Thirty years after its release on 21 August 1987 (it premiered at Cannes on 12 May), Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing remains in the pantheon of classic 1980s movies. Set in New York’s Catskill Mountains in 1963, it’s the story of teenager Baby (Jennifer Grey) who, at odds with the genteel pursuits of the summer camp where she is holidaying, falls in with the rowdy below-stairs staff. When dance teacher Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) falls ill after a botched abortion, Baby agrees to take her place in an upcoming competition, and has daily training sessions with snake-hipped Johnny (Patrick Swayze). As the pair grow increasingly close, Baby must balance her burgeoning desire with the expectations of both her family and social expectations of the day.
Too often labelled as a guilty pleasure, Dirty Dancing has a dramatic – and thematic – seam that runs far deeper than its provocative title would suggest. Dealing with deep-seated issues of class, equality and women’s rights, it take a deft retrospective swipe at 1950s conservatism, which, at the time of the film’s setting, was clashing with the more free-spirited approach of the 60s. It also has at its heart a strong and multifaceted female character who, while not as fiercely defined as some modern heroines, is given the freedom and respect to captain her own narrative. That it was written by a woman, Eleanor Bergstein, comes as no surprise.
To celebrate Dirty Dancing’s enduring impact, here’s our choice of five films that would make perfect companion viewing.
West Side Story (1961)
Directors Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
At the same time that Baby and Johnny were wriggling their hips across the class divide up in the mountains, down in New York City ethnic tensions were also being expressed through colourful song and dance. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ landmark musical, made and set in the early 60s, is a similarly star-crossed love story between Maria (Natalie Wood), member of Puerto Rican gang The Sharks, and Tony (Richard Beymer), former member of rival white gang The Jets. Despite its upbeat songs and highly choreographed numbers, its focus on social issues marked a turning point in musical cinema, and helped it to win 10 Oscars.
Red Dawn (1984)
Director John Milius
Purely for another chance to see the dream team pairing of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey who, three years before they danced together, teamed up to save small-town America from invading Soviet forces at the beginning of World War III in John Milius’ bluntly entertaining sci-fi actioner. If reports are to be believed, Swayze and Grey did not get along during the making of Red Dawn, but thankfully managed to overcome their differences enough to get some serious sparks flying in Dirty Dancing.
Billy Elliot (2000)
Director Stephen Daldry
If Dirty Dancing’s exploration of the class divide was a subtle secondary strand to the romance at its heart, it’s at the very core of Stephen Daldry’s Oscar-nominated musical film, which also sees dance being used as the catalyst for challenging social norms. Jamie Bell made his name as the titular lad growing up in north-east England during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, who must overcome his father’s homophobic prejudices in order to pursue his dream of becoming a ballet dancer. In the film, Billy describes dancing as being “like electricity”; something with which Johnny and Baby would no doubt agree.
Director Céline Sciamma
The blossoming of young women into adults is a well-worn cinematic trope, but is too rarely handled with nuance and authenticity. Just as Dirty Dancing effectively showcased a young woman learning to understand her desires and harness her strength, so too does French filmmaker Celine Sciamma’s peerless Girlhood. Just like Baby before her, protagonist Marieme (Karidja Touré) navigates her limiting surroundings – in this case, the banlieues of Paris – by making new friends and pushing her own limits. A pivotal moment in Marieme’s journey comes in a memorable scene in which she dances to Rihanna’s anthemic ‘Diamonds’; proof that music really does speak a universal language.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director George Miller
The leap from 1960s America to a dystopian Australian future may not seem like an obvious one, but the two films share a strong feminist narrative. While it may be rather more visceral than Dirty Dancing, Mad Max: Fury Road is also the tale of a woman – Charlize Theron’s magnificent Furiosa – rebelling against the oppressive path being dictated to her by society. And both films showcase male characters who take pride in supporting – rather than validating – these women. Just as Johnny helps Baby realise her full potential, refusing to allow anyone to ‘put her in a corner’, so Tom Hardy’s Max is a helpful passenger in Furiosa’s quest for justice.