"One Look at You and I Can't Disguise...": Introducing a Teen to the Teen Canon of the 1980s

Part 7: Dirty Dancing

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"One Look at You and I Can't Disguise...": Introducing a Teen to the Teen Canon of the 1980s

Grace’s little sister Camille is a dancer. She’s at an age where “adult themes” are more likely to just bore her versus traumatize her, so I let her make her own call on whether she wanted to sit through Dirty Dancing. Sure, there’s a botched abortion, but it it’s handled in this polite retro sixties way so don’t bother calling Social Services on me: Camille knows if she’s uncomfortable with the screening of the day that is her cue to take a long bath and she is cool with that. Meanwhile, I thought if there was anything that movie had going for it, it was some cool dance moves.

When I was a kid, in the early days of VHS, my folks showed me Grease and Bye Bye, Birdie on consecutive Saturdays. I remember my mom being a little sniffy about the veracity factor, or authenticity, was it authenticity? I remember her saying, “Well, one’s made in the seventies about kids in the fifties, and one’s made in the sixties about kids in the sixties.” It had a certain tang of indictment, or seemed to. Like one was authentic and the other wasn’t. And who was I to say?

They were both stylized and kitschy. Even as a kid I got that much.

But now, as Jennifer Gray’s voiceover rolled across the Catskills-roadtrip scenery, I realized we’d veered into a sub-genre: this film was historical in its time, not just old. And like Grease and Bye Bye, Birdie, it featured partnered dance. Camille would get into the moves; Grace would get the metaphor. Or so I figured.

Emile Ardolino’s coming-of-age tale was a box office smash in 1987, and became the first movie to sell over a million home video copies. The throwback Kennedy-era upstate New York Jewish family camp thing was alien to Grace, but no more so than it had been to me, but the themes of emerging adulthood, sex and its consequences, class conflict, bucking convention, and finding yourself through mastery of a skill? Those are eternal—at least, eternal enough that the movie got a prequel in 2004 and a remake earlier in 2017.

Camille did not hit the bathtub. The mostly implied grittiness of a class system that forced girls like lead dancer Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) into humiliating hookups with unscrupulous, smarmy college boys who wouldn’t “take care of” unwanted taboo pregnancies, or of back-alley doctors performing illegal pregnancy terminations for cash, or of the various subservient acts required to stay gainfully employed? She either didn’t notice or didn’t mind. She was there for the moves they were not teaching tweens at the ballet school, the sultry Latin ballroom dances, the scenes where Baby (Jennifer Gray) throws herself into the unfamiliar and frightening world of a performing dancer, trying to learn mambo and merengue steps in time to step in for the “in trouble” girl before anyone notices. Even a ten-year-old could relate to that.

Grace’s take? “It sucks you in,” she said, “but it’s… “

“It’s what?”

“Obvious?”

“Meaning?”

“No one does anything surprising. So I guess that’s surprising that you would still watch the whole thing. I mean, was there even a question that all the put-upon working class good guys would dance their way to Being Right in the end?”

No, there never was. She was not wrong.

“And that song!”

“Which one?”

“Good point!” Grace grimaced. “One of them is in a hamburger commercial like right now, and the other one is so cheesy they should be using it to sell deep-dish pizza.”

“Hamburger commercial?” (Applebee’s is currently using “Hungry Eyes” as the soundtrack for a seriously unappetizing ad spot at the time of writing this.)

“One of those gross ones that make you want to be a vegetarian,” Grace said. “And … that other one, that’s the chick that sings all the backing vocals for Leonard Cohen, right?”

I looked at the floor. “Yeah. That’d be Jennifer Warnes.”

“Is it because of, like, my generation that she sounds like a total doof?”

“No. But what do you think of the story?”

“The sister is hideous, obviously. But I like the Dad.”

“He was the voice of the candelabra in Beauty and the Beast.”

“Ah! No wonder. Well, he’s awesome.”

“Agreed.”

“Actually he does something unexpected.”

“Oh? You mean admitting he’s misjudged Patrick Swayze?”

“No! That’s the expected part. Being just as bigoted as everyone else and not believing Baby is the part you don’t expect. You expect better of him. If he were that big of a jerk he wouldn’t have raised a kid like her in the first place. She’s brave, and she cares about right and wrong, and she’s willing to stick her neck out. So you don’t expect him to be such an ass. You expect him to be more open-minded.”

I had one of those moments where I felt like maybe I wasn’t screwing up absolutely everything.

“What about the dancing?” I asked her. “Dirty?”

“Not as much as advertised,” Grace said. “But addictive. Even though technically, cheesy. Like that whole end thing where all the entertainment staff storm the dance floor and, like, win summer camp.”

“I know, I know.” Seriously.

“But the most important thing?” Grace grinned.

“What’s that?”

“It doesn’t matter what year it is,” she said. “No one puts Baby in a corner!”

“Because?”

“Because reasons!” She stood up. “Can I do my math homework now? I’ve got vectors.”

“You can say that again.”

“Shut up, Mom.”


Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and Mount Holyoke alumna. Please do not try to put her in a corner.

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