At the end of last semester I was walking around campus after a hectic day. Instead of heading straight to my dorm, I paused at the amphitheatre where Dirty Dancing was being screened for a group of prospective students.
Several of my friends had also gathered-just in time for the climactic scene when Johnny says that infamous line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” Then the final dance sequence began. Several girls got up and began dancing along with the onscreen characters. Only movies of a certain kind, those that are singularly cherished and beloved, can generate an audience response like this. Dirty Dancing, in particular, generates a special reaction because of its unique place in Mount Holyoke culture. This fact has been more apparent than ever these past days following the death of the film’s star Patrick Swayze on Sept. 14.
Frances “Baby” Houseman (played by Jennifer Grey) is a young, ambitious woman who is about to start college at Mount Holyoke. She is the daughter of a successful doctor and of a certain social status. When Baby and her family spend three weeks at a Catskills resort, she meets Johnny Castle (Swayze), a working class dance instructor. Their romance blossoms, her father disapproves and Johnny eventually gets fired. But he returns in the film’s final moments, utters those famous last words and the pair dances for the once crusty upper middle class audience. Dirty Dancing concludes with everyone, young and old, black and white, high and working class, dancing together.
Baby is a woman of the 1960s who aspires to change the world. But despite her intelligence and ambition, she is awkward and shy; her first dance with Johnny is horribly uncomfortable to watch as Baby unsuccessfully imitates more skilled dancers. It takes her relationship with Johnny to help her come into her own and vice versa. The final sequence becomes a testament to how these characters have grown from knowing each other.
Post-Dirty Dancing, Jennifer Grey, wanting to distance herself from Baby, got a nose job and has since disappeared into oblivion. Unlike Grey, Swayze embraced his Dirty Dancing role, appearing in the film’s 2004 sequel and as a guest star on Dancing with the Stars. His career since then-Ghost, To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, and his last role on A&E’s The Beast– has gathered the highest level of respect from his peers and fans.
For the most part, we represent a generation that grew up with Dirty Dancing, whether it was shown repeatedly on television (it frequently appears on 24- hour Labor Day marathons) or just from hearing its infamous lines, such as “I carried a watermelon,” constantly recited. It is not surprising then that the first place I read about Swayze’s death was on a friend’s Twitter page. This was followed by countless friends paying tribute to Swayze via their Facebook status and these tributes overwhelmingly came from my Mount Holyoke friends. For many Mount Holyoke students, Dirty Dancing is a vital part of the Mount Holyoke experience.
While we will never know if Baby actually got her B.A. in Economics and joined the Peace Corps, the mere fact that Dirty Dancing mentions Mount Holyoke gives this college a unique place in American pop culture. Patrick Swayze’s role in that has added a new phrase in the Mount Holyoke lexicon: “Nobody puts a Mount Holyoke woman in a corner.”
Published: Mount Holyoke News
Sept. 17, 2009