| Arts & Culture
Movies Lessons In Lust and Life from ‘Dirty Dancing’
Like Baby, I was raised to be a nice Jewish girl, with all of that trope’s stifling implications.
When Dirty Dancing was released in 1987, I was twelve. A friend whose father worked at a printing company handed out the cheesy movie posters—a photo of locked lovers, the lettering a wet n wild pink—at her seventh-grade birthday. I promptly banished the poster to the basement. A surly tween, I resented the emotionally anemic materialism of the ’80s, convinced I’d been born in the wrong decade. A rom-com like that—any rom-com, with its promise of a happy ending—couldn’t be any good.
But my curiosity was piqued. How dirty was it? I waited for it to come out on cable and slipped a tape into the VHS, dubbing over some stodgy episode of 60 Minutes my father had recorded and making the movie mine forever .
From the very first frame—sisters in the back seat of their parents’ car, oldies on the dial—I was hooked. Baby, played by Jennifer Grey, was like the Ivy League sticker my parents couldn’t wait to slap on their windshield for bragging rights. Slated for Mount Holyoke (followed by the Peace Corps), Baby was so strictly ruled by expectation she had no idea what a sexy sparkplug she was until a sculpted Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) drew it out of her on the dance floor.
I watched, and rewatched. I walked over to Sam Goody and bought the soundtracks, volumes 1 and 2. When I wasn’t listening to tracks like “Love Man,” I was rewinding and replaying my tape of the film: after school, after Hebrew school, over homework, as my parents bitterly fought. I watched it in the drafty family room whenever I felt sad or lonely, in need of comfort, to offset dark moods (which is to say: all the time). I did not invite friends over. The film was horny AF. It was best seen alone.
As much as I may have mooned over Swayze’s iron buns, or the hot beads of sweat collecting on his and Baby’s taut bodies in the studio that humid day as tensions build until Johnny explodes, “Let’s get outta here!” and the skies burst open in an upstate downpour and Johnny smashes his car window because he left the keys inside and they roar off to the woods with Baby throwing her head back and hollering, “You’re wild!”—what kept me coming back to this story over any other was its earnest message to stop trying to arrange your life in accordance with other people’s plans for you.
It’s only taken me thirty-five long years to integrate this lesson.
Baby was like the Ivy League sticker my parents couldn’t wait to slap on their windshield for bragging rights.
Like Baby, I was raised to be a nice Jewish girl, with all of that trope’s stifling implications. I wore sexless, strangulating turtlenecks dotted in strawberries, wool crewnecks that itched. I got good grades, sat quietly through synagogue, never torched the house as a latchkey kid. Like Baby, I was the type to get cornered by Neil, the drippy hotelier grandson, only to be used as a prop in his magic show for added humiliation.
But the label never quite fit. By middle school, my anger roiled, looking to vent. I felt boxed in and wanted out. To be clear: Mine were hilariously minor rebellions, as I was still too scared of my own shadow to stage anything major. I cut Hebrew school, dug at my flesh as if that might free me from it, took up smoking because my father was a lung doctor, smuggled dusty bottles of banana liquor from my parents’ house. Cops arrived that Halloween on account of our mischief (a neighbor’s broken fence). Whenever I got busted, my father would threaten to pull me from public school and send me to parochial, as if a healthy dose of Torah might straighten me out.
At my bat mitzvah, the year after Dirty Dancing ’s release, no one was grinding it out on the dance floor. The room was vacant. Kids were smoking weed in the bathroom, getting loaded on vodka-filled squeeze bottles, and getting it on in the street. I darted around trying to snuff out the evidence before my parents got wind of any of it. For all my distemper, I valued their impressions. I wanted to be good; I was no good. I knew I’d never become the person they wanted me to be.
What kind of person was that? Suburbia was a sham. Insincerity was everywhere. No one seemed happy.
Dirty Dancing understood all that. At Kellerman’s Mountain House, wealthy guests move about stiffly, bloodlessly performing their little foxtrots. Entitled waiters are instructed by the hotel management to wine and dine the daughters—“even the dogs”—while the entertainment staff is warned to stay out of sight.
When sheltered Baby first witnesses dirty dancing, it’s like landing on the moon. Here are people alive, in touch with themselves, at home in their skin. Imagine, the candor! The pleasure! Life in living color! It’s a wonder she doesn’t drop that watermelon along with her jaw.
Baby can’t take her eyes off Johnny. Awestruck and reticent, she doesn’t yet know herself, much less her body; nevertheless, she still gets her awkward ass on that dance floor, stepping out of her comfort zone and the confines of social expectations. She goes for it, wrapping her arms around Johnny’s thick neck, even if she moves more like a duck than a sex kitten.
Because here’s the thing: For a nice Jewish girl—someone expected to toe the line, keep her mouth shut and her napkin in her lap—Baby is proactive. She confronts the Ayn Rand–fanboy Yalie waiter. And she confronts her own desire.
Instead of waiting around for a man to come to her, she marches over to Johnny Castle’s room and confesses, “I’m scared of everything.” It’s not that she doesn’t have fears or anxieties like the rest of us; rather, she channels them: “I’m scared of what I did, of who I am, and most of all I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you.”
In the next frame she demands, “Dance with me.” And we are blessed with one of the horniest scenes in modern cinema.
The movie teaches us that want and desire are what make us alive. They are what power us, what will open us up to the world. At twelve, I knew what a loveless marriage looked like. Even though there were no Johnny Castles in my middle school, that didn’t stop me from trying, from awkwardly yearning to feel something, anything—and falling hopelessly, masochistically short.
I was no good at behaving. To my parents’ dismay, I was not headed into the legit service professions. Medical school was not in the cards. Instead, I pursued the “selfish” art of writing, only to spend my time in graduate school still trying to please, to eke out some stamp of family approval by writing a sanitized, socially acceptable story, or to impress teachers with a submission cut coldly from the MFA cookbook. In trying to be good, what I was was full of it.
There’s a scene about half an hour into the movie when Johnny teaches Baby to let go of self-consciousness and to engage her intuition. “Don’t try so hard,” he says. “You have to feel the music.”
Because I was fronting, I was stymied by self-doubt. I’d write a sentence, delete a sentence. (Who am I kidding? I still do that.) I let the anticipation of judgment derail me. What was I afraid of? Patriarchal shame? That Dr. Lippmann, like Dr. Houseman, would suddenly declare: “You’re not the person I thought you were. I’m not sure who you are.”
But what I am—as we all are—is a sexual being. My narrative compulsions amounted to desire, pure and simple. Getting it, losing it, denying it, longing for it: Want is the stuff that makes us human. I had no choice but to embrace it. As a young mother staring down the clock till preschool pickup, there was no time for second-guessing, no time for more than a short, furious flash piece that drilled into the vulnerable heart of the matter. To be clear: I write fiction. But fiction depends on emotional honesty. My stories were unguarded, excavating the paradoxes and competing desires inside so many of us to say what’s often unsaid. My characters were reckless, made bad choices. As my children grew, the hours stretched. I wrote more, I wrote longer. Eventually I had a book of stories. If I found my honest voice in my thirties, however, I kept it under wraps. I was a mom, a wife. I did not share my work at the dinner table.
I could misbehave, I could be wild , only in fiction.
But a compartmentalized life is not an honest one. Like Baby, who tries to hide her relationship with Johnny from her father, my writing felt almost illicit. I rarely talked about writing at all, much less unseemly things like ambition. I wanted to keep dreams to myself, out of the meaty paws of anyone who might try to manipulate or silence them.
I rarely talked about writing at all, much less unseemly things like ambition.
Bad-boy Johnny was right to call Baby out on her own split behavior. (“Fight harder, huh? I don’t see you fighting so hard, Baby. I don’t see you running up to daddy telling him I’m your guy.”) For all my self-protective impulses, there was something inherently false about trying to keep what’s mine out of the court of public opinion. If I truly wanted to evolve as a writer—as a fallible human—I needed to own my shit and stop hiding my writing, this thing I deeply loved.
We can spend years building up walls of shame, worrying how others are going to perceive or judge us or laugh at our failures, which hurts only ourselves and grants those voices more power. As writers, sometimes the best thing we can do for our work is get out of our own damn way.
I often tell students that all we have is our integrity and our intuition. These are the strongest writerly—the strongest human—tools I know. Maybe they don’t come easy, but when they do, we must hold on to them with everything we’ve got.
My novel, Lech —with its themes of desire, predation, body autonomy, class and privilege, the hypocrisy of perception, and Catskills decay—owes much to Dirty Dancing . Above all, it pulses with the central imperative of “lech lecha,” a line from Genesis that means “go forth.” Live your life, freeing yourself from the things we carry, however externally or internally imposed. Only now do I recognize in it the same rallying cry I first responded to as an angsty, disaffected kid.
In that spirit, I go forth, extending a trembling hand to the reader: This is who I am. Once your work is in the world, it’s not yours anymore. Maybe Dr. Lippmann will be appalled, or maybe he’ll find merit in my work. Last week, he emailed me his purchase receipt of the book with the tag “Mazel tov!” which felt good, like when Dr. Houseman tells Baby, “You looked wonderful out there,” and she buries her face in his neck. In many ways, I will always be his nice Jewish girl. Of course, like Baby, I want him to love all of me. But I’m not seeking approval. And I’m sure as shit not asking for permission.