The Right Moves

Dirty Dancing is best enjoyed as a communal celebration

Patrick Swayze lifts Jennifer Grey in Lake Lure, the scene from Dirty Dancing that will get its yearly redux this month at the annual festival.

Do you remember seeing Dirty Dancing for the first time? I do. I saw it in a theater in Asheville with several other sixth graders, when I was 11 years old. Parents hand-waved away the PG-13 rating because the film had been shot locally (in Lake Lure) and we were all less than two degrees of separation, via dance school or homeroom, from at least one person who had been cast in the crowd scenes.  

We reveled in our personal connections, but we also loved the movie. We loved the soundtrack. We loved the dancing. We loved star Jennifer Grey’s spiral-permed hair, a fresh look in 1987 (never mind that the story is set in 1963). We loved the thrill of what we believed to be a very grown-up love story playing out on the screen before us. We watched the climactic number, as Johnny (Patrick Swayze) lifted Baby (Grey) over his head in a perfectly choreographed dance lift, and thought, This must be what it’s like to fall in love.

Written by Eleanor Bergstein and loosely based on her own childhood, Dirty Dancing follows the summertime travails of 17-year-old, JFK-loving Frances “Baby” Houseman, an ambitious, affluent teenager spending the summer of ’63 with her parents at an upscale Catskills resort (ably represented by the Blue Ridge foothills and emerald waters of Lake Lure).

When boredom, curiosity, and a bit of righteous indignation leads her to an after-hours party held by the resort’s working-class summer staff, Baby gets to know dance instructor Johnny Castle, whose dance partner Penny is struggling with the ramifications of an unwanted pregnancy (the father is Robbie, an arrogant college student waiting tables for the summer). Baby offers help, and by so doing, becomes Johnny’s de facto dance partner, leading a training montage for the ages, a betrayal, a forbidden love affair, and, between the dance sequences and (sometimes) period-appropriate needle drops, a little soft commentary on both class privilege and a woman’s right to choose. 

Most viewers (this writer obviously included) came for the dance moves, the nostalgia, the 100-watt charm of the late, lamented Swayze, and his sincere promise that no one puts Baby in a corner just before literally sweeping her off her feet. It is a grand romantic fantasy of the first order: improbable, sometimes anachronistic, and lovable enough to captivate generations of moviegoers and raise a sleeper hit to cult status.

Fans come from across the country, and even from other countries, for the two days of exuberant events in Lake Lure that comprise the annual Dirty Dancing Festival, turning 10 this year. Scenes that were filmed at an old boys’ camp (now private Firefly Cove), at the 1927 Lake Lure Inn & Spa, and in the lake itself, are lovingly recreated throughout the weekend in various spots.

As a nostalgia piece, the movie itself has taken on a second layer of nostalgia. We’re further from 1987 in 2019 than Dirty Dancing was from 1963 upon its release. And yet parts of the story — the reproductive-rights angle in particular — are as frustratingly relevant as ever to a whole new generation of women.

Attempts to recapture the magic of Dirty Dancing, including a “prequel” in 2004 and a television remake in 2017, have come up short both critically and at the box office. It’s tempting to caution against messing with perfection. 

Not that Dirty Dancing is a perfect movie. It is, however, a perfectly good time, one that is best enjoyed — as at that long-ago local premiere — in communal celebration. 

The 10th annual Dirty Dancing Festival happens Friday, Sept. 13 and Saturday, Sept. 14 in Lake Lure and includes a ticketed opening, a Lake Lift contest, and many other events. The public screening of the movie happens at 8pm on Friday at Morse Park (2948 Memorial Hwy.). Free admission. For more information, see dirtydancingfestival.com.

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