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The Strange Coalescence of Dirty Dancing and Blue Velvet

The blithely joyous musical and David Lynch's somber cult classic have more in common than it may seem at first; in fact, the two films are cinematic bedfellows - British born and Canada based writer Steve Naish digs under the surface of both films and unearths their dirty and hidden facets

A YouTube user who posts content under the name Kaflickastan, crafted a re-edited promotional trailer for Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987) that re-imagined the film as a nightmarish noir directed by David Lynch (below). The trailer takes scenes from Dirty Dancing out of the original context and places them into a what looks like a perverse thriller that dispenses with the sweet coming-of-age romantic drama and replaces it with a sinister tale of obsession, violence, and lust.

Scenes from Dirty Dancing that are innocent suddenly take on a sinister and surreal edge. For example, when the Houseman family arrive at Kellerman’s resort they are greeted by the portly owner Max Kellerman, who reassures the family that their vacation will be relaxing and invigorating. Kellerman utters “three weeks here will feel like a year.” In the Kaflickastan’s trailer this reassurance suddenly becomes a veiled threat, similar to when Frank Booth the vile gangster in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) menacingly whispers “you’re fucking lucky to be alive” just before delivering a savage beating.

It’s my belief that Dirty Dancing shares more with Lynchian themes than it would first appear, and acts almost as a comparative piece to Blue Velvet. Lynch’s films often concern themselves with the loss of innocence of their characters and the corruption and darkness that lies under the veneer of the American Dream. This is most apparent in Blue Velvet, which is set in a suburban town, where white picket fences line the streets of the leafy well-to-do neighborhoods. It’s my view that these two films are cinematic bedfellows.

Frances. That’s a real grown up name

Dirty Dancing and Blue Velvet are accounts of childhood innocence lost in the transition from late adolescence to adulthood. The young protagonist of Blue Velvet is Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Maclachlan), a handsome college student who returns to his hometown of Lumberton when his father suffers a seizure. He is called upon to run the family store in his father’s absence. In essence, Jeffrey has returned to a state which he thought he had left behind: the dull and monotonous life of Lumberton. This is perhaps why Jeffrey wants to explore the dark underbelly of the town; to add a little excitement to his humdrum life.

Dirty Dancing‘s main protagonist, Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey) has yet to break away from the confines of her family. She is certainly interested and engaged with the world and is even due to attend college after the summer to study economics; yet at the beginning of Dirty Dancing Frances seems content in her place as the family’s ‘Baby’. Frances and Jeffrey are eager to gain knowledge and experience beyond what has shaped their lives so far. Frances’ maturation follows a similar, yet obviously less devastating, trajectory to Jeffrey’s. Jeffrey wants to gain a set of experiences, ones that offer liberation from the norm.

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Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey get it on, in Dirty Dancing.

When he discovers a severed ear in the overgrown thicket of a vacant lot, his journey into a darker realm begins. He can’t help but uncover the mystery of the ear and delve into the hidden. Frances also uncovers something hidden. She stumbles into a room where men and women are jiving and gyrating against one another. It’s not only a unique experience for Frances, but it is one that sets in motion an entire new direction of her life. She is exposed to a form of dancing that also liberates her from the confines of conformity.

On the surface it may appear the two films do not share much more than that facet of youth and longing to grow out of the shadow of the parental units, but there is something more. Although contemporary in its setting, Blue Velvet is a union of the two distant eras; the early 1960s and the late 1980s. Dirty Dancing also occupies these eras. Laura Dern’s character, Sandy Williams, is adorned in 1950s-style dresses and bobby socks; she dresses like Frances Houseman older sister Lisa Houseman, whilst Jeffrey Beaumont offers a contemporary link with his pierced ear and modern clothing. The whole town of Lumberton is full of 1950s style diners, old cars, and girls next-door. Though set in 1963, Dirty Dancing also has lingering fragments of the late 1950s, the seismic generational shift has yet to wash the remnants away. However, Dirty Dancing‘s use of music in the soundtrack connects the time in which it is set to the time in which it was made, with the mix of bobby sox croons, raunchy 1960s rock ‘n’ roll and R&B with 1980s soft-rock ballads.

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A very energetic Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing.

Yes, That’s an ear

It is interesting that the ear stands as a catalyst for the breakaway both characters experience. Jeffrey finds a physically severed human ear in a thicket of grass whilst walking back home after visiting his father in hospital. This grim finding begins Jeffrey’s journey into small town crime, police corruption, and sexual exploitation. Frances finds no severed ear, thankfully, but her exposure to the dancing in the working class quarters is a visual as well as aural experience.

The rock ‘n’ roll music being blasted in the working-class staff quarters is more raucous and unruly than the cutesy pop records of the late 1950s and early 1960s that Frances and her family listen to on the car radio. These findings allow for both characters to traverse a path between their lives as respectable and obedient children and the lives they are forging for themselves without their parents’ involvement. Frances still plays the doting daughter to Dr. Houseman, whilst without her father’s knowledge, continues her sexual relationship with her lover, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). Jeffrey continues to live with his adoring mother and aunt, and oversees the running of the family business, whilst engaging in sadomasochist sex with Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), and investigating the criminal underworld of Lumberton.

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Still from Dirty Dancing.

Have you had many women?

Blue Velvet and Dirty Dancing are also about sexual experiences. In Blue Velvet Jeffrey chooses to encounter two partners. His first sweetheart, Sandy, is young and inexperienced (much like Frances), he doesn’t demand anything from her other than sweet companionship. On the other hand, Jeffrey’s other sweetheart, Dorothy is older, and far more knowledgeable about sex. She actively instigates the sexual relationship between herself and Jeffrey.

If we put Dirty Dancing‘s Johnny Castle in Jeffrey’s place for a moment we see that Johnny is also acquiring experience from two different women in almost the same manner as Jeffrey: the virginal Frances and the sultry older lady Vivian Pressman. Vivian is the trophy wife of the affluent Moe Pressman, a guest at the resort who pays Johnny to give his wife extra ‘dance lessons’, knowing that he is actually paying Johnny to sexually satisfy his wife. Vivian, in a act of revenge against Johnny, accuses him of stealing Moe Pressman’s wallet, which begins the revelations of Frances and Johnny’s relationship to everyone.

Through his own choice, Jeffrey descends into an ugly underworld of drug crime, rape, and murder that inhabits the peaceful town of Lumberton; his innocence is lost. The weird desires and fetishes of his elders are what lead Jeffrey towards his own manhood. Frances doesn’t descend as such; though she stoops from hanging with the affluent middle-class, to the bawdy working class, but actually she ascends to the working-class staff quarters where she encounters the sexualised dancing that was hidden from her. Like Jeffrey, she also makes a choice and actively participates and leads the seduction of Johnny Castle after being told by her father to stay away from him.

This leads to her break from the position she inhabits within her family. It also exposes the double standards of her father’s class beliefs that extend to the enforced class divisions of the Kellerman resort. Frances and Jeffrey begin with idealistic expectations of adulthood, which are broken down by an unrelenting adult reality. Jeffrey‘s exposure to the adult world is his lust for the seductive, but troubled, Dorothy and the violence he suffers at the hands of vile gangster Frank Booth. For Frances, it is her sexual attraction to Johnny, the over-nurturing of her father, the botched abortion of Johnny’s dance partner, Penny, and the generational shift of the 1960s.

Nobody puts Baby in a corner

The use of the pet name ‘Baby’ is also comparable. In Dirty Dancing, Frances is ‘Baby’ for many reasons: she is the youngest child in the Houseman family and her experience is limited in the adult world. In Blue Velvet, Frank Booth reverts to his ‘Baby’ as a means to achieve some sort of sexual release, which brings him very little actual pleasure. Frank wishes to return back to his innocence and to the arms of his ‘mommy’. When he screams at Dorothy “Baby wants to fuck,” he is intentionally breaking that innocence. Frank then morphs into ‘daddy’, an aggressive violator and abuser. Frances doesn’t at any point in Dirty Dancing say she “wants to fuck” in the same obvious terms (in fact, hearing Frances bark in the same manner as Frank would create a very different film altogether), but with her instigation in the seduction of Johnny Castle she also intentionally breaks her own innocence; she is no longer a ‘baby’.

Dirty Dancing is more than a simple story of sweet romance and sexualised dancing. The film explores the loss of innocence; not just that of its characters, but also the loss of innocence that America in the 1960s would experience in the near future. The film has some serious themes working under its flaying skirt: class politics, the failings of liberalism in 1960s’ America and beyond, abortion, courting and sex out of wedlock, the collapse of the family unit, and all this set against a generational shift that was imminent at the time the film was set. If we suspend belief for a moment and consider that David Lynch had been given the opportunity to direct Dirty Dancing, as imagined in the re-edited YouTube trailer, the swearing might have been astronomical, but there’s a possibility that the film would not have turned out all that different in his hands.

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Illustration by Rebecca Carter, at The Write Signs.

The text above is an edited excerpt from Steve Naish latest book ‘Deconstructing Dirty Dancing’, published by Zero Books on April April 28th, 2017. You can buy the paperback or the e-book on Amazon, Bound or Indiebound by clicking here.


By Steve Naish - 23-04-2017

By Steve Naish - 23-04-2017

Stephen Lee Naish is a writer, independent researcher, and cultural critic. Originally from Leiceste...

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