I’M SORRY it’s taken me so long to write about Dirty Dancing. My only excuse is that it has taken me this long to realise how important it is to me. And yet, it’s always been there for me, steady and unchanging, first of all when I was allowed to stay up late to watch it on the TV at the age of 11. Then in the form of a video tape, recorded off the telly, for me to view whenever I wanted. And I wanted to. A lot.
I watched Dirty Dancing – starring the late, great Patrick Swayze as dance instructor Johnny Castle and Jennifer Grey as Frances “Baby” Houseman who falls in love with him – every day after school for three months until my dad confiscated the VHS tape.
It took me a good while to find it, tucked at the back of the junk cupboard under the stairs, behind the sack of dry dog food the dog wouldn’t eat but my dad wouldn’t throw away. I got it out and we soon resumed our extra-curricular relationship in a more illicit fashion until I broke it.
The tape stuck at the point where Johnny defiantly says: “You just put your pickle on everybody’s plate, college boy…” and would not move on from there, no matter how many times I ejected the tape and wound it on manually with a biro.
Of course, I knew the next line was “and leave the hard stuff to me”. But I wanted to hear Johnny say it one last time.
I filled the vacuum by forcing my best friend from school to allow me to act out my favourite scenes in my living room until she refused to come round to my house any more.
Then I was alone. My requests for a new copy on birthdays and at Christmas fell on deaf ears – clearly an enforced separation was now underway, for my own good. After all, in the absence of any real boys, Dirty Dancing was my unsuitable first boyfriend, my leather jacket relationship, my staff-guest liaison. And my parents were stepping in to preserve my honour.
In time, after two years of mad obsession, and I am ashamed to admit this, I forgot about it and began a long-distance relationship with Michael Jackson that dominated the rest of my teenage years.
But, just as I misjudged Michael, I also underestimated the strength of my feeling for Dirty Dancing, for when I was ready, there it was in DVD form, scooping me up and twirling me round just like old times.
Yes, I bought my own copy at the age of 20. I have made all my boyfriends watch it. I’m not sure why. It always ended badly – the relationships I mean, not Dirty Dancing because this magical film always ends on a lift, which is part of the pleasure.
My husband loves it too and was very happy to watch it on my 40th birthday (at my request), and perhaps that’s why we’re married. Yes, I waited until we had a legal contract before I dared to arrange a viewing, and luckily it went very well. So he must be The One.
In fact, it inspired me to write my new book I Carried A Watermelon: Dirty Dancing And Me.
The book is part memoir, part homage to a film that’s managed to somehow be a shaping force over me and all my choices since I first watched it in the summer of 1990.
It’s influenced my sexual preferences, my attitudes to social class, good character, politics, love, relationships, casual sex, abortion, father/daughter issues and, of course, my understanding of whether it’s possible to learn a complicated dance routine in a matter of days, while losing your virginity and ensuring a couple of elderly thieves are prosecuted for their crimes.
And all this off the back of carrying a watermelon: a reference to how Baby, clutching one of three water-melons her friend is struggling with, first wangles her way into the staff party at the fictional Kellerman’s resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains, little knowing her teen odyssey is about to kick off for the next 90 minutes of sex, youth, freedom, and some very dirty dancing. I tried to share my obsession with my step-daughter when she was younger.
We watched it together in what I assumed was mutual rapt, enthralled silence. I turned to her at the end and excitedly inquired, “Well, what did you think?”
“Weird,” she replied, and went back on Facebook. Well, she was a little young then. We have since revisited it with better results! I’m always happy to share the Dirty Dancing experience, for as many viewings as it takes. But why do I love Dirty Dancing so much? Would it be too much to say it’s like the wind… through my tree? Yes, maybe – let me turn away from the words of Patrick Swayze and to those of legendary American film critic Pauline Kael.
She wrote in The New Yorker in 1987 when the film was released, that “dancing is a transparent metaphor for main character Baby’s sexual initiation… this is a girl’s coming of age fantasy: through dancing she ascends to spiritual and sensual perfection.”
Well, I couldn’t have said it better. Dirty Dancing was my sexual awakening, before I even knew what was happening. And it has also given me a life-long taste for guys who seem like bad news to begin with, but with a bit of work, turn out to be the best men on earth. The crusading Baby becomes the crusading Katy, Katy to the rescue, saving people one by one through the medium of dance. But saving myself mostly.
Dirty Dancing has everything in it: daughters and fathers, sisters, neglected wives, fear of how a pregnancy will affect your career, low-life scum and rich show-offs, and how to handle them all. It’s like an instruction manual for girls, well, certain sorts of girls.
Girls like me. Normal girls who sometimes have a bit of yen to get out there and do something a bit crazy. Nice girls who suddenly get an urge to carry a watermelon and meet the wrong sort of man. In its way, it is a feminist manifesto – a story with a heroine who has to defy her family, stand up for her principles and get lifted up in a floaty pink dress in order to save the man she loves. I’m glad it came into my life all those years ago. More recently, I bought a commemoration DVD box set that came with a free T-shirt. I offered it to my step-daughter but she wasn’t keen – she has a better fashion sense than I.
So, I wear it myself, even though it’s a bit too small. That way, a little bit of it is always close to my heart, reminding me that nobody puts Baby in the corner.
Thanks for being there, Dirty Dancing – I was a Baby when we met, but just look at me now.
I Carried A Watermelon: Dirty Dancing And Me, by Katy Brand (HQ, HarperCollins, £12.99). For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310, or send a cheque/PO payable to Express Bookshop: Katy Brand Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth, TR11 4WJ or visit expressbookshop.co.uk
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