Everyone remembers their first time: the awkwardness, the excitement, the uncertainty. For better or worse, the first foray onto a dance floor is something you remember. For many, it’s among the first occasions when you start to sense where, and with whom, you belong. A time when you really believed something different might happen, and when you hoped that this dance, with that boy or girl, might finally change your life forever.
The first time I saw the 1987 film Dirty Dancing, it was that electrifying dance floor scene, 20 minutes in, which stayed with me. The doors to the staff quarters burst open to reveal a seething den of sensuality. The Contours’ ‘Do You Love Me’ poses the essential question as the camera pans across the hips of couple after couple, locked in the rhythm of the music, pelvises asking and answering each other, back, forth, up, down, swinging and swaying with luscious abandon. You can practically taste the sweat – apparently director Emile Ardolino filmed during a relentless heatwave. As the camera eyeballs undulating bodies, it becomes clear how much fun the dancers are having. Oblivious to the camera’s gaze – and to protagonist Baby (Jennifer Grey), who stands, mouth agape, in the doorway – they smoulder and smile, hands lovingly lingering on bare backs, arms clasped around necks. Dancing like no one’s watching.
Baby is watching though, and as she shuffles across the floor, lumbered with that watermelon (surely the most unsexy dance partner imaginable) we follow through her eyes and feel her awkwardness as she inches past grinding couples. They’re mostly too absorbed in each other to notice her, but a few cast glances of suspicion, or worse, pity. With shoulders hunched and eyes cast down, she seems to shrink with embarrassment as more and more lovers loom into shot.
As she hovers at the side lines her future teacher and his partner charge into the scene. To whoops and cheers they spin into the centre of everything and fly into an exuberant duet. Cynthia Rhodes as Penny is just a little too polished – the stiff carriage of her head and upper back belong more in the ballroom than the backroom, but she’s a riot of skirt-swishing pink and has legs extensions to die for. As for her partner Johnny, well, he’s Patrick Swayze. The fervour of their performance builds to Otis Redding’s ‘Love Man’. A close-up of feet nails you to the beat, Penny’s gold sandals tapping as she and Johnny strut and thrust down the gangway formed by the other dancers.
Johnny notices Baby’s envious gaze, and with a glint in his eye, he beckons her over. He gently presses her into bent knees; she tries to copy his rhythm, swivelling awkwardly. Baby isn’t only following the beat, she’s following the sexiest guy in the room. She’s stiff at first, but at the moment she stops trying, she starts dancing. Here she discovers that she has a body, as well as a mind. The shy girl with a watermelon crept in as a naïve teenager, full of idealistic dreams about changing the world. Pressed against Johnny, she discovers that a person can change her world.
Suddenly, he ducks under her arm, spins her around, and slinks into the crowd. The song fades but for a moment she’s still lost in the music, a riot of movement. No longer shy, her stance is wide and earthy. She wiggles her hips, shakes her hair, and stumbles – thrown off balance by the intensity of this first, wild dance with a stranger. What will happen, now that she can dance? ●