Autumn Thatcher
Autumn Thatcher

Dirty Dancing

Salt Lake Tribune


Nobody puts ‘Dirty Dancing’ in a corner

Nobody puts ‘Dirty Dancing’ in a corner

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In 1987, author and screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein hoped that her recently released film would last in theaters longer than three days. During filming, she and her production crew faced messy weather conditions on set and a constant barrage of naysayers who encouraged her to cease production and call it a day. Bergstein stuck to her guns and released "Dirty Dancing." Thirty years later, "Dirty Dancing" is an iconic film that has made an impression on hearts around the world.

"It's an amazing thing because we did it just because we were pure of heart. And we didn't expect anything from it. That we've gotten this is just astounding," Bergstein said in a phone interview with the Tribune. 

Bergstein is cheerful and optimistic, having grown accustomed to hearing her praises sung for being the woman behind the famous line, "Nobody puts Baby in a corner." She does not mind star-struck fans. In fact, it is because of her fans that she adapted the film to the stage as "Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage." It has played in 20 countries on four continents. The production runs at Salt Lake City's Eccles Theater this coming week.

"I waited 20 years and then I saw that people watched it over and over again," Bergstein said. "TV stations started running it on a loop and they found — to their surprise all over the world — that people stopped their lives and just watched it like seven times in a row. I tried to think what that meant."

She believed the answer lay in the feeling the film's fans had of being there in the moment with characters Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) and Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey). The movie had become larger than life, and Bergstein determined that bringing it to the stage was the natural next step. 

"It seemed to me that you want to be there while it's happening, so you watch it over and over again, but at the end your face hits the flat screen, so you watch it again with the hope that it will come through. If that was true, then its natural form would be live theater, where its bodies are your size and it's happening at this moment," she said. "It gave me my chance to have people be there while it was happening."

Bergstein said the stage production also gave her the opportunity to add more to the story of Johnny and Baby, and to dive deeper into what is happening in 1963, when the story takes place.

She has observed that regardless of where it runs, audience members bring not only the nostalgia of watching Johnny and Baby fall in love, but also a sense of hope.

"If people see me in the theater aisles, they come up to me and say in 20 different languages, 'I am so relieved.' At first, [relieved] was a word that I didn't understand," Bergstein said. "I managed to decode that what it means [for audiences] is, 'I'm relieved this didn't make me not love something I used to love,' or 'I'm relieved I didn't feel foolish for buying a ticket for something I have at home. I am relieved that I am happy being here instead of wondering what I was hoping for.' "

Christopher Tierney, who dances the lead role of Johnny Castle in the current run, said playing a role made iconic by Swayze came with "beautiful challenges." 

"It has been a really wonderful learning experience," he said. "I've studied it — I feel like I have made 'Dirty Dancing' my senior thesis. I identify with this character pretty deeply, and I get to be very genuine and authentic when I do it."

Beyond heated dance scenes and young love, "Dirty Dancing" carries political messages that are not subtle. Bergstein's story tackles coat-hanger abortion, Vietnam and civil rights. These topics are embedded in the developing relationship of Johnny and Baby, and Bergstein said they still apply to today's current climate.

"All the things that people tried to tell me to take out [of the film] because they were no longer topical in '87 about '63 have come 'round again. Nobody could be sorrier about that than I am," she said.

Despite this, she said the production carries messages of bravery. She hopes that through Johnny and Baby, audience members will be inspired to fight harder.

"Everyone has a secret dancer inside them. You need to be brave and never assume that any fight is won forever," Bergstein said. "If you are brave enough to go out for not only what you want, but what is right, there is a chance with luck that you will find joy."