Dirty Dancing: Cementing Mount Holyoke’s place in pop culture

 

Credit: Noa Kasman
Credit: Noa Kasman

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

Patrick Swayze (1952 – 2009)

Really sad news…

After nearly a two year battle with pancreatic cancer, Patrick Swayze, the star of Dirty Dancing and Ghost has died. The NY Times reported the news about 20 minutes ago.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Patrick Swayze has died after a nearly two-year battle with
pancreatic cancer.

Swayze’s publicist Annett Wolf says the 57-year-old “Dirty Dancing” actor died Monday with family at his side. He came forward about his illness last spring, but continued working as he underwent treatments.

It was 1987 when Swayze became a star with his performance in “Dirty Dancing,” a coming-of-age story set in a Catskills resort. The 1990 film “Ghost” cemented his status as a screen favorite.

Swayze played a murdered man trying to communicate with his fiancee through a spirit played by Whoopi Goldberg.

He kept on working even after it was disclosed in March 2008 that he had a particularly deadly form of cancer. He starred in “The Beast,” an A&E drama series, and said he and his wife were working on a memoir.

Because of his role as Johnny in Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze has always been a favorite actor of mine. You see, Baby is attending Mount Holyoke in the fall and as a current Mount Holyoke student, you always encounter someone who have heard of my college because of this movie; on perspective student weekend Dirty Dancing is screened in the amphitheatre. So Patrick Swayze is apart of the MoHo lexicon along with Emily Dickinson, Wendy Wasserstein and Animal House.

He will be missed.

Quesadillas with Suzan-Lori Parks

This afternoon I attended a SAG Indie panel with Suzan-Lori Parks at the American Pavilion. Parks is in Cannes promoting The Making of Plus One, which she is starring in.

Not only is Parks one of my favorite playwrights but she is also an alumna of Mount Holyoke, where I currently attend college. The discussion was very informal – Parks began by sharing her quesadilla with the students. Then every student introduced themselves and their interests in the film industry. We discussed Mount Holyoke and she loved that there is now a film major at Mount Holyoke. Ironically there was also a UMass and Smith student in attendance so there was a ton of Five College pride – and competition – in the room.

Parks discussed at great length her writing process (to always be writing), her favorite playwrights (too many to name) and her advice to aspiring screenwriters. Her main advice was to always be writing but know when it is someone elses turn – a director or producer – to take over the creative process.

Writers are often told to only write about what they know, which translates into writing about yourself. Parks however advised to ignore that and to just write about what you want.

Her anecdotes about James Baldwin (who mentored her while she was student at Mount Holyoke), and Spike Lee I was excited to learn that her next work Father Comes Home From the Wars is premiering off-Broadway in the next few weeks.

It was a great opportunity to meet Suzan-Lori Parks and to learn about her creative process. The informal conversation was a one in a lifetime chance – much like attending the Cannes Film Festival – to meet and chat with a reknowned playwright. And the quesadilla was pretty tasty as well.