February 20, 2013

"Dirty Dancing (Baby, Oh, Baby!)" by Catherine Esposito Prescott

I was in middle school. Pimples dotted my chin, nose and forehead like a connect-the-dots map to my awkwardness. In many attempts to define myself as something other than smart and shy, I tried and failed at almost everything: I was a lackluster cheerleader who couldn’t do splits, an over-padded and slow-reflexed field hockey goalie, softball’s most-improved-but-not-starting player and a short, benched would-be basketball star.  I had no boobs and no boyfriends.  To compensate, I laid more makeup over my oily face in one year than I have in the 25 years since combined (think color-coordinated outfits and eye shadows!).  Enter, Dirty Dancing.

As a newly-budding teen, so many things were out of reach and the fantasy world of Dirty Dancing dished them all one by one.  Kellerman’s, the Catskills resort where the movie took place, was something of a dream for my family. With four small mouths to feed and one modest income, a weeks-long vacation somewhere with that many planned activities was never an option.  Independence also couldn’t happen fast enough.  Eighteen was the age when everything would fall into place, not fourteen.  Just old enough to babysit but not yet drive, I lived in an adult purgatory - eager to live on my terms, but without the tools to navigate.  And then there were hormones, many of them, doing their thing.  Boys’ voices bounced up and down, some girls curved out while others stayed straight like rails waiting to develop.  There was a lot of waiting.  I was waiting to grow up.  I never realized it could happen all at once during a summer vacation my family couldn’t afford.

Dirty Dancing was the perfect escape for girls like me - no, it was made for girls like me. Baby, played by Jennifer Grey, was a sister in teendom.  A foil to her arrogant, beauty queen of an older sister, Lisa, Baby started the movie as a smart, not classically pretty, uncoordinated nerd.  Not the character I aspired to be like, but the one I was.  Baby’s mind stuffed with questions, ideas and desires, while boyfriend-busy Lisa read fashion magazines and whined about not having the latest high heels.  If Peace Corps-bound Baby was going to save the world, her tone-deaf sister would decorate it.  Despite Johnny’s (Patrick Swayze) most quoted line “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” until that fateful summer Baby was always in a corner - usually with a book.  She was a wallflower - and she owned it.  She collaged that wall, pasted it with album covers, world maps and book jackets.

With a social conscience that was local and global - whether working for equal rights for African Americans or fighting hunger in Southeast Asia - Baby was going to take on injustice no matter the cost.  An idealist with guts and gall, she believed the world could be better and, moreover, that she could make it so.  She brought money and real medical help (both in the form of daddy) to Johnny’s dance partner, Penny, who was impregnated and then dismissed by the sociopathic Yale med-student waiter, Robbie (“Some people don’t count.”).  She put her reputation and her relationship with daddy on the line to help Penny, who hated everything well-groomed Baby represented (“Go back to your playpen, Baby” - ouch).  Baby stood up to Robbie with words (“Stay away from me, stay away from my sister, or I’ll have you fired”) and an ice-water bath down his crotch.  Baby was coming into her own, and you better watch out.

It was Baby who seduced Johnny with her “Dance with me,” command.  And Johnny wasn’t just any beau - he was the sexy, impoverished rebel who lived on the edge surviving on his art and Jujubes.  He could barely speak in complete sentences, but man could he dance. He was the one every diamond-dripped woman at Kellerman’s desired, and he wanted Baby.
As with any chick flick worth its salty tears, this one was packed with transformation.  Baby changed from a corner-bound, book-thick, daddy’s girl into the gutsy, rebellious, center-stage world shaker woman, Francis.  And, as of the movie’s cha-cha and grind-thrust-and-lift dance finale, Johnny stopped sleeping with rich women for money, Lisa realized Baby was “her own kind of pretty,” and Baby’s daddy admitted he was wrong about Johnny (poor dancers can be morally upright!).  The before-and-after wand touched everyone!

Adults derided the film when it came out.  Movie critic Ebert said it had an “idiot plot” with black and white issues - rich v. poor, college-educated waiters v. dancing townies, etc. - while Siskel lauded its music and the magic of its young star, and maybe all of that was true.  But for coming of age girls, Dirty Dancing was redemptive.  If Baby could do it: learn to shake her white-girl hips to a soulful beat, seduce the muscular hottie, save the world and still not get knocked up before collage, who was to stop us?

What’s more, if all that growing up could happen to Baby in only a few weeks, then maybe, just maybe it would happen - eventually - to us, too.  The time of our lives was behind a pulsing door with a “Do Not Enter” sign pasted on top.  Once we dared to open it, we’d find a riot of song and dance - a life that called to us, that said This is your tribe. This is who you can become. Now, c’mon woman, do your dance.

Catherine Esposito Prescott
is the author of the chapbook The Living Ruin (Finishing Line Press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, American Poetry Journal, Linebreak, Poetry East, Rattle, Spoon River Poetry Review and elsewhere.  A graduate of NYU’s MFA program in Creative Writing-Poetry, Catherine lives with her husband and three children in Miami Beach, Florida.

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