I don’t remember when Dirty Dancing became the movie I champion the loudest. It’s always been a favorite of mine, one of those films that has resonated for different reasons at every stage of my life. Like many, I was first drawn to it for the dancing and the romance, and as I grew up, I rewatched it again and again for the political and cultural commentary. It’s an incredibly rich text, and no single essay can do it justice.
Yet somehow, Dirty Dancing manages to be the film I love most that is most frequently underestimated by cinephiles. No one ever seems to remember the class conflicts, the political context, the familial tensions, or the subtle and nuanced perspective on Jewish-American identity. If Dirty Dancing was only truly about dance, that would be enough. It would still be an excellent film. But viewing it as exclusively a dance film is reductive, as it leaves out the elements that create the film’s true emotional depth.
To understand Dirty Dancing, one must first understand screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, the real-life Frances “Baby” Houseman. “I was called ‘Baby’ ‘til I was 22, I went to the Catskills with my parents, I was dirty dancing from the time I was 10. I got dirty dancing trophies that would turn your hands green if you touched them,” Bergstein told me when I interviewed her in 2010. While we don’t know if Bergstein had a boyfriend like Johnny Castle or if she used her father’s money to pay for a friend’s abortion procedure, the film is rooted in a deeply personal place.
In an interview with the Jewish Women’s Archive’s podcast in 2017, Dirty Dancing producer Linda Gottlieb recounted that when they first met for lunch, Bergstein’s pitch was simply the story of two sisters spending a summer in the Catskills. The story came into greater focus once Bergstein told Gottlieb about the dance contests she participated in growing up, and the divisions between the different types of music and dance among young people of the 1960s led them to start thinking of the story in political terms. “The title really gave us the whole idea of class warfare,” Gottlieb explained.
The class commentary is up there with the abortion storyline as the element of Dirty Dancing that people often forget about or ignore. The film is set at Kellerman’s, a Jewish resort in the Catskills where the divide between the guests and employees is enforced, but not equally among all types of employees. Waiters (like Robbie, the Ayn Rand-reading sleaze who won’t pay for the abortion himself) are encouraged to show the visiting daughters a good time, while the entertainment staff (like Johnny Castle) are sternly told to keep their distance. It’s a double standard that becomes even more obvious as the wealthy older women throw themselves at the employees like Johnny in the hopes of no-strings-attached fun.
This class conflict is a cultural one as well. Though the word “Jewish” does not appear anywhere in the screenplay, there’s enough cultural coding (like the casting Jennifer Grey, a far more Ashkenazic-looking lead than is typical in ‘80s romances) to make clear that the guests, management, and waiters are all Jewish while the entertainment employees are not. More than economic status and education, that cultural difference is likely the primary reason why the relationships between guests and wait staff is not penalized the way that relationships between guests and the dancers are. “The help represented the gentile world which was the other world, and Jewish girls were not supposed to traffic in that,” Gottlieb said on the Jewish Women’s Archive podcast. “It was very important that you had to marry the right kind of guy.” There’s a reason why Robbie is a more appealing boyfriend than Johnny from Dr. Houseman’s perspective, and it isn’t just about Yale Medical School.
As necessary as the political text is to telling this story, Dirty Dancing at its heart is still true to Bergstein’s initial seed of an idea — two sisters in the Catskills. One of the many underlying themes that are only briefly addressed directly but still permeate the story is that of sisters in conflict for their parents’ attention. At the start of the film, our protagonist Baby is very much daddy’s girl. She’s the one who cares about social justice and activism, planning to study Economics of Underdeveloped Countries (wow that’s a specific major) at Mount Holyoke before joining the Peace Corps. Meanwhile, Lisa cares most about going on dates and tracking down her beige iridescent lipstick. To paraphrase the dialogue from their first meal at Kellerman’s, Baby’s going to change the world and Lisa’s going to decorate it.
But one of the most emotionally understated moments comes after Baby has disappointed her father because of her relationship with Johnny and because she lied in order to pay for Johnny’s friend Penny’s abortion. Lisa tells Baby that she plans to have sex with Robbie, and after Baby cautions her against it, Lisa calls her out on her jealousy. Ever since Baby and Dr. Houseman fought over Penny’s abortion, Lisa has become daddy’s girl. And as it turns out, Lisa indeed has a lot to say. We get the sense that people don’t generally see Lisa as having anything of value to contribute, but that’s probably because they haven’t been listening. From that moment on, the connection between Baby and Lisa feels deeper and they both demonstrate greater compassion and understanding for each other. In these moments, it’s clear how strongly Bergstein felt about her original vision.
(And after learning that “Hula Hana,” the song that Lisa sings for the end-of-season talent show was written by none other than Jane Brucker herself, I’d like to believe that songwriting is one of Lisa’s many skills that no one seems to notice she possesses.)
Whether the reason is rooted in misogyny or forgetful memories, it is clear that Dirty Dancing has never gotten its due credit. It’s a far more emotional and complicated film than anyone remembers. Perhaps if we acknowledged Bergstein’s own life story more often, we would better understand why the film continues to resonate so deeply.