Dirty Dancing: new version mambos away from emotion

I was a painfully shy teen who longed to break out of my insecure shell, to audition for school plays, to confidently flirt with boys, to know and own my place in the world. I dreamt of being self-assured, strong, unafraid. In actuality, anytime someone noticed me I’d blush so hard the betraying red flush would physically hurt and I often walked the hallways with my fearful gaze glued to the floor. So scared was I of what people thought, or that I’d—horror!— embarrass myself, I ended up hurting myself worse by holding myself back from the things I wanted to do, the person I wanted to be.

Then came Baby.

Here was the story of Frances “Baby” Houseman, a quirky, young Jewish girl who was “scared of everything” until she met and took a chance on bad boy dancer Johnny Castle. There, in the Catskills, they saw the truth, and potential, in one another and awakened a desire to be more.

I saw myself reflected in Baby. From a watermelon carrying, adorkable dirty dancer to a risk-taking, sensual woman who challenged everyone to be better, she was everything I was and everything I wanted to be.

Brought to life by Jennifer Grey’s infectious laughter and layered emotional depths, you felt every passionate and poignant moment of Baby’s journey. Grey effortlessly shifted from fun and flirty, to vulnerable and courageous, bold and seductive. Her performance was a revelation, one equally matched by the bruised bravado of Patrick Swayze’s Johnny.

Without question the first thing you noticed when introduced to Johnny was his palpable, raw sensuality. With just the crook of his finger he could he make your breath quicken, your heart stutter. Yet beneath his defiant machismo and innate charisma you found pain-clouded eyes and a soul wracked with insecurity. Just as Grey did, Swayze moved with fluid ease through the emotional notes of his character, never afraid to show his more tender side.

One of my favorite scenes—and there are many—is the love scene where Baby beseeches Johnny to dance with her. Certainly the dance is steamy, but it’s their absolute awareness of each other that’s truly stirring: the muscle that flexes in his jaw, her unyielding eye contact, his shuddering breath of surrender, her reverent touch. At one point you can literally see them breathe each other in. It’s one of the sexiest love scenes, ever, because of its emotionally intimate seduction.

Baby and Johnny’s story would not be the same without their affecting performances and it is there that the “Dirty Dancing” reimagining goes horribly wrong.

Gone was the fun. Gone was the laughter. Gone was the chemistry. Gone was the…emotion. In the original film, laughter first dissolved the walls separating the couple. Here, they didn’t laugh once. And you know there’s an issue when there was more fun and sexuality in a newly added training montage between Baby and Penny then there was anything, yes, anything, between Baby and Johnny.

The chemistry between Abigail Breslin and Colt Prattes was inexistent and forced, bordering, at times, on awkward and uncomfortable. They weren’t able to create something out of nothing, so the film suffered because their relationship rang false.

Breslin had a few solid moments where she seemed to let down her guard and show her likeability—the aforementioned scene with Penny and a painful confrontation with her father—but she wasn’t competent or entertaining enough as a dancer.

Prattes, in his acting debut, didn’t (couldn’t?) access his emotions. He just projected a flat and glowering persona. Though he could certainly dance, he wasn’t particularly provocative.

Everything that made Baby and Johnny the couple you rooted for beyond their incredible summer of awakening at Kellerman’s was stripped away in this interpretation. In the original, they never uttered those 3 little words. They didn’t need to. They knew it. We knew it. Here they say “I love you” and it feels like a dirty, cheap ploy, because they weren’t able to show it and not tell it.

And then there is that epilogue. Sigh. It’s certainly one ending. I don’t despise it. I don’t love it. I like the million other ones I fantasized about better. That’s the beauty of the original ending; it allowed you to fill-in-the-blanks while letting the love story live on in perpetuity.

While I could comment on the secondary characters expanded storylines and the solid performances they gave—they stole the show from the leads—I’ll leave you to read other articles for that.

For me, “Dirty Dancing” will forever be Baby and Johnny’s story of found love and new beginnings. For me, there is only one version that gave me courage and hope. For me, only the original can make me say, “I had the time of my life. And I owe it all to you.”



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