By Ansharah Shakil, November 10 2023—
That was the summer of 1987 when Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” was a worldwide hit and it didn’t occur to anyone to wonder why. That was before the Black Monday stock crash before minimalist fashion won out again and when Dirty Dancing premiered in theatres for the first time. That was the summer audiences first visited Kellerman’s, the mountain resort where 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) fell in love with dance and with dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) while vacationing with her family.
Dirty Dancing was an instant success when it came out in 1987. Its popularity remained enduring for years and still does, which is why it’s so heartening to see how the film’s legacy has continued to survive over 30 years later with the film’s first live film-to-concert experience. Dirty Dancing in Concert is currently undergoing its North American tour, with Canadian tour dates in November that included a stop in Calgary at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium on Nov. 3.
The show presents the digitally remastered version of the film on a full-size screen, with a live band and singers performing the soundtrack in time with the viewing of the film. After the film, the singers and band performed an encore party. The Calgary show had a packed, excited audience — many of whom proudly wore Dirty Dancing t-shirts and knew all the best lines of the film, cheering and laughing throughout.
Preceding the showing of the film was a speech with plenty of Dirty Dancing-related puns including but not limited to advising families with children to stay in the centre of the room because nobody puts Baby in a corner. Alongside the highly skilled band were the equally talented singers, who were not only charismatic but clearly dedicated to their roles. The female lead singer was dressed in Baby’s tied white button-down and blue shorts, while the male lead singer was dressed in Johnny’s trademark black muscle tee and jeans. After intermission, the two changed into versions of Baby and Johnny’s iconic final dance scene outfits. The chemistry of both was evident in the way they mirrored the movements and dialogue of their characters on screen in moments like Baby and Johnny’s dance to “Love is Strange.”
The film’s soundtrack rightfully gets its time in the spotlight with this new film-to-concert experience. Dirty Dancing is a film where dance is essential to life, and music is essential to dance — like Johnny tells Baby, “The steps aren’t enough. Feel the beat.” When the soundtrack album came out, it went platinum 14 times, spent weeks at number one on the Billboard 200, sold more than 32 million copies worldwide and generated an unprecedented revival of oldies music.
Whether it’s the devastatingly romantic “Hungry Eyes” or the classic and jubilant “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, the music of the movie is undeniably important to its story. Not only is there so much more that you notice on a big screen, watching with an audience, but seeing songs like “Be My Baby” and “She’s Like the Wind” performed live meant being fully immersed in the film.
There’s a lot that makes Dirty Dancing a classic film. It’s a coming-of-age story as much as it is a love story. The appeal of Baby and Johnny is that they change each other for the better. We see the longing on Baby’s face when she first watches Johnny and the dancers right away, and it’s all the more moving as a result to see how she learns how to dance, how to be what she admired, to be nervous and sheltered but also brave and strong-minded. Swayze wanted to play Johnny because of the depth he saw in the character, a quality that allows Johnny to evolve throughout the movie. Beyond its discussion of classism and feminism, the film, set 10 years before Roe v. Wade, was also one of the first to address abortion rights, an issue that remains relevant today, and to do so in a compassionate, non-vilifying manner.
Alongside the charm of the dances and the music, the quality that makes Dirty Dancing stand out is its clear, heartwarming humanity. In one scene, meant to be tender and serious, an exhausted, ticklish Grey couldn’t help but giggle whenever Swayze trailed his fingers down her arm. Swayze’s real irritation and Grey’s laughter were kept in the movie as is, with all the many takes it took for Grey to stop laughing. Choreographer Kenny Ortega called the scene “one of the most delicate and honest moments in the film”; nothing else exemplifies the magic of Dirty Dancing more.
The live concert version understands this perfectly. At the encore party, the singers even recreated the move. The entire time they encouraged audiences to enjoy themselves and sing along, and to feel the unabashed joy of the film, making the experience of watching it all the more special.