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Secrets of Dirty Dancing

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When Dirty Dancing was released in 1987, it immediately became a cult classic and people couldn’t get enough of the summer romance between Johnny and Baby. The all singing, all dancing movie inspired generations around the world, with so many trying to emulate the incredible choreography portrayed in the film.

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Although it looked picture perfect on screen, there were so many behind the scenes secrets which weren’t all smooth sailing and a lot of work was put in to make it the film we know it today. We’ve uncovered the on-set secrets that many of the cast and crew tried to keep under wraps.

The unsuspecting tickle

One of the adorable scenes between Johnny and Baby was when he tickled her arm and she burst out laughing, but this wasn’t in the script at all. What ended up happening was that a long shoot that went way into the night got Jennifer Grey acting up. Screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein explained “It was very late at night and we were all exhausted.

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Jennifer [Grey] is ticklish and she started to laugh, and Patrick got exasperated.” She added,”When we saw it, we burst out laughing, and when Jennifer and Patrick saw it for the first time, they burst out laughing because we’d completely forgotten that this had even happened.”

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The trees were fake

Dirty Dancing was set in the Catskills in the height of summer, but the film was actually shot in fall, which proved to be a problem for the color of the leaves on the trees. All of the leaves that were in the camera shot had to be spray painted green to be in line with the rest of the movie.

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With many of the cast wearing loose, summer appropriate clothing, they were actually freezing and had to bundle up in sweaters and big coats in between takes to keep them warm in the outside sets. It’s a good thing they had to dance the whole time, at least they could warm up in some way.

Dancing to their own beat

Dirty Dancing had some big dance numbers in it that took hours of strict choreography as the most important and memorable scenes in the film, but some of the best moves were actually improvised.

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In the scene where Baby and Johnny were crawling towards each other on the floor, Swayze and Grey were actually just messing around and warming up to shoot the scene. At this point, the cameras were already rolling so they caught the whole thing and it became one of the best parts of the movie.

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Party all day and night

Despite the talk of some ups and downs between the cast on the set of Dirty Dancing, the general atmosphere was one filled with fun and laughter. It was said that it constantly felt like a party and everyone on set was eager to join in with the dancing whenever possible.

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The dance rehearsals turned into discos and the cast and crew brought in the booze, had a drink and let loose when it was all done. Before scenes were even shot, this became an excellent way for the cast and crew to bond. This was the first instance of improvisation which was later encouraged throughout the film.

Tight schedule

The shooting schedule for Dirty Dancing was much tighter than the time given for most other film shoots, and this meant there wasn’t really any time for mistakes or budgets which allowed for overtime. Surprisingly, the cast were only given two weeks of dance training before filming where they had to learn all the choreography perfectly.

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From start to finish, the movie was shot in 44-days, something that is incredibly rare nowadays. The cast were under immense pressure to get everything spot on, and in the end their commitment paid off and it was a massive success.

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Based on the truth

Kellerman’s Resort where Baby spent her summers was a fictional place, but the general idea of it was real. Many families based in New York would travel to the Catskill mountains in the summer to enjoy the outdoors and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

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Typically, Jewish families would meet at these resorts and have annual gatherings there between the months of June and August between 1920 and 1980. In fact, it was so popular that celebrities including Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld loved spending their summers there. However, today most of the resorts have closed down and summer camps for kids have taken over.

One man for the job

When it came to casting Johnny, screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein knew that there was only one man that she wanted for the job and that was Patrick Swayze. She explained “No other actors were ever considered for Johnny except Patrick. It was always him and only him.”

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She added “We went after him, and when I met him, I said, ‘Now that I know you, if you decide not to do this, it’s hard for me to think that I’ll make the film.’” Luckily, the actor was eager to take the gig and Bergstein couldn’t have been more pleased with the outcome of the film.

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The lake was freezing

By far the most iconic moment in Dirty Dancing is the lift in the lake. It looked incredible on camera but it wasn’t so pleasant for the actors. As it turned out, the water was around 40 degrees and Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze were absolutely freezing in the water, so much so that their lips turned blue.

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Recalling the moment, Swayze explained “It was horrifyingly, hypothermically cold in that lake, and we filmed that scene over and over.” This is one scene that needed to be executed perfectly and some cold water wasn’t going to stand in their way.

Based on real life

Eleanor Bergstein drew inspiration for Dirty Dancing from her own experiences at the Catskills in the summertime. In the 1960s, Bergstein’s family who hailed from Brooklyn visited the Catskills every summer and her father would take some much needed time off from being a doctor in the city.

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During her time there, Eleanor adopted the name ‘Baby’ and it was something that stuck well into her twenties. In addition, the screenwriter had a dance teacher in the resort who was much more experienced than her which is where the idea of Patrick Swayze came from.

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The actors weren’t young

In many Hollywood movies, actors in their late twenties are often cast to play highschoolers and Dirty Dancing was no different. When Jennifer Grey went into audition for the role of 17-year-old Baby, she was 27 at the time and had to convince casting directors she could play a young and innocent girl.

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The actress managed to wow the casting directors and they believed she would be the perfect choice to play the character. On the same note, Patrick Swayze was 34-years-old and auditioning for the role of a 24-year-old.

Roughing up the makeup

Cynthia Rhodes was a beautiful actress and even without makeup, she always managed to look radiant and gorgeous. For this reason, it required a lot of makeup to make her look roughed up and exhausted while playing Penny, Johnny’s dance partner who had undergone a botched abortion.

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The makeup department gave her bags under her eyes, made her complexion pale and roughed up her hair as if she hadn’t brushed it in a long time. In the end, they managed to get the look they wanted to achieve on screen.

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A deeper meaning

There’s no denying Dirty Dancing is a feel good movie that makes you want to get up, dance and sing, but Patrick Swayze had a deeper interpretation behind the film.

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He suggested “It’s not about the sensuality; it’s really about people trying to find themselves—this young dance instructor feeling like he’s nothing but a product, and this young girl trying to find out who she is in a society of restrictions when she has such an amazing take on things.” He went on to say that it was “really about the fabulous, funky little Jewish girl getting the guy because what she’s got in her heart.”

Putting the past behind them

In 1984, Patrick Swayze first starred opposite Jennifer Grey in Red Dawn, but the actor’s relationship was far from great. It was reported that they disagreed on set a lot and didn’t see eye-to-eye behind the scenes.

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As a result, when Swayze found out that Grey was cast in Dirty Dancing, he was less than thrilled but after turning over a new leaf and putting their differences in the past, the co-stars were able to bond and get on for the most part, aside from a few disagreements here and there!

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A shocking smash hit

Dirty Dancing was filmed in just 44-days and studio executives were unsure of how the film would perform when it was released. Initially, test screenings were not received well and executives were considering scrapping the theater release and putting the film straight to video, but after careful thought, they decided to go ahead with the theater release.

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To everyone’s surprise, the film was a knockout success and it made $170 million in the worldwide box office. Considering that it cost only $5 million to shoot, studio executives and Eleanor Bergstein couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.

Dance, Dance, Dance

From the outset, Eleanor Bergstein knew exactly what the premise of Dirty Dancing should be about. When she met with the movie’s producer, Lisa Gottleib, Gottleib asked “‘Well what’s the story?’ And she said, ‘I don’t really have a story, but it should involve Latin dancing…’”

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From this, the film was built around dancing with the smaller concepts coming in later. Drawing on Eleanor’s own experiences in the Catskills helped shape the script and bring in the romance between Baby and her older dance instructor.

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Title troubles

Eleanor Bergstein explained that there was one instance when authorities held them up at the Canadian border as they were confused about the title of the movie. They suspected that the title of the movie suggested it was an adult film and were questioned on it.

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As a result of this, Bergstein explained “When we thought we had to change the title, we were going to call it I Was a Teenage Mambo Queen because when I was 11 and 12, I would do the mambo [at] these Champagne contests in the country.” Of course, they decided against changing it.

Nobody puts Baby in the corner

Now a famous saying, but the phrase “Nobody puts baby in the corner” almost never happened. While many of the cast members thought it was brilliant, there was one person in particular who absolutely hated it and that turned out to be none other than Patrick Swayze himself.

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Swayze disdained the line so much that he asked repeatedly to get rid of it. Luckily, the director and producers loved it and ignored Swayze’s calls to abolish it. Today, it is one of the best lines in the whole movie.

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Controversial topics were screened

When Dirty Dancing came out in theaters, abortions were illegal in the United States and sponsors of the movie were forced to pull out as they did not want to be affiliated with this. After the producers realized the knock on effect, they begged Eleanor Bergstein to take out the scene but she refused and said

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“Hey, I would love to, but I can’t because if I take it out everything will fall apart.’There’s no reason for Baby to meet Johnny, for Penny not to be able to dance, for Baby to learn to dance with Johnny, for her to make love with Johnny — there’s no story without that.”

Elevating actors careers

Many people do not realize that Dirty Dancing was the movie that elevated Wayne Knight’s career as an actor. Prior to the film, he only had small roles in TV shows and it wasn’t until Dirty Dancing that he got his big break.

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After the success of the movie, people started to realize what a great talent Knight is and he started landing some major roles in shows including Stan and Seinfeld as well as appearing in Jurassic Park. He is now one of the most recognizable actors.

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Sequel issues

Due to the mass success of Dirty Dancing, studio executives wanted to capitalize upon this and make a sequel to the first movie. However, one person who really wasn’t on board was Patrick Swayze.

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Swayze didn’t want to do the movie so much that he turned down the huge $6 million they were offering for him to reprise his role as Johnny. Ultimately, they decided it would never be the same without Patrick Swayze so scrapped the idea of a sequel.

Friends in the Catskills

When Eleanor Bergstein went to the Catskills for her summer vacation, she had many other friends there and they were all a huge part of her life. As Dirty Dancing is based on Bergstein’s summers, she came up with all the concepts, drawing on her own experiences, but she could have had help from her childhood friends.

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However, when asked about it she explained “My old partners are either in jail or out on parole … it was a very rough neighborhood.” Perhaps it’s better that she didn’t.

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Grey vs Parker

When it came to casting the lead role of Baby, casting directors had the difficult job of finding someone who fit the bill perfectly. They considered many different young actresses for the role and one of the people who auditioned was none other than Sarah Jessica Parker.

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The Sex and the City star lost out to Jennifer Grey but she went on to have a hugely successful career in her own right. Who knows, maybe if she got the role of Baby she may never have become Carrie Bradshaw.

Time Of My Life

The iconic song for Dirty Dancing is still played regularly today, but you might be surprised to know that when it came to finding an artist to sing it, no one wanted it. Initially, the song was intended for Donna Summer and Joe Esposito to sing it as a duet, but neither of them were interested.

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Next, it went to Bill Medley but he too turned it down. Eventually, producers managed to convince him that the song would be a total success with his vocals and he agreed in recording it. The song went on to win an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Grammy Award.

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Keep dancing

Most of Dirty Dancing was shot in Pembroke, Virginia and in order to celebrate the movie’s success, they host three Dirty Dancing-themed weekends a year. The event is really popular and involves a screening of the movie, a watermelon toss, dinners, a sock hop, group dance lessons and a Dirty Dancing scavenger hunt.

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Considering the big turn out for these events, it seems as though everyone still has dirty dancing fever over 30 years since the film first aired in theaters.

Cursed shoot

When production started on Dirty Dancing, everything started going wrong on the sixth day of filming it. Over 24 hours, it was just bad event after bad event and to begin with, some of the crew’s property was stolen by burglars, flooding blocked the surrounding areas of the shoot and one of the vans was destroyed by this.

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Moreover, three crew members got into accidents on set and three more crew members contracted food poisoning. They managed to overcome all of these obstacles to get the film shoot done.

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A terrible start

It takes so much effort to make a movie look and feel exactly how you want it and Dirty Dancing got off to a really bad start when it came to post-production. In the first cut of Dirty Dancing director Emile Ardolino took the film to producers and they absolutely hated the first scene.

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He had to go back to the editing room and re work the entire first scene until they were satisfied with it. It was said they told the director to “burn the negative and collect the insurance.”

Patrick’s bad knee

There were so many elements of the lift scene in Dirty Dancing that were really difficult to execute, and this was made even worse by Patrick Swayze’s injury. The actor developed a bad knee injury in college which was one of the reasons he had to leave the prestigious Eliot Feld Ballet Company.

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Swayze said “Because most of the cartilage in my knee was gone, the bones were just grinding painfully on each other.” He continued in saying “And despite the fact that Jennifer was very light, when you’re lifting someone in water, even the skinniest little girl can feel like 500 pounds.”

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Baby’s background

When Baby started learning to dance with Johnny it was like she had dancing running through her blood, and this was somewhat true. Jennifer Grey who played Baby is the daughter of Joel Grey, the dance cabaret legend.

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However, the dancing baton didn’t end there and her grandfather, Mickey Katz was an actor, musician and comedian who hailed from California, so entertainment and success seemed to run through their family. While we were not sure about Grey’s comedic chops, she sure can act and dance.  

Dirty Dancing for a reason

During the 80s, provocative dance scenes in movies were rare to come by, so producers took a risk in allowing Eleanor Bergstein to write in some of these scenes. In fact, the dancing in the movie would have been comparable to twerking today, something that is seen as inappropriate.

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However, the point of the movie was to empower women and Eleanor had to explain this but the film’s editor still turned to her and asked “How can you have respect for a girl who dances that way?”

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No dancing off set

Despite practice making perfect when it comes to dance scenes, actors on the set of Dirty Dancing were banned from dancing outside of the set. Many of the scenes included sensual dancing which commanded a raunchy vibe on the set.

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Producers didn’t want anything to happen off-screen between the actors which could potentially jeopardize their chemistry on set. The rule went so far to forbid physical contact between the actors. Eleanor Bergstein was very serious on this and wouldn’t let things slide.

Jennifer Grey’s accident

Jennifer Grey was the perfect actress to play Baby, and once she got the role, producers were confident they made the right choice. However, just before filming, she got in a bad accident with boyfriend Matthew Broderick. The two met on the set of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and started dating after that.

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While the couple were in Ireland, Broderick was driving and slammed into another car when veering over lines and the two passengers were killed. He was later convicted of dangerous driving and had to pay a fine. 

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A different mother

Kelly Bishop nailed the role of Baby’s mother Mrs. Houseman but it was only by chance that she got this part. Originally, Bishop was auditioning for the role of Vivian Pressman and she got it, but some unexpected events changed things.

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At this point, Lynne Lipton was due to play the role of Mrs. Houseman but she became too sick to take on the role. Kelly Bishop ended up taking her place as Baby’s mom and her impressive acting led her to become Emily Gilmore on Gilmore Girls.

She’s like the wind

As from ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’, the other famous song in Dirty Dancing was of course ‘She’s Like the Wind”. However, the song was not originally written for the film and even though it was penned by Patrick Swayze alongside Stacy Widelitz, the duo wrote it for another one of the actor’s films.

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When Grandview U.S.A didn’t pick up the song, Swayze wanted it to be heard elsewhere so took it to the producers of Dirty Dancing. Luckily they loved it. 

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Jennifer Grey goes Hollywood

Jennifer Grey has come a long way from starring as Baby in Dirty Dancing, but the movie certainly catapulted her career. When Grey saw massive stardom, she went all Hollywood and started to undergo a transformation.

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After she succumbed to altering her appearance, she still wasn’t happy with it and even went through an identity crisis and considered changing her name and entirely restarting her career. She decided against it eventually and snapped out of this dark time in her life. 

Recreating the famous lift

The dance lift between Johnny and Baby in Dirty Dancing is one of the most iconic movie scenes and has been replicated in so many TV shows and movies. One of the more recent films it was performed in was the 2011 rom com Crazy, Stupid, Love starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

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When Jennifer Grey saw the film she said “I’m such a fan of Ryan Gosling and all of a sudden he’s saying my name [in the movie]. I’m just in the theater with my husband and I look at him like, ‘Oh my God, Ryan Gosling just said my name. What’s going on?’”

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What happened to Baby and Johnny

After the credits rolled on Dirty Dancing, many people wondered what happened to Baby and Johnny. Well, one person who has a good idea of how things turned out was Eleanor Bergstein. She explained “I do have a very clear sense of a very complicated, long future that they have when this is over but I never answer that.

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I think maybe now I’ll do a sequel. But that’s the question that people are incredibly interested in. Sometimes they grab me by the arm so that I have marks on my arm!”

Faking the rain

Despite it being fall when the movie was filmed, when the production actually wanted rain to fall for one scene, it didn’t, all adding to the bad fortune they had during shooting. In the scene where Patrick Swayze breaks a window to get into the car, the rain was faked.

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However, instead of installing an expensive rain machine like they do in many Hollywood blockbusters, it was just a hose on top of the entrance above the hotel. You never would have known when watching the movie.

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One dance, one chance

When you think of Dirty Dancing, the famous lift that has been replicated in so many other movies nowadays is the first thing that springs to mind. However, it wasn’t as exciting for Jennifer Grey who had to execute it perfectly.

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She was so scared to do the gravity-defying move that she only did it three times in the whole of the production. Once in the audition, once in the lake and finally once in the final dance scene with Johnny. Each and every time they did it was perfect and don’t knock them, it takes a lot of hard work.

Read more: Behind the scenes of Pretty Woman

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