Patrick Swayze and me

In 1987, a Texan trained in classical ballet became a star overnight, with a role as a holiday camp dance teacher who awakens love in an awkward teenager. And to millions of movie fans, the actor, who died this week, will always be Johnny Castle – the rebel with all the right moves

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:38

In Dirty Dancing, he was perfect

Madeleine North, journalist

"Nobody puts Baby in a corner." If this line doesn't raise a few hairs on your arm, well, you're probably not female and of a certain age.

I was 12 when Dirty Dancing hit our screens – and thanks to some motherly concern about what the "dirty" of the title might involve, didn't see the film until I was a teen. But I've made up for the hiatus since, clocking so many viewings I can now more or less pretend I wrote the script.

And what a script! "Where is my beige iridescent lipstick?"; "Most of all I'm scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I'm with you," and the immortal, "I carried a watermelon ... "

OK, maybe you had to be there – with Johnny and Baby, the street-savvy dancer and the gauche teen, getting down and dirty on the dancefloor – a scene that somehow manages to be awkward and sexy. Or practising dance moves in the water, Johnny shyly repositioning Baby's errant bra strap ...

Let us pull no punches here. Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing was, to your standard girlie specimen, The Perfect Man. Tough and cool, artistic and sweet. And with muscles that could have starred in a show of their own. He was, in essence, the baddie and goodie all rolled into one tight-buttocked package. And boy, did we love him for it.

He made dancing cool for men

Daniel Jones, ballet dancer

When I was younger and doing ballet there was a bullying attitude towards male dancers, but when Dirty Dancing came out, things changed. It was the coolest film. It was a certificate 15 and a bit naughty for my age group. I was 14 but I found a way to watch it.

When I became a professional ballet dancer, someone recommended a teacher in New York called David Howard. I'd been told he was particularly good for male dancers. Every summer for four years I went to train with him until I started working with the English National Ballet at 18. I was told he had taught Patrick Swayze. That was a buzz, to know I was being taught by a teacher who had taught a Hollywood hero. I heard how hard Swayze had worked as a dancer, how dedicated he was. Dirty Dancing was such an influential film for my age group. It made dancing cool. It was all about partnership, whereas Fame and Footloose had been more about individuality. The most famous dance scene was the lift and it brought the difficulties of partnering a dancer into the limelight. Everybody tried to do that lift: not many succeeded. Swayze was a really cool guy who danced – that meant a lot for boys like me. Daniel Jones is a dancer with the English National Ballet

He was the iconic dreamy man

Lucy Porter, comedian

I grew up watching Dirty Dancing and have fond memories of those early years when I watched it, between the ages of around 11 to 16. It was kind of a staple feature of our slumber parties, we would put it on and watch it at people's houses.

I have to say at this point that I never fancied him; I never fancied the character you were supposed to. He was a beautiful mover for our generation, though, and it fostered an appreciation of men who could move. Previously there was this idea that it wasn't a manly thing to be able to dance and this made it OK for men to think they could. It was like going from fancying the knuckle-headed men who were sitting at the side of the dancefloor to then liking the kind of cliché of a man who would walk on and join in and spin us around.

Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

That scene in the river where he held Jennifer Grey aloft was always iconic for our generation. It became the kind of thing that dreamy men were supposed to do.

It's the ultimate sleepover movie

Nancy Groves, theatre critic

Among the female of the species, Patrick Swayze will forever be Johnny Castle, dance instructor at Kellerman's, whose snake hips sashayed into the heart of Baby Houseman in the summer of '63. Dirty Dancing defined a genre for girls: the sleepover movie.

Doused in hormones and Impulse, I watched it from under the covers with my girlfriends. There were other options but none had the energy, charm and romance of Dirty Dancing. What teenage feminist would choose Sandy's sad capitulation to Danny Zucco in Grease over Baby's self-guided sexual and moral awakening?

There's the dancing, not to mention the soundtrack, which no self-respecting schoolgirl was without. But it was Eleanor Bergstein's infinitely-quotable script that made Dirty Dancing such a communal experience. And fans delighted in the cheesiness as much as its naysayers. Jennifer Grey transforms from ugly duckling Baby to graceful Frances. It's the ultimate coming-of-age tale, with Swayze the catalyst. A real man – tall, lithe, threatening violence. I'm not sure I fancied him at first but I get it now. "I'll never be sorry," Johnny tells Baby as "She's Like The Wind" plays. Neither will we, Patrick.

He was terribly vigorous and sexy

Jilly Cooper, novelist

I don't often go to the movies because I am always writing books, but I did see Dirty Dancing in the cinema and remember thinking it was a lovely film.

Patrick Swayze didn't have the kind of looks I go for – I mean, he was lovely and I could see that he was terribly vigorous and sexy, but overall I thought it was a touching film. Maybe it was because I was too old when I saw the film that I didn't see him as a heart-throb, but it was like he was the equivalent of Gene Kelly for that generation; the vitality of him was very, very sexy.

I also think of the phenomenal courage he revealed later in his life and also when he was dancing; he was a hero and the way he coped with death was terribly brave.

I always cry at the same bit

Veronica Lee, journalist

Meeting celebrities can sometimes be depressing, as so many are vacuous and egocentric. I interviewed Patrick Swayze in 2006 when he was about to appear in Guys and Dolls in London's West End. He was a joy to talk to – thoughtful and forthcoming – and was incredibly patient and cooperative in answering at length several questions my editor insisted I ask about Dirty Dancing, the stage version of which was coincidentally opening the same month.

More than 20 years after it was released, Dirty Dancing remains one of my all-time favourite films and I watch it a few times a year, both on my own and with girlfriends. I burst into tears at the same point each time – when Swayze mouths the words "And I owe it all to you" over the soundtrack of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes singing "The Time of My Life", in the final scene. It's the most exquisite expression of love on film.

One scene stays firmly in mind

Harriet Walker, journalist

Having spent hours – and perhaps, cumulatively, days – as a teenager, student and young professional rewinding and re-watching frame-by-frame the moment in Dirty Dancing at which Patrick Swayze may or may not have had an erection (turns out it was just a crease in his trousers), yesterday's news was hard. He was too old for me even before I was born, but his appeal to teenage girls is timeless; thanks to Ghost, his other great romantic role, the pottery wheel at school certainly never lived up to his promise.

For a petty bourgeois, Swayze's Johnny Castle was just the right mix of bad boy and husband material – he smoked and chewed gum but there was no real threat. He could do the cha-cha and sing in similes, after all. You could count on him to clean behind his ears and hang up his biker jacket rather than leaving it on the floor. I have never since found a man who could do "the lift" (and how I have tried: from falling straight through their waiting arms, to getting my skirt caught on their heads as they lower me down) and now I feel like I never will.

The bad boy with the biker hair

Emma Love, writer

Dirty Dancing wins the award for being the most overplayed of the videos I owned while I was growing up. I loved it for the dancing: for the contrast of the smooth mambo and cha-cha performed for the hotel guests each night with the forbidden sweaty dances in the club house. I loved the way Patrick Swayze's Johnny taught Baby to dance on a fallen log over a ravine and how to do lifts in a lake. He was the bad boy in a biker jacket. She was from a wealthy family, with principles.

Looking back, it seems that Johnny could only ever have been played by Patrick Swayze. Whatever the films that followed, to a whole generation of girls he would always be that character. It's a feel-good, love-conquers-all movie and one I could never see enough of. As soon as the film reached the end and the credits started to roll, I would rewind to my favourite bits, back to the infamous "nobody puts Baby in a corner" line and that finale dance sequence on stage. I was never allowed to watch the scene where they got together, undressing as they dance, but spent hours studying the montage of their rehearsals instead. And while I only rarely dig out my old video – I'm always surprised when it still works – when I do, I fall right back into it all over again.

Everyone dreams of doing 'the lift'

Julia Boggio, photographer

I remember the very night I first saw it. I was at my friend Roberta's and we went to the cinema. It was love at first sight; we went back to my house and we danced all night in the cellar. But I don't remember if I was Johnny or Baby.

Every teenage girl who saw that movie fell in love with Patrick Swayze. For many of us he was our first crush, because we can all relate to the story of Dirty Dancing – it's the tale of a geeky girl who gets the cool guy and that's what all teenagers dream of. I think he was a good dancer and if there's one thing girls like it is a guy who can dance; it's a real turn-on.

"The Time of My Life" was the perfect choice of song for our first dance at our wedding because everyone dreams of being able to do the lift. After we appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007 we planned to have dinner with Patrick in London, but that changed when he learned that he was ill. When I heard how sick he was I immediately got involved in fundraising. It wasn't just that he was a heartthrob, he was a genuinely nice person; I was impressed that he married his childhood sweetheart and stayed with her 35 years.

Julia Boggio's 'Dirty Dancing' wedding video had 500,000 hits when it was posted on YouTube.

His courage helped male dancers

Wayne Sleep, dancer

I was a great fan of the film. When Dirty Dancing came out I was trying to promote dance and get more guys to do it and at the time there was this huge stigma surrounding men being ballet dancers. That film helped changed a lot of that, to help demonstrate that people from the street could make it in the dance world and musical theatre.

Patrick Swayze showed how a real male dancer could make it if they showed enough courage and it opened doors. The proof is the popularity of the Dirty Dancing musical in London now, which is always packed. Because of Dirty Dancing and Billy Elliot, dancing is more popular than ever; especially the iconic nature of that famous lift. You just need to look at the statistics: now, 50 per cent of the children at the Royal Ballet School are boys. In my day it was five boys to 30 girls. Patrick was a sex symbol and a good actor and the combination of the two was very rare. The fact that he went on to become a Hollywood star is very rare: this had not really been seen since the days of Gene Kelly and John Travolta.

As a kid, I wanted to be him – he had style

Guy Adams, journalist

My first thought, when a friend's elder sister announced that she intended to screen a film called Dirty Dancing, was something along the lines of "whoopee!" This was almost certainly going to be a pornographic movie. It had the word "dirty" in the title, along with a photo of an intertwined couple on the cover. They looked like they were about to snog. A generation of parents had already jumped to a similar conclusion, so it had therefore performed poorly at the box office, taking less than $30m in its initial US run. When the film was released on video it soon gained cult status. There turned out to be no nudity to engage "pause" buttons and the closest it got to adult themes was a sub-plot involving abortion, which I was far too innocent to understand.

Despite this disappointment, I still wanted to be Patrick Swayze. He had poise and style, and strong arms; he could dance like a dream, yet still look masculine; his sensitive side could snap knicker elastic at 30 paces.

So while boys were drawn to Dirty Dancing under false pretences – hoping for a fruity movie that never materialised – and never really loved the film like our female counterparts, it did at least provide a lesson in life.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments