Deconstructing Dirty Dancing

Deconstructing Dirty Dancing

It's time to take Dirty Dancing out of the corner and place it under the microscope.


Renowned film critic Roger Ebert said Dirty Dancing "might have been a decent movie if it had allowed itself to be about anything." In this broadly researched and accessible text, Stephen Lee Naish sets out to deconstruct and unlock a film that has haunted him for decades, and argues that Dirty Dancing, the 1987 sleeper hit about a young middle-class girl who falls for a handsome working-class dance instructor, is actually about everything. The film is a union of history, politics, sixties and eighties culture, era-defining music, class, gender, and race, and of course features one of the best love stories set to film. Using scene-by-scene analyses, personal interpretation, and comparative study, it's time to take Dirty Dancing out of the corner and place it under the microscope.


Released in 1987, Dirty Dancing is one of those films that is almost impossible to not know about, but it’s also one that’s probably not taken very seriously. The story of privileged Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) and hunky heartthrob Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) has been watched over and over again, gaining a larger audience as the years have passed by. Certain songs have become synonymous with the film, dialogue will be quoted, and how could any of us ever forget some of the most iconic scenes of the film. It’s a fantastic film, but one that most people will dismiss as a “chick flick”. At least you will until diving into author Stephen Lee Naish’s book, “Deconstructing Dirty Dancing“, available from Zero Books. Naish looks at the film through a new lens. By exploring the political subtext, the way the film celebrated women at a time where this was a rarity in Hollywood, gender, class, race, and how Dirty Dancing was a perfect blend of the ’60s and the ’80s, Naish will make you think a lot more deeply about the movie. He breaks the film down scene by scene, picking some of the larger moments as well as the tiniest bit of dialogue to make his points. It’s not only a wonderful look back on the movie, but a fantastic way to see the themes many of us have probably missed. Coming in at under 100 pages, “Deconstructing Dirty Dancing” is also a very brisk read. Naish doesn’t slow things down with overly intellectual text. There’s no need to have completed your thesis to enjoy the book. However, Naish doesn’t just offer a surface level reading of the film either. He’s even bold enough to compare the film to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in a mostly convincing way. While I’m still not completely on board with that comparison, Naish does manage to point out the similarities with certain characters effectively. In a year dominated by aggressively macho films like Predator, Running Man, RoboCop, and Lethal Weapon, Dirty Dancing seemed to come out of nowhere. At the time, few people probably even bothered to wonder why. That’s what makes Naish’s book so interesting. He looks at how the film was able to capture the hearts and minds of people by exploring the way it fit so perfectly into the culture of the ’80s, even though the film is set in the ’60s. The problems presented in the film were things that may not have been as large in the ’80s, but they were still problems we continued to face. Class, gender, and race are still incredibly relevant social problems, so Dirty Dancing continues to be a film we can look at now, 30 years later. Thanks to Naish, it’s even easier to see how those themes are explored in the film. Since “Deconstructing Dirty Dancing” is a rather short book, it’s quite easy to get swept up in reliving the film and read from beginning to end. In the same amount of time you would spend watching the movie, you are able to relive every important moment while also gaining a better understanding of the film. Naish’s words bring the film to life, and although I haven’t watched this movie in years, I felt as if I had just watched it yesterday. That speaks not only to Naish’s talent, but also the power of the film. I can remember all the little moments of the movie, despite having only watched it a handful of times. For diehard fans of Dirty Dancing, this book will certainly be appreciated even more. Naish finally makes Dirty Dancing more than just a “chick flick” that is overlooked. Whether you’re a huge fan of the film or not, I can’t recommend “Deconstructing Dirty Dancing” more highly. ~ Will Brownridge, Toronto Film Scene

I accidentally ended up with this book from NetGalley and I was in two minds about whether to read it or to just contact the publisher and explain my error. In the end I decided to read it. I think everyone my age will have watched and loved Dirty Dancing when they were around their early teens. I know so many people who still consider this one of their favourite films. It was my favourite feel-good film for many years. This is a wonderful book for anyone who considers themselves a fan of the film as it really does look at all the key moments, and allows you to re-live them. I liked the descriptions of some of the deleted scenes from the film and the discussion on how they may or may not have added to the storyline had they have been left in – it’s made me want to buy the special edition DVD so I can see those deleted scenes now! Occasionally there are really interesting references to other studies that have discussed Dirty Dancing and I would have loved more of that, but it has led me to look at the bibliography at the back of this book so that I can maybe read more on the subject another time... I found the author’s analysis of the end of Dirty Dancing utterly fascinating. I’ve watched the film numerous times and I’ve always thought that the ending was just super romantic and a perfect end to the film. Naish considers the idea that the whole ending was just a fantasy that Baby was having, it was what she imagined happened and that really the love story between her and Johnny was over when he left Kellermans earlier in the the film. I actually see that this is entirely plausible and it has made me really think about whether this is more likely than how I’ve always viewed it. All in all this is an interesting, nostalgic look back on a great film and if you’re a Dirty Dancing fan I think you’ll very much enjoy this book – I definitely recommend it. ~ Hayley C, Rather Too Fond Of Books

Dirty Dancing is just a chick flick, right? Stephen Lee Naish argues that the movie is more than that. In his book, he explores the topics of gender, class and transitioning from child to adult that can be found in the movie. He even compares Dirty Dancing with a movie by David Lynch. That may sound a little crazy and I was wondering how he was going to do this. But his argumentation is comprehensible and a lot less far-fetched than I feared it might be. He takes the reader through the movie scene by scene, explaining quickly what happens in that scene before analysing it. That made it easy to follow even though I watched the movie only once some time ago. In the end, there's a short essay on his personal experience watching Dirty Dancing several times in his life. I really appreciated a male's perspective on what is considered to be a movie that only women like. And I also enjoyed learning about the underlying topics in the movie and seeing that it's more complex than it seems to be at first sight. Another thing that I thought was interesting was that he showed how the lyrics of the soundtrack correspond to the story because I hadn't paid attention to that. Now I'm looking forward to watching the movie again and finding some new details that I hadn't noticed before. I would recommend this book to anyone that likes or even loves the movie. It might also be helpful for students that want to write a paper on Dirty Dancing or movie analysis in general. ~ Ylva Schauster , NetGalley/GoodReads

A must for an Dirty Dancing or film critic! I read the whole piece in one sitting and was fascinated by the nuances of the film that I had never noticed before. I loved how the author not only analysed each scene but also defended the plotline choices made to show why they were vital for the audience's reaction to the film. ~ Kate Klassa, NetGalley/GoodReads

5/5 Stars - My library will purchase this book. Thankful for early access to this little gem through NetGalley. As someone who can't count how many times I've watched this movie, it's nice to have it legitimized with some well thought out explanations of the cultural and political representations portrayed in the film, as well as the enduring impact it has had on so many. Naish walks through the movie in sequence by film timing, and I found myself reciting the lines in my head before he could even get to them. While I didn't gain any mind-blowing insights from his meditation on Dirty Dancing, I delighted in reliving the movie (yet again) from a different perspective and felt a justifiable camaraderie with him and my other (probably secret) Dirty Dancing loving peeps. ~ Stephanie Rosso, Librarian, NetGalley

Dirty Dancing is one of those movies that I have seen a hundred times, but maybe only watched from the beginning a handful of those times. It is one of those movies that you just start watching wherever it is in the film and you get sucked in all over again. I was really excited to read this book, because, like many others, I love the movie so much. I really enjoyed the scene by scene breakdown and I could envision the movie the entire time I was reading. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the movie. And I especially liked the alternative interpretation of the ending. It made me think and makes me want to watch the movie again to see. ~ Jennifer Giles, NetGalley

In the blurb for Deconstructing Dirty Dancing, the author Stephen Naish describes it “as a film that has haunted him for decades” and it’s a feeling that I can more than identify with. Whole sections of dialogue can be recalled verbatim just from a chance phrase encountered in day-to-day life. I find myself humming the Kellerman Anthem while washing up. Hearing a song from the soundtrack instantly triggers an overwhelming wave of nostalgia for the late eighties when I first encountered the film, which I went on to watch, with my sister, over a hundred times. I’m probably quite a tough audience for a book on Dirty Dancing. Naish’s basic premise is of Dirty Dancing as a story about the loss of personal innocence that reflects the societal loss of innocence in 1960s America. It may not be a staggeringly original one, but it’s a valid argument which he reiterates through a scene-by-scene interpretation of the film. He highlights some interesting parallels with Lynch’s Blue Velvet, another film which exemplifies the innocence lost in the transition from childhood to adulthood, the corruption of the American Dream and which stylistically draws on the distinctive early 60s and late 80s periods... I was particularly struck by the suggestion that Penny’s interception of Dr Houseman during the merengue class he and Baby attend symbolises the role she will play in coming between the two characters. Similarly, the idea that Plight of the Peasants, the book Baby is reading at the start of the film foretells her own critical reevaluation of the role of class plays in her life I found fascinating. I’d never even noticed the title of the book before, perhaps I can blame the dodgy quality of VHS. The biggest revelation for me, however, was Naish’s suggestion that the final scene is interpreted as fantasy. It had never occurred to me how my own nostalgia for the film had blinkered my interpretation of it, which has always been as a straight narrative. Naish persuasively argues that Johnny driving away is the ‘real’ ending of the film, pointing out the signposts that indicate we are leaving reality and entering cinematic fantasy courtesy of Baby’s imagination. A suitably Lynchian interpretation and one which has for me ignited a desire to re-watch Dirty Dancing in a completely new way, which considering my history with the film is high praise indeed. ~ Hazel Smoczynska , GoodReads/ThePloughmans Lunch

I read this all in one sitting! A must for any Dirty Dancing fan! I particularly liked the snippets of information that I did not know existed such as alternate deleted scenes and the reasons for their exclusion. The romantic in me would like to believe that the ending is real to the film's narrative though and is not just Baby's fantasy! Interesting and enlightening read! Would recommend! ~ Jo Cameron-Symes, NetGalley

Many, many philosophical interpretations in addition to the plain-Jane synopsis/behind-the-scenes info that other movie-related books usually offer. Lee Nash does a full, scene-by-scene watch-thru of the movie and intersperses his writing with input from the screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein, and other cinema writers; particularly Michele Schreiber and her book, American Post-Feminist Cinema (which I should really try and track down to read, too). I really enjoyed the reference to Dirty Dancing as being 'Star Wars for girls,' commonalities between it and that of the movie 'Blue Velvet,' Schreiber's interpretation of the plot as being First Meeting/Courtship/Consummation/Problem/Resolution/End (with the Transformation being love as a transformative agent for someone to become a better version of themselves), the character Robbie being a Randian Egoist and a literal Fountain of water being poured on his Head, Patrick Swayze's belief in Johnny & Penny's relationship being the one that lasts after the events of the movie occur, and deleted scenes that would've changed an audience opinion against Johnny or the owner's nephew, Neil. ~ Kristine Fisher, GoodReadins

For all those inexplicably drawn to Dirty Dancing again and again, here's a book that will finally make it feel like more than a "guilty pleasure," that will intellectually legitimize your love for the movie you'd never previously admit is your real and forever favorite, at least not in front of polite company. Stephen Lee Naish helps the 80s gem rise up the cinema ranks. The moment you put the book down, you'll want to put Dirty Dancing on for another spin. ~ Holly Grigg-Spall, author of Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control

This is a remarkable achievement. Using a single film as a case-study, it asks the reader to re-think their own relationship to cinema, calling into question the narratives, memories and assumptions we construct through and about popular culture. This unique and innovative analysis offers a great deal to any reader, from the film studies professor to the occasional cinema goer. A must-read book or anyone interested in popular film. ~ Alfie Brown, University of Manchester and Editor at Everyday Analysis

Dirty Dancing has quietly evolved from a film to enjoy, to one you can admire -- helped along by Stephen Lee Naish's Deconstructing Dirty Dancing. A model of detailed textual analysis, Deconstructing Dirty Dancing reveals what Dirty Dancing’s devoted fanbase has known for years: that the film tackled sophisticated, progressive themes with dignity, courage, and a catchy soundtrack. Rest assured, the political can indeed be pleasurable ~ Liza Palmer, Managing Editor of The Moving Image, Co-Editor-in-Chief of Film Matters, Contributing Editor of Film International

Stephen  Lee Naish
Stephen Lee Naish Stephen Lee Naish‘s writing explores film, politics, and popular culture and the places where they converge. His essays have appeared in n...
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