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I've Had the Best Time of My Life
By Daniel Wikey
Many films chronicle a hero’s quest and the self-discovery that comes along with it, but 1987’s "Dirty Dancing"—the story of a girl on the cusp of womanhood who goes from complacent father’s daughter to passionate dancer—would probably not, to most, be a prime example. The (on the surface) simplistic and frivolous plot, as well as the high camp aspect, leads many to dismiss "Dirty Dancing" as another of many fun but unimportant ‘80s movies. However, if one looks deeper, one sees that it follows almost precisely the ten-step heroic initiation process. Main character Baby’s heroic journey from girl to womanhood, and therefore the main parts of this paper as well, can be divided into three sections dealing with separation, liminality, and reintegration. By comparing Baby’s tale with Greek myth, we learn that, far from simply being a movie about achieving one’s dreams, "Dirty Dancing" is a primal tale of an arduous and difficult journey from sexual ignorance to enlightenment, filled with symbols representing Baby’s metamorphosis into a sexually awakened adult.
Prior to Baby’s “call to adventure” and the actual beginning of her heroic initiation, important introductions are made in the movie that set the tone for its duration. The film opens with an antique car driving down a tree-lined freeway; the Four Seasons’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry” playing in the background—a fitting introduction to a film with deep undercurrents about growing up. The camera zooms in on the family inside of the car, showing the film’s protagonist, Baby, before panning out and showing her older and mature sister, who is looking at herself in a mirror while fixing her hair—a clear decomposition between the innocent, still childlike Baby and the mature, womanly individual she is to become. Baby’s nickname being “Baby” is significant in this distinction as well. Baby, at this point in the film, essentially still is a baby, not yet having reached maturity and unaware of her upcoming transition to womanhood. They are on their way to a sort of summer camp for families called “Kellerman’s,” which, to Baby, is going to be as dull as it has been every summer since she was a little girl. During a late night walk, Baby is invited to a private party for the resort staff (the hero’s “call to adventure”), asked before entering: “Can you keep a secret? Your parents would kill you.” Baby must cross a bridge to get to the house where the party is being held; the first of the numerous images throughout the film that symbolize her transition from one stage of life to another. Upon reaching the party, she discovers that the dancing that goes on behind the scenes is much more intimate and passionate than the polite dancing she has been accustomed to. At first hesitant to join in, not comfortable dancing in such a manner—refusing her hero’s call—she is persuaded to dance with the group by an attractive dance instructor named Johnny. Like the followers of Dionysus, revelers who undergo enthusiasmos and ritual madness to rejoice in a way that is exciting but slightly raunchy, the dirty dancers Baby encounters are celebrating their sexuality and even their humanity and being alive, breaking the so-called “rules” and allowing themselves to let their inhibitions go.
Though in many heroic epics heroes had otherworldly aid in completing their quests (Odysseus had Athena, Gilgamesh had Siduri), Johnny’s filling of the “supernatural aid” position for Baby differs from such examples in myth. Though Athena helped Odysseus disguise himself to his wife’s disrespectful suitors and ultimately succeed in reclaiming his kingly power, she never establishes a personal relationship with him. She is a god and he is a mortal—Homer chooses to keep her omniscient and him strictly dependent, relying on her for help. Johnny, on the other hand, will become a friend (and much more) to Baby, distinguished not by his position as a religious entity but by his higher understanding of dance technique. Although Johnny may not be an actual god or mythical figure, to Baby, he might as well be. Johnny is her ultimate man. Besides being physically god-like in appearance, he is respectful and kind, causing Baby to become all the more enamored with him.
With the connection growing quickly between Johnny and Baby, Baby becomes more and more willing to prove herself to him to gain his favor, wanting to show him that she is ready—ready externally for his dance tutelage, and internally for a quietly hoped for romantic relationship. When she hears that his dance partner, Penny, needs to get an abortion, she goes to her father and pleads for the $250 dollars that Penny needs to do so. She proves herself in this way to the “dirty dancers” on the hotel staff, particularly Johnny, who asks Baby to fill in for Penny at their next scheduled dance gig—crossing the enumerated “first threshold” and being well on her way to becoming a dancer.
Perhaps the most important sequences in the film are the tests and trials Baby must undergo on her way from girl to both dancer and woman. The obvious events that fall under this heading are of course the intensive dancing lessons Johnny teaches frantically to Baby to be sure they are ready for the performance in time. One move in particular proves difficult for Baby to accomplish—a lift. Though it sounds simple enough, the balance and coordination required for Baby to stay in the air without tipping over is challenging. Johnny comes up with the idea to practice it in the lake nearby, another image of Baby’s transition—the lifting of Baby from under the water’s surface mirroring the baptism process performed on actual babies that symbolize their initiation into the parent’s religion. Baby comes close to holding the position, but she falls and splashes into the lake, showing that though she is close to achieving womanhood and dancing glory, she is not quite through with her learning process. This is the second instance of water imagery in Dirty Dancing—the first being the long and narrow bridge crossed by Baby to reach the dirty dancers at their party. Though water does not prove to be a reoccurring motif throughout the film, its two brief appearances are important symbols accentuating Baby’s position immediately before and right in the middle of her journey to womanhood.
Throughout Baby’s tests and trials, she gradually wears more and more revealing outfits, slowly showing more skin and womanly curves as she undergoes her “dirty dancer” training—showing that she is no longer an innocent little girl. While crossing the bridge to the dirty dancers’ party early in the film, she wears a loose-fitting dress that goes past her knees and shows nothing below her neck. But in this stage, in a training scene with Johnny, she wears a white T-shirt rolled up at the sleeves and cut off at the midriff (showing her belly button) as well as tight jean shorts, showing off her womanly figure. It is fitting that she wear differing garments while dancing; Baby mirrors the Dionysian revelers in ancient Greece that dress in celebratory wear to worship Dionysus. Adolescent girls at Demeter’s Brauron sanctuary in ancient Greece, like Baby, also left childhood clothing behind—quite literally in their case, leaving their girlish garments at Brauron before returning to their homes changed; initiated into womanhood.
All heroes must voyage to the underworld and comes to terms with their own mortality; although in Baby’s case she does not physically travel to the land of death, she experiences how death could potentially affect her—namely, how being a woman means that one has to come into contact with death and return to survive. Penny returns from the abortion weak and trembling, seemingly on the verge of death. Apparently the money Baby was able to procure to help her paid for a back-alley and dangerous operation, leaving Penny in severe pain. Baby, realizing that the situation has gone out of everyone’s control, fetches her father (a doctor) for help. Baby leaves this experience having learned that being an adult, specifically a woman, has its exigencies. Women must get pregnant and either watch their bellies grow, going through the potentially painful experience of giving birth, or, like Penny, realize that they have made a mistake and, if they choose, risk their life (as this was the 1960s, before it was legalized) by aborting. Baby’s somber realization that with maturity comes responsibility is an important growing experience. Though she says “I’m scared…of who I am,” having accepted and understanding life’s burdens, she is now truly ready for the final stages of her quest.
Many heroes’ quests are importantly altered by a temptress that can either lead them to stray from their journey’s path (Calypso, holding Odysseus on her island) or boost them to victory (Circe advising Odysseus on his return voyage home). Baby’s story, however differs from these myths in that it is told without a seducer or seductress. The closest correspondence one can find in the movie happens to Johnny, who takes the hero torch from Baby for a short scene. When lonely housewife Vivian Pressman sets her sights on Johnny, she finds herself in for a challenge. He is reluctant to flirt with her, and, though she is both beautiful and beguiling, he continues to reject her. Like Gilgamesh, whose turning down of Ishtar’s advances results in punishment (the sending of a great bull from heaven), Johnny’s refusal results with a penalty as well. The temptress Vivian goes to his superiors at Kellerman’s and accuses him of stealing. Unlike the thievery done by mythic trickster figures Prometheus or Hermes; however, Johnny was falsely accused—he had no part in her missing wallet. Baby, his alibi for the night of the supposed “theft,” states that she was with him that night—clearing him for the thievery but still resulting in his expulsion due to his having a relationship with a resort guest (another one of the trials Baby must deal with on her quest). Though Johnny’s meeting with Vivian provided an important plot point resulting is his firing, in Baby’s heroic journey, it had little effect.
The ultimate boon heroes are said to return with, impacting their communities for the better, is also missing from Dirty Dancing. However, if one looks at myths like The Odyssey or Gilgamesh, one finds that there is no specific or heavily important prize the hero bestows upon their return. For Gilgamesh, the “prize” he returns with is more internal—a kind of self-discovery. Gilgamesh fails to return with immortality, but in doing so he realizes the inevitability of his own death. Odysseus, on the other hand, find his “prize” in reuniting with his wife, son, and people, being restored to the land he had been absent from for so long. Baby’s ultimate boon then would be her reaching of womanhood, most clearly seen as achieved after her lovemaking scene with Johnny, significantly alerting the viewer that Baby has succeeded in her quest for maturity. After making love, Johnny asks Baby her real name. “Frances,” she says. “Frances,” he echoes back, “that’s a real grown-up name.” No longer needing the immature label of her childhood nickname, Frances has completed her transition into womanhood.
The final part of the movie is devoted to Baby’s symbolic “reintegration,” proving to her parents and other characters in the film that she has achieved adulthood. Even though he has been fired, Johnny returns to Kellerman’s (another brief substitution of the hero role) for another dance with Baby in front of the entire resort crowd. Along with this phase is Baby’s atonement with her father (delayed a step from the heroic initiation process rubric). By appearing with Johnny in front of her family and friends, she not only reveals her relationship with Johnny to the world but also asserts her independence by “dirty dancing”—showing that she has become a woman. Her father doesn’t take it all too well at first. Earlier in the movie, when he sees her beginning to wear makeup, betraying her “Baby”-like image, he says “Take that stuff off your face before your mother sees you.” Her father must now realize that he is not the only man in his daughter’s life from now on, and must come to terms with the fact that his daughter is a sexual being like himself. Like examples in Greek or Arthurian myth in which the hero’s redemption with their father results in the father’s death and the hero’s aggression of their newfound power, Baby’s maturation, to look at it in a Freudian aspect, “kills” her father by showing him that she has become a sexually awakened woman. This makes it impossible for him to be with her, as she is his daughter, and will never be interested in him. Although the people around her may not be comfortable with the new Baby, she has asserted herself and her newfound role in society.
Not all heroes need to achieve worship after completing their quest. Though Hercules later developed a cult following and actually had a myth about his rebirth from death and subsequent ascension to Mount Olympus, Gilgamesh never achieved apotheosis at all (at least in myth). Baby does not die or become immortal to achieve apotheosis (she is never “worshipped,” of course), but she does achieve a god-like status by being lifted into the air by Johnny during the movie’s final dance. He slowly lifts her up, a spotlight illuminating her head, as the music swells (“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” victoriously applauding Baby’s journey), showing the triumph she has achieved from making it through the liminality of her journey’s trials—gaining knowledge of what is means to be mature—before becoming the adult she is now. She is literally looked up upon by the audience—having made it through her journey, she is raised into the sky, symbolically representing her now semi-divine status from achieving her transformation.
Is this why "Dirty Dancing" is considered a classic? Do the underlying allegories of a girl maturing into womanhood and a hero completing her quest make Dirty Dancing (and its commonly copied format) successful? The subject of adolescents and their journey to maturity fascinates human society, for it is a transition every functioning adult has made, and every child will have to make. Baby herself ends the film having learned more about her own nature, about both good things that come with maturity (romance, responsibility) and the bad (the downsides of romance and responsibility). People enjoy watching her trouble-filled journey into adulthood—not only because of the slick dance moves and oldies soundtrack, but because through her accomplishing of her task, each viewer leaves with the feeling that they, too, can gain knowledge and reach a more mature understanding of their own lives.