To Mambo With a Predator: The Disturbing Subtext of 'Dirty Dancing'
Over the course of three decades, no film has invaded more slumber parties than Dirty Dancing, that age-old tale of a sweet and sheltered New York teen on the cusp of womanhood who comes of age thanks to the suggestive undulations and tender touch of a rebellious bad-boy dance instructor. (There’s also some stuff about back-alley abortions, but most people just kind of skip over that and get to the grindin’.)
It’s a classic tale of innocence and love conquering oppressive adults and outdated sexual mores -- or so they would have you believe.
When you look closer, there seems to be something more sinister at play, and it all centers on the suave and seductive charms of Patrick Swayze’s Johnny Castle. Once you start chiseling at the character’s veneer, you might start to suspect something much darker: Dirty Dancing may or may not be the story of a serial sexual predator operating with impunity summer after summer, preying on young girls’ lusts.
Somebody put baby BACK in the corner, stat.
An innocent summer fling?
I know what you’re thinking, so let’s go ahead and get it out of the way. When 17-year-old Baby (Nabokov didn’t get a writing credit, by the way) arrives at the Kellerman’s Resort of rich New Yorkers, she immediately becomes infatuated with Johnny Castle, crushing on him hard. And she’s proactive.
She actively wedges herself into his world. When Johnny’s partner needs an abortion after she gets knocked up by a slimy stranger, it’s Baby who takes it upon herself to get money to pay for it. When it turns out Penny can only get her back-alley abortion on the day of her and Johnny’s big dance, it’s Baby who insists on learning the routine, getting closer and closer to Johnny until she’s close enough to seduce him. Before we know it, the age-unknown Johnny and teenage Baby are official residents of Pound Town, with Baby sneaking in and out of his trashy cabin to do the horizontal tango.
So, yeah, it appears Baby is the one who makes the moves. She’s ALL over him. She’s like the wind. But when you look at the whole thing from Johnny’s perspective, it becomes increasingly obvious that Johnny’s got this whole thing planned. Because he’s done it before. This isn’t Johnny’s first dance.
Meet the real Johnny Castle
When we first meet Johnny, he walks into Kellerman’s as his manager is giving a slightly creepy pep talk to his summer employees.
“Show the goddamned daughters a good time. All the daughters. Even the dogs. Romance ‘em any way you want,” he says.
When Johnny walks in, however, the conversation turns. He addresses Johnny directly. Just Johnny: “Teach ‘em the mambo, the cha cha... that’s it. That’s where it ends. No funny business, no conversations, and keep your hands off.”
“Think you can keep that straight, Johnny?” a waiter presses following Johnny’s mandate of chastity. “What you can and can’t lay your hands on?”
Johnny seems to get the message, despite obviously carrying on with humping the older women at the resort at will. He takes to the dance floor and dances with the ladies, hyper-aware of everything going on, including the fact that Baby’s drooling over him.
When Baby later shows up to the after-hours party in the staff cabin, Johnny immediately beelines to her, asking what she’s doing there and walking away coldly. These days, we call that negging. And it works. She’s transfixed. His trap is set. He’s already displayed publicly that he is not interested in this young flower.
And then, wham! On the dance floor, Johnny comes lunging at Baby, pelvis first, undulating at her as if somebody’s grabbed him by the dong and started tugging him toward her against his will. Within 20 seconds, they’re grinding crotches together. Hard.
This seems suspect, given that we’ve already seen Johnny executing Baryshnikov-caliber moves on the dance floor. Now, though, unencumbered with decency, he throws those skills out the window in favor of a little dance-floor dry humpage. He then walks away, leaving her loins to froth.
After that, it’s a standard high school-style game of Johnny being negative, then being a saint. During their training montages, he berates and then slyly lays on the suave. It’s not said, but there’s a damned good reason they go from dancing fully clothed to dancing in states of undress. It’s because the teacher, Johnny, demands it.
It all culminates in Baby’s so-called seduction of Johnny. She asks him to dance. She kisses him gently on the neck, then WHAM! That pelvis goes undulating and Johnny goes from first base to a walk-off grand slam in a matter of seconds.
It works like a charm. And my suspicion is that it has for many summers.
The magic pelvis
Maybe Johnny’s just a product of his time. Sure, he thrives on a steady diet of MILF, but he’s also a man raised in the ‘50s, when rock idols constantly sang of hooking up with 16-year-olds and Jerry Lee Lewis made a big show of marrying his teenage cousin. He saw the raw power of rock and roll and its ability to unleash long-dormant sexual impulses in the masses... and he harnessed it into that sweet, sweet Swayze pelvis.
We first get a glimpse of Johnny’s pelvic sorcery (to borrow a phrase from Guardians of the Galaxy) when he starts playing the schlong con on Baby, but it’s at the very end of the film, during the climax, that he truly unleashes his powers.
After his mighty leap from the stage following the big dance routine, he hits the ground, turns to the crowd, and hump-dances in their general direction. The fellow staffers, hypnotized, immediately spring into a highly choreographed dance, as if Michael Jackson threw the dance magic of Moonwalker at them. The old folks all get up and begin bumping and grinding. The floor of Kellerman’s was probably like a gigantic luxury Slip 'N Slide.
But the real kicker? Baby’s dad approaches Johnny and apologizes to him. He stares at him, dazed, and says he’s sorry for thinking that Johnny was the one who knocked Penny up. He makes no mention of the fact that this dude has been banging his daughter on the reg for days, despite Baby telling him. That, friends, is the power of the pelvic sorcery. He has hypnotized every single guest at the resort. Baby never stood a chance
But wait, there’s more
Yes, it’s ridiculous to think that Johnny has a magic crotch that makes people bend to his will, but it’s just part of the mind game he plays on Baby. The negging and humping are just a part of it. But there are even more mind games at play. When Baby asks how many people he’s slept with, he goes into wounded boy-hooker mode, taking a page out of the David Lee Roth book of Just a Gigolo.
“You don’t understand what it’s like, Baby. You come from the streets and suddenly you’re up here and these women are throwing themselves at you and they smell good and they really take care of themselves, I mean, I never knew women could be like that,” he says. “They’re slipping their room keys in my hands two or three times a day...” then goes into how he feels like he’s being used.
Meanwhile, Johnny has been grazing a buffet of aged meat, but he has a hunger for veal, too. And that’s where Baby, and the countless other Babies that have likely come before her, come into play.
He totally gives himself away at the end, when he announces to the crowd that he always does the last dance of the season (the season, it appears, is only a week long). It’s never said how old Johnny is, but he doesn’t strike me as a man who makes up a tradition after one summer. He’s worked here for a while. And given that the staff feels compelled to give him stern warnings not to hump the guests’ daughters, there’s substantial evidence to at least suspect he’s done this before.
Johnny Castle: serial predator?
“But guy on the Internet, “ you’re sure to interject, “Baby’s 17. That’s consent in New York.”
Oh, fine. But are we usually down to trust people who use the phrase “barely legal” as a substitute for “sexy”? Everybody is so quick to vilify Baby’s dad for protecting her, but Jesus! If I had a daughter on her way to the Peace Corps, I’d probably not be too down with her spending the vacation I paid for playing Sylvia & Mickey XXX in the cabin down the path. Dude’s shady.
Johnny might not have knocked Penny up, but it’s his cousin who immediately knows where to get that illegal abortion, and Johnny looks on approvingly. Dude’s probably got a punch card with the good doc.
Look at the way he ogles Baby, hard, as she changes in his car. Look at the way he shifts into full-blown sex machine the minute the opportunity arises, or how he eyes a crowd like a fat dude at Old Country Buffet. And look at the way he all but ignores Baby the morning after he first gets in her pants, all while still making googoo eyes at the MILFs that populate the resort.
At best, he’s a handsomer version of Wooderson from Dazed and Confused. At worst, he’s the younger version of Swayze’s Donnie Darko character. Either way, he’s a stone-cold creep... and a professional.
He’s struck before. And while he probably won’t strike at Kellerman’s again -- he was, after all, fired for having sex with a teenage customer -- it’s likely that he’ll strike again… unless he remains a fixture in Baby’s life, crushing her Peace Corps dreams by dragging her down with him as he joins the house painters union. But hey, at least they won’t be in danger of having too many kids. Johnny knows a guy.
So yeah, maybe Baby should have stayed in the corner. It wouldn’t have made much of a difference to Johnny Castle. Dude’s having the time of his life. Every summer.
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Andy Kryza is a senior editor at Thrillist and, believe it or not, a huge Swayze fan. Which makes this horrible revelation all the more difficult to live with. Follow him to anywhere but Kellerman’s: @apkryza.