When this movie was screened in 1987 it wasn't a case of "have you seen it?" It was more a case of "how many times have you seen it?" It was, and still is, an inspiring and uplifting story with a great cast and a terrific soundtrack.
"Dirty Dancing" and "The Bridges of Madison County" have always been my favourite 'chick flicks'.
‘THE room for error is quite great,” dancer Kurt Phelan says, with a nervous smile. “If you’re a centimetre over or under you’re screwed.” His co-star Kirby Burgess nods. “It is an incredibly demanding moment. It is not just getting up there; it is holding it.”
The film may famously tell us nobody puts Baby in a corner, but it turns out some are willing to put her on the floor. A penchant for peanut butter and a fitness regimen that barely extends beyond vacuuming means I lack the core strength needed to keep myself in the plank position supported by my male companion. As for Phelan, it’s early days in rehearsals and he’s still struggling to hold aloft a professional dancer. He isn’t going to risk carrying a journalist. Undeterred, we resolve to practise the lift on terra firma.
Phelan lies on his back and creates a perch with his hands, anchoring his palms into my waist. I blush as I think about how excited I’ve been about this moment and hope no one realises I’m wearing a leotard beneath my clothes.
DIRTY Dancing opens in Sydney next week, a decade after the adaptation of the classic film premiered on stage in the same city. It has since toured globally. The production — the Sydney show is directed by James Powell, with choreography by Michele Lynch — was adapted for stage by Eleanor Bergstein, who also wrote the screenplay. Bergstein had a close relationship with the film’s star, Swayze, and while she acknowledges the actor’s death from pancreatic cancer five years ago gives the show’s return to the stage extra resonance, she is reticent to speak about him, concerned his memory will be exploited to sell the live show.
“The most important thing about Patrick was that he was a very good person. He wanted to be a good person and he was certainly a loving and loyal friend to me,” Bergstein says of the actor who was a relative unknown until he was cast in Dirty Dancing, a role for which he received a Golden Globe nomination.
Although the film was released in 1987, the story unfolds over the summer of 1963. Before Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles overtook America. “It was the last summer of liberalism” Bergstein says. “It was a time when you did feel that anything was possible and that you could reach out your hand and if your heart was pure you could change the world.”
We all know the story. A shy and ungainly good girl falls for a handsome bad boy. It’s hardly a revolutionary tale, so what made the dance movie a cult classic and earned it a cool $US214 million at the box office?
Bergstein believes it was that feeling of expectancy, of being on the brink of something special, of discovering the “upstairs” (conservative American society) and the “downstairs” (debauchery, dirty dancing and botched backstreet abortions) of the era that pulled so many people into the cinema.
Set at a resort in the Catskill Mountains in New York State, the film script was inspired by snippets of Bergstein’s life. “There is actually much more of Johnny than Baby in me. I was called Baby since I was 21 and I went to the Catskills with my parents, but I’m a dirty dancer,” Bergstein says.
The film’s iconic dance choreography was all her work.
“I’ve got dancing trophies that’ll turn your hands green!” the 76 year old exclaims. “I was quite a little dirty dancer when I was a kid.
“We did a combination of things based on the old dirty dancing steps of my childhood, which basically came from both rhythm and blues.”
Incredibly, the film was a tough sell for Bergstein, who spent the early 1980s peddling it to countless filmmakers.
“I had written 62 pages of dance description into the script and no one could quite grasp what I was imagining,” she says.
Eventually, Bergstein realised there was only one way she was going to sell the script.
“I’d have to get up on a table — this was a time of very short skirts remember — and I guess you just do what you have to do,” she recalls, laughing.
Bergstein would perform a risque movement in which the female dancer pulls her leg up around the neck of her partner.
“That’s the Eleanor signature step and I did that for group of male executives after group of male executives.”
Eventually Bergstein’s vision came to life with the help of a new studio, Great American Films Limited Partnership, and became a box office hit. It was the first film to sell more than a million copies on home video and now sits at No 1, above Grease and Pretty Woman, on Sky Movies’ “Women’s Most Watched Films” list.
Bergstein had been approached for 25 years to adapt the film for stage but she resisted, unwilling to trade off her project’s loyal cult following.
“Then the TV stations started running it in a loop … and these statistics came out that instead of people dipping in and out they were stopping their lives and some were sitting for 18 hours to watch it over and over again,” she remembers.
“I realised people wanted to be there while the story was happening again and if that was the case then we needed to look at live theatre. But we knew it wasn’t something that could truthfully be a live musical — the artificiality of that form would be very off-putting to our particular audience.”
Intriguingly, it was a Bruce Springsteen concert and his inspired use of video on stage that changed Bergstein’s mind about the potential of a stage show.
“I wanted to put together a live show with very precise storytelling and the enormous kinetic excitement of a brilliant rock concert,” she says.
Australia has a place in the writer’s heart. She had wanted her “Johnny” in the stage production to be an Australian and says she was attracted to our “masculine” dancers. In the early noughties, she sought to find the best male dancer in the country and ended up begging to meet the lead dancer of the Sydney Dance Company, Josef Brown.
“He came to breakfast on his motorcycle and I knew it was him with his hooded eyes; he was a wild boy I could tell,” Bergstein remembers.
She knew she had only one shot to convince him to leave his prestigious position.
“Have you by any chance seen the film Dirty Dancing?” she asked him.
“And he said to me, ‘Yes that is the reason I became a dancer,’ and we had him. He became the toast of the West End,” she says.
Phelan, for his part, is also a big fan of the film. “Swayze was a huge influence on me as a young male dancer,” he says.
Australia has had its own love affair with the film — with an unlikely audience, Bergstein says. She recalls being in the country to do a live radio interview, during which she said hello on air to her taxi driver from that morning. The show was quickly inundated with calls from Australian truck drivers.
“This one (driver) said he was driving in his semi outside of Melbourne and he watched the movie on a mini-computer on the seat next to him as he drove. He knew the movie off by heart because he had watched it over a thousand times,” Bergstein recalls.
“The people on the computers taking the calls just stared at me because while I had been talking they had got calls from 65 other truck drivers who travelled with their Dirty Dancing DVDs.”
BACK in the studio, Phelan stretches out to take my body weight. Even at ground level it takes trust, but I don’t look into his eyes; I’m sizing up his muscles. Up we go. Like a toddler playing airplane, I stretch my arms out like wings for balance, suddenly conscious of the effort it is taking to keep my legs from swinging down. I make an awkward joke about how my middle name is Grace. Phelan grimaces but the move is done. There’s no music playing.
There’s no Swayze pushing his hand into the small of my back and pressing his forehead intimately to mine. There’s no crowd of resort-goers dancing gleefully around me.
This is one for the professionals. This Baby, at least, is happy to stay in the corner.
Dirty Dancing opens on November 28 at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney.
ICONIC DANCES ON SCREEN
The Bacon Shuffle:Footloose (1984/2011) — Kevin Bacon’s warehouse dance, prom dance
The Shoeless Twist:Pulp Fiction (1994) — John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s twist
The Socks ’n’ Jocks:Risky Business (1983) — Tom Cruise’s sock slide
The Deluge:Flashdance (1983) — Jennifer Beals’s final dance and He’s a Dream dance
The Grand Entrance: Strictly Ballroom (1992) — Paul Mercurio’s knee slide
The Lamppost:Singin’ in the Rain (1952) — Gene Kelly’s lamppost spin
Synchronised Swinging:Swing Time (1936) — Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire’s tap routine
The Pointer: Saturday Night Fever (1977) — Travolta’s moves to You Should be Dancing
The Turf War:West Side Story (1961) — Dance at the gym
By Gina Rushton