Dirty Dancing: An Amazing Shot and a Tragic Story. (3300 words)
At the end of this article, you'll finally understand this cringy shot. The question is: Do you want to understand this cringy shot ?
I’ve seen Dirty Dancing a lot of times when I was a kid, never of my own initiative but still, it’s one of the movies I’ve seen the most times in my life. I was never a fan but I never disliked it either. I didn’t think it was a wonderful love story or anything impressive, still, it was fine and agreeable. And I remember seeing it when I was too young to understand what an abortion was and finding scary the scenes showing Penny terrified or hurt.
I’ve watched it of my own free will for the first time last week and a few moments moved me for the strong nostalgia attached to them. Overall, I really do not have any problem with this movie. I’ve seen spectators and reviewers speaking of a lack of chemistry between Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, but I don’t see it. Same thing with supposed bad acting, bad writing, poor direction etc… I honestly do not see anything problematic. And yes, Baby just needs a few days to learn to dance like a pro and that’s unrealistic to the point of ridicule but I already talked about how realism isn’t important to me as long as the movie remains coherent and meaningful. I think this movie is often underrated and often overrated. Anyway.
While rewatching it, I came across a shot that I remember always fascinated me when I was a kid for its simple beauty and which today I find absolutely amazing.
Just before it, at 35m30s, Johnny explains that the music has to be felt like a heartbeat, places his hand on his chest and goes “cogon, cogon.”
It’s ridiculous, clumsy and slightly cringeworthy. The thing is, it works. Ridicule, cheesiness is a clear theme of the movie, most characters are showed under a slightly mocking light but with a lot of tenderness. I would describe this as “warm satire.” It’s quite common in female targeted movies, romantic comedies, and I’d say right now I see it often in Korean dolama.
I don’t know if Johnny’s “cogon” was supposed to be bewitching or was meant to make us laugh like it’s always made me laugh, but the result is the same and it works. Johnny is ridiculous but he holds Baby’s hand and presses it against his chest and suddenly this heartbeat becomes real. Baby is moved and probably aroused by this interaction and it makes her feel alive and I think the movie really succeeds in conveying the depth and the seriousness of what’s happening.
It’s not love by the way, Frances isn’t exactly in love with Johnny. She craves for recognition. She is in desperate need to be acknowledged as an adult and as a legitimate woman. Her character is written like an unattractive girl. Of course she’s really pretty, but all the other female characters are either more beautiful (Penny, Lisa) more womanly or more sensual. So, in the microcosm of the movie, she’s the least attractive girl alongside grand-mas and that is very anxiety inducing. Frances has reached the age of becoming an eligible love interest but she’s realizing that she’s probably one of the girls who will get sidelined and that’s terrifying on an existential level for her. It’s a very violent experience to have to just realize that nothing “passionate” will happen if you do not find what’s wrong with you, how to become eligible, how to attract attention.
The music “Hungry Eyes” starts. There’s a shot of Baby running to a house to practice with Johnny. She’s impatient.
The shot that I want to talk about is the following one at 36m10s. (to 36m58s)
Johnny and Frances are dancing together. She’s more or less in underwear, which often means naked in a movie. Of course, she’s not dancing naked but her clothing means that Johnny is allowed to see her naked. She’s allowing him inside herself, on every level. She’s actually looking at his crotch at the beginning of the scene and Johnny has to ask her to lift up her head, “head up”, and to criticize her dancing stance because she’s trying to come closer to him “Lock your frame. Lock, lock, lock. Look spaghetti arm. This, is my dance space. This, is your dance space. I don’t go into yours, you don’t go into mine. You gotta hold the frame.” He’s trying to maintain a distance between them, she wants sex.
The music is quite emotional. It’s a love confession written at the first person but it has this very specific feel of something long lost and at the same time eternal that synthesisers (and delay and reverb) can sometimes give. Just like in the Neverending Story song. This feeling is also the one of an eternal truth, something universal and timeless. I know these are strong words but I weight them carefully and the music plays a huge role in the impact that the scene has. Also, these are strong themes of the movie too “I’ve had the time of my life and I owe it all to you.”
So, the beginning of the song conveys the feeling of something emerging, springing inside Frances from 35m50s up until 36m12s.
The intro over, there’s a small quiet bridge with only the bass and the drums. It puts an end to the hopeful aerial beauty of the introduction as Johnny utters “head up.”
It brings Frances back to reality and changes the mood, the song enters the verse and as Johnny lectures her on her dance stance the music becomes sadder, sorrowful and passionate.
The singers’ voice can be perceived as Frances’ inner thought:
“I've been meaning to tell you
I've got this feelin' that won't subside.”
Suddenly, Penny appears in the frame (between “won’t” and “subside”). It’s a surprise, we didn’t expect her here. We thought Johnny and Frances were alone. She appears before the sentence has a chance to finish: she is an obstacle to the expression of Baby’s feelings.
Very spontaneously and because of the smooth camera move, it feels as if Penny only appears in the room when she appears on the screen. To put it differently, her appearance is metaphorical, just like the entire shot. Frances is painfully attracted to Johnny but his coldness, his teacher attitude reminds her that they’re doing all this for Penny. And so Penny enters the frame.
Penny appears in Frances back. Frances is trying to ignore her existence and the fact that she is the engineer of everything that's happening between her and Johnny. But truly, she's been "trapped" by Penny who baited her with the beautiful man.
Her apparition changes the dynamic of the scene. Her body is absolute perfection on this shot. Also her clothing is appropriate for dancing contrary to Frances underwear. She was there for lovemaking. Penny is standing still, next to a machine, watching them with a very neutral professional gaze: Frances is surrounded by two persons who have the same goal. Johnny wants the same thing as Penny, he isn’t attracted to Frances.
He asks Penny to play the song again. Penny pushes the button and no song starts and it only increases the volume of the soundtrack. They’re not dancing on “Hungry Eyes” even though they’re actually dancing on it. I love how the narration is intermingled with the reality of the story, and we have to remember that Dirty Dancing is indeed narrated in its first few seconds. Its story happens in the past. And I’m sure Frances is actually lying to us, like for example… Johnny never came back during the last show and the happy ending never happened.
The lesson, the goal, the organizer put themselves between Frances and Johnny. (It's Frances point of view). She wishes the structure was absent, she's bothered by all the things that made this situation possible and that reminds her that it's not Johnny's attraction for her.
And so, Penny restarts the music and the volume of “Hungry Eyes” increases which has the consequence of muting the whole scene, making it even more timeless and gives it the substance of a memory. I find this effect very moving.
The fact that suddenly the scene should feel like Frances is remembering things invites a sense of tragedy in it. These three persons did not escape their bitter end and this dance was like the last meal before the final shootout. The movements and gestures become loaded with even more meaning.
Penny puts Frances’ hand on Johnny’s shoulder and locks her rival’s other hand around Johnny’s. By doing so, she’s sealing her fate.
“Hungry Eyes” carries on but the song becomes ambiguous as there are now two women on screen dancing with Johnny and who are actually deeply (in love with/attracted to) him and would find it hard to confess it.
Penny places herself behind Frances and the three of them start dancing. This too conveys a sense of tragedy. I suppose it’s not obvious why. I’ll try to explain:
Frances is here to help, but also because she desperately wants to become a real woman, to be loved, to be acknowledged as attractive. She’s bad at dancing, it’s important. She isn’t qualified at all and she could fail in a very humiliating and hurtful manner. So, she is taking a serious risk when it comes to her self-esteem. Plus, she is betraying her father who is the most important thing to her.
Penny wishes Johnny asked her to keep her child. Instead, because he so clearly wants her to get an abortion, she finds herself teaching Frances how to dance. Its 1963, abortion becomes legal nationwide ten years later, so it’s a big deal. And getting an abortion always is anyway. So, because she loves and trusts Johnny so much, she is actively and involuntarily participating in his falling in love with Frances. She doesn’t realize that there’s something special about the doctor’s daughter.
Both women are actually in serious psychological distress, beyond appearances or not. And the dancing session underlines how much they are exposing themselves. They both wear clothes that reveal their body entirely when Johnny is dressed casually. He’s wearing a T-shirt and trousers.
They are both offering themselves to him and he’s not choosing at this point. He’s rejecting both of them. Worse, not only is he rejecting both of them, but he’s bringing them both to experience exactly the thing that they’re trying hard to avoid.
Penny is a perfect sex partner and a beautiful woman, but she dreams of a normal peaceful life with the man she loves. And children. But Johnny deprives her of this.
Frances just needs to snap her fingers to get a comfortable family life, safe and rewarding. But what she wants is to feel attractive, to be acknowledged sexually as a woman. And Johnny deprives her of this.
In both cases, the pain does not stop at Johnny’s absence of “cooperation,” it’s far worse. In both cases the women made a serious move that they cannot retract without hurting themselves atrociously.
Penny and Johnny are made for one another. And the baby is probably his. If he forces her to get an abortion, they are finished. Not because Penny will become sterile, and she could, but because this child is her strongest attempt at obtaining a stable relationship from him, at forcing him into a family. Once he’s rejected this, he cannot come back; even more so when in order to get Penny a doctor, he has to have sex with the girl whom nobody wants; him, Johnny the gigolo, the seducer, the alpha male, the best “dancer.”
I don’t know If I’m being clear. These elements really are not random. It’s a bit as if Johnny was the god of lust and Penny its goddess and they were made for one another, absolutely perfect for each other. And one day, because she’s a woman, Penny wants a baby with her god. But instead, Johnny the god of lust prefers to have sex with the absolute opposite of Penny in terms of attraction. By accepting to teach Baby how to dance, Johnny is asserting that he will never accept Penny… as a woman. He’s asserting that everything that they have in common is nothing if she wants to bear his child. It’s destructive, it’s crushing, it’s tragic.
As for Frances, she wants to feel attractive and to be given attention, real attention from a man she’s attracted to. She avoids the hotel staff because she knows that they are paid to entertain and flirt with the girls. And she is going to give and risk everything she has in order to bring Johnny to be attracted to her. The problem is that the man is accustomed to having sex for money. He’s accustomed to healing rich women’s ego wounds and sexual misery and Baby is just another one on the list. So, he could perfectly reward Baby with sex and not give her what she wanted: the certainty that she can be attractive. It would crush her too as she’s giving her absolute best shot.
And so, when dancing with Johnny, these two women are actually risking a lot when it comes to their personal ambition, their happiness, their dignity and self-esteem. But it’s even worse in that, they both want what the other have. So, there’s something alienating in this dance with Johnny in that both woman is brought to hate herself the way she is and despise what she has to offer.
Penny wants to be Frances and Frances wants to be Penny. Penny wants Johnny to see that there’s a Baby in her… oh f**k seriously that’s horrible.
Frances is truly associated with a baby, with the fetus. She is clumsy, annoying, stubborn and ugly, but she’s cute and loveable. Penny is trying to make a good father out of Johnny by exposing him to Baby’s immaturity. She’s trying to make him realize that he’s ok with keeping their child.
And so, Penny wants Johnny to see the Baby in her and Baby wants Johnny to see the Penny in her.
Frances becomes a double of Penny. In both shots Frances belly is visible whereas Penny's locked by a belt.
Penny being a slang word for “absolutely perfect woman.” Urban dictionary:
“Penny is the most amazingly, perfect girl, ever. She's caring, kind and super pretty. She's one of those people that are really likeable and nice to everyone, but will be pretty sarcastic to those she's more comfortable with. Everything about her is just so beautiful and incredibly perfect. Everyone wants to be her, or be with her. If you know someone called Penny, you're a very lucky person. ”
The three of them start dancing in absolute perfect rhythm. I understand now why it gave me the impression of seeing two parents and their kid, that’s because it was the goal. And that’s even more horrible.
Again, the music radiates tragic beauty, and witnessing Penny, Baby and Johnny dancing together is truly amazingly beautiful. They slowly spin in perfect rhythm and harmony, and I understand now that this means that if Penny had kept her child, Johnny, her and the baby would have formed a perfect family.
Yet, what I wanted to say when I started this article is that this perfect harmony also hides something ominous and sad, just like the music. Frances is looking back on what happened during this summer 1963 and she is aware of the fact that Penny’s abortion went terribly, that it made her disappoint her father like never before that Johnny lost his job even though, she had the opportunity to show off her dance skills at the final show of the hotel. Are we supposed to believe that Johnny is hired back ? It seems improbable because of Frances introductory words:
“That was the summer of 1963. When everybody called me baby and didn’t occur to me to mind. That was before president Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad. That was the summer we went to Kellerman’s.”
The voice over does not reappear at the end of the movie and this absence of any information concerning what happened after the summer suggests that Frances simply cut off all connections with every person involved in the story beyond her close family.
So, things didn’t end well and this dance with two partners also shows Frances inserting herself between Johnny and Penny.
I said earlier that the increase in the music volume moves me. But the moment they start dancing does too. There’s a sad and tragic beauty to it because everything is truly going to go for the absolute worst when what they want are the two most beautiful things. They want life. Actually, it’s three things. The baby wants to be given birth. Frances wants to be acknowledged as a woman, she wants to make love and Penny wants to become a mother. And so, this dance has something deep and universal to it, timeless, archetypal… and tragic because it will go wrong.
And I’m writing this article not for the analysis, but to put words on a feeling because I’ve always felt very moved by this shot without understand why. And it’s because it manages to convey all this without saying a thing. I never considered that Johnny was responsible for Penny’s pregnancy before today. I never thought Penny wanted to keep the child before last week. I never realized how desperate Baby was etc etc… all these interpretations are entirely new to me. But when I saw this scene, my feelings were always on spot with them and I didn’t know why it made me feel so shaken when the movie is supposed to be a feel good, corny, light hearted, stupid with the laziest happy ending ever.
And so they all dance in rhythm and this rhythm is tragic because it’s bringing them to a fateful end. The die is cast.
As they are innocently dancing, being a family, the camera starts moving too. This conveys the idea of an unexpected variable coming into play.
The threat appears when Penny turns her back on it. And this threat is the camera, the storyteller, Frances. It is placed at the exact opposite place where Penny appears.
The camera approaches Johnny so that we can see both women’s faces. For one second, Penny leaves the frame.
She reappears, her eyes straight into Johnny’s, but it’s too late.
During her absence something happened, she dropped her guard and now Frances open her “Hungry Eyes” and Johnny doesn’t know who to choose anymore. Penny lower her gaze as Frances raises her eyes. It’s not a metaphor for the birth of a baby, it’s Penny undoing herself and Frances taking her spot.
And Johnny… Johnny isn’t simply a guy who only wants to have sex with as many women as possible like I thought when I started this article. No. What’s happening is that Johnny vicariously experiences the rewarding gratifications of being a father but he is going to mistake them for attraction and love because that’s what Frances is looking for…
...that which works perfectly with Baby’s obsession with her Dad, her sexuality is mixed up with her role as a daughter.
And… that’s how she is going to take the place of Penny’s baby. Because of her non-consummated incestuous relationship with her dad, her seductive approach is to be a good daughter and she is going to hijack Johnny’s realization that actually he would love to be a dad… and get his baby killed.
I knew it ! I always knew it but couldn’t fathom how it worked ! I always knew that the abortion was linked to Baby’s desire to kill the baby in her. So, that’s how it all happens. She wants to sleep with a father figure but to do this, she has to find a man who is immature enough to mistake his fatherly instincts with something sexual. And that's Johnny Castle.
Anyway. I love this 50 seconds shot, It’s always moved me deeply and I think it’s an amazing moment that very few movies can boast of having.