Dirty Dancing: Thirty Years Later

Baby, c'est moi.  

I-Carried-a-Watermelon

Like many of my fellow 80s babies, I have a long and storied history with DIRTY DANCING. First, it was FORBIDDEN, and understandably so--I was just a wee little critter when it made its theatrical debut.

When it first appeared on the shelves at Blockbuster, I'd walk by and stare longingly at the cool older girls who could check it out without repercussion. Usually, my envious gaze would be intercepted by my mother who would steer me to more appropriate dance-based films.

It never made sense to me that I could binge-watch GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN--hello, another movie about boys and girls dancing!--but DIRTY DANCING was absolutely out of the question.

But it made me want to know just what DIRTY dancing was. And why someone would call it dirty. Dancing was beautiful. Art. Something to celebrate.

I bought the cassette tape one Saturday when I was with my dad. (So often, that's when I could buy CONTRABAND. My Belinda Carlisle tape, Madonna's "Like A Virgin", and my very first romance novel were similarly procured.) I listened and listened and listened to that thing on my pink boombox. The music wasn't unfamiliar; my mom loved "the oldies"; and I'd dance and dance to the songs in my bedroom with the shadow of my Strawberry Shortcake hat rack.

I'd seen enough of the commercials to know there was a spectacular lift, so I'd jump off my window-seat into the imagined arms of some handsome boy...all the while still trying to imagine what was so dirty about that music and way I swayed my body to it.

Somehow Mom never put two and two together--that the music I was listening to was from THAT movie. (Although, looking back, I'm sure she knew all about my secret rebellion and let it slide. She never missed a beat.)

And then it happened. It came out on TV--whether it was HBO free preview weekend or network, I have zero memory now--all I knew was this was my chance! I recorded it on an old VHS--probably over some tennis match. And I watched it. Over. And over. And over again.

But the funny thing is, I don't remember watching it for the first time. I don't remember where I was, who I was with, or what I thought about it. Did it merit all the years and years of buildup? I remember being in fifth grade. Remember teaching myself the mambo (don't put your heel down) and ballroom dancing with some of my girlfriends on the playground.

I do remember I didn't understand what all the forbidden fuss was about. It was a great love story like all the old black-and-white movies I watched. And yes, holy bananas, I was head over heels in love with Patrick Swayze (even before I ever saw this film) and the idea that an awkward I CARRIED A WATERMELON kind of girl became the love of such a hot guy absolutely thrilled dorky little pre-teen me. And sure, for someone who grew up Baptist in west Texas, the boy-girl dancing part was a wee bit scandalous. (All that fuss about a few pelvic thrusts. Whatever.) But no more scandalous than Patch and Kayla on DAYS OF OUR LIVES.

It wasn't until years later, when I watched the original film (the non-censored version....which makes me think it must have been network TV it appeared on the first time around) that it all started making sense. That Baby wasn't just fighting to grow up and be herself, she was fighting against something much bigger.

It was then that Baby's coming of age story began to make sense in my own.

A childhood friend became pregnant (spoiler alert: she had the baby and that baby is now in her twenties ZOMG), and I spent nights wondering if I would have had Baby's courage if push had come to shove. If I'd be willing to damage the precious relationships in my life in order to stand up for what I believed in.

(SIDEBAR: ART MATTERS. I MIGHT HAVE HAD THIS THOUGHT ALL ON MY OWN. I WAS A PRETTY HIP KID. BUT IT'S ENTIRELY POSSIBLE THAT THE INCESSANT VIEWING OF DIRTY DANCING HELPED SHAPE ME INTO THE KICKASS WOMAN I AM TODAY.)

And I can't believe that all these years later, now that I'm a grownup woman thirty full years after the movie released, the issues in a film that chronicles the summer of '63 ("when everybody called me Baby, and it didn't occur to me to mind...before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn't wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought that I'd never find a guy as great as my dad...") are coming full circle.

I own the movie in so many formats--illicit VHS, DVD, and on my iGadgets. I can quote it with almost military precision. I even wrote a paper on it in grad school as part of my study on narratives of female transgression.

And real talk: if a secret flashmob broke out in the finale number right now at this Starbucks, I could hop in and not miss a beat.

But it's so much more than a favorite film--something you can put on in the background for company. Love it, hate it, this movie matters. Art matters. It has the power to transform lives.

Telling the stories of women matters.