trauma and the Public Sphere, is due out in 2012, along with another novel.