Yesterday my friend invited me to see a movie at McCarren Park that night. My usual M.O. is to say no to fun plans. Especially last-minute fun plans. Because they’re inconvenient. And take me out of my routine. And a whole host of deeper psychological reasons to be explored at another time in another post.
But I’m trying to say “Yes!” to fun plans. To bring more joy and spontaneity into my life. Plus, this particular friend had recently invited me on several fun plans, all of which I’d said no to, and I was a little afraid that if I didn’t start saying yes soon, she was going to stop asking. What really put me over the top though, and convinced me that I had no other option but to say yes, was that the movie was none other than Dirty Dancing, my all-time favorite movie, symbol of my adolescence, and the unofficial theme to my Bat Mitzvah.
So last night, inconvenient and spontaneous as it was, I met my friend and her friends on patchwork of pieced together picnic blankets to watch Dirty Dancing, which, as it turns out, is tremendously fun to watch with a crowd of fellow Brooklynites. The opening shot of Baby and her family driving down a Catskill road listening to Cousin Brucie and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” on the radio immediately transported me back to 1987 and my 12-year-old self. The crowd screamed and cheered at all the places you’d cheer in your head–when Johnny decks Robbie, “She’s Like the Wind” plays, and Baby finally does the lift. During the finale, everyone in the audience jumped up and danced to “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” and the announcer said that that was without question the most magical moment he’d ever seen in the seven year history of SummerScreen.
Throughout the night, I leaned in towards the group, piping in with little tidbits of memories and associations I had with the movie.
“I love your history with Dirty Dancing,” one of the girls said as we were walking to the subway afterwards.
“Thanks,” I shrugged, remembering back to when it all began.
In 1987, I sat on the family room floor leafing through the movie section of the local paper. I flipped to a full page ad for Dirty Dancing with Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in the same pose that they’re in in the picture above, and my breath caught in my chest. I have to see this movie, I thought.
Shortly thereafter, my BFFEAE (best friend forever AND EVER) Beth* and I went to see it one night at a movie theater on Central Avenue in Yonkers. Someone’s parents must’ve bought us tickets, because we were only 12 and the movie was PG-13. I was mesmerized and it instantly became my favorite movie EVER. Of course, BFFs that we were, Beth loved it, too, and our bond was strengthened by our mutual obsession with this movie.
Seeing it once was not enough. I had to live it. I got the record and listened to it all the time. When the follow-up record, More Dirty Dancing, came out, I got that, too. I saw the movie over and over again, with Beth, my parents, and anyone who would go with me, and rented it multiple times when it came out on video. In between classes, Beth and I would practice our dirty dancing moves with invisible partners around the middle school hallways, occasionally enlisting beams as stand-ins for Patrick Swayze. There was a Dirty Dancing concert tour at Radio City Music Hall, featuring Eric Carmen and the back-up dancers (but sadly, no Patrick), and Beth and I went with our mothers, having dinner before the show at Hard Rock Cafe, and each buying a Dirty Dancing t-shirt afterwards.
Dirty Dancing, filled with music and passion, offered the promise of sex, electrifying to the mind and body of a 12-year-old girl. In seventh grade, I’d gone to Spin the Bottle parties in Jack Howe’s basement, but I hadn’t yet French kissed a boy or gotten to second base like some of the other girls in my class. But Dirty Dancing brought the hope of more, further down the base line. Of someday having sex with (or making love to?) a muscular shirtless dancing Patrick Swayze lookalike as “Cry to Me” played in the background. That, at 12-years-old, was my dream anyway. It might not come as a surprise that at 36, as of yet, that has never, ever happened.
As electrifying as that first sex scene between Johnny and Baby was, it was also mortifying. One of the many times I went to see the movie was with my Dad and I wanted to die during that part. It was like watching TV with your Dad when a tampon commercial came on. Mort-i-fy-ing.
That year I was planning my Bat Mitzvah, and it was a no-brainer what my theme would be. But some might not think that Dirty Dancing was an appropriate theme for a religious rite of passage for a 13-year-old. So it was my secret theme. My official theme was “5-6-7-8 Dance!” but I, another curly-haired Jewish girl named Jennifer, knew the truth. My real theme showed up in the photo on my sign-in board, in which I was smiling at the camera, wearing my t-shirt from the Dirty Dancing concert tour, with Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze on it in the same pose as they’re in in the photo above, except with more clothing on. It showed up when “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” played at my party and Beth and I jumped up and down with excitement, and like all good theme songs, returned during the closing slow motion montage in my Bat Mitzvah video.
Then, as often happens in middle school, my BFF became my arch nemesis. Jealousy and resentment drove a wedge between me and Beth as we moved on to other friends. But we’d always have Dirty Dancing.
In 2007, as soon as I heard that Dirty Dancing was going to be in movie theaters for its 20th anniversary, I emailed Beth, whom I hadn’t been in touch with since high school, to ask if she wanted to see it together. She wrote back right away saying yes, and that she’d been planning on getting in touch with me to ask if I wanted to see it.
The night of the movie, I arrived at the theater early to get good seats, and I scored two towards the middle. A group of girls arrived before Beth did, and asked me if I could move so they could all sit together, pointing to an empty seat in the corner.
Nobody puts me in a corner! I thought, holding my ground and refusing to move. The girls talked shit about me through the whole movie, adding to the feeling that I was back in seventh grade again.
Afterwards, Beth and I caught up over drinks.
“You look great!” she said. “You haven’t changed at all.” I was wearing a jeans jacket so that helped my transcendence of time, but still, I felt like our 20 year feud was finally over, our wounds and resentments healed, united as we were in our love for Dirty Dancing.
Five years later, 25 years after I first saw that breathtaking full page ad in the paper, Dirty Dancing still has the power to create magical moments. Watching it still fills me with hope, possibility, that pure joy that is natural at 12 and harder to come by at 36, and the feeling that, as long as Baby and Johnny are still dancing somewhere, all is OK in the world.
*Names have been changed