‘Dirty Dancing:’ 45 Behind-The-Scenes Secrets That Most People Don’t Know
When Dirty Dancing first sashayed into theatres in 1987, it became an instant hit and it cha-cha-cha’d straight into the hearts of millions. Even 33 years later, plenty of fans still can’t get enough of that singing and dancing filled summer romance between Baby and Johnny. It’s just the kind of film that you want to watch over and over again. We can’t even remember the first time we’ve seen it because everything is so familiar. We can almost even dance and sing along (again, almost). As picture-perfect as it was and is still in our minds, Dirty Dancing was still like other movies. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, and it took a TON of work to get it to the film we oh so adore right now. If you want to know what the behind-the-scenes looked like, keep reading on.
The Title Dirty Dancing Was a Little Too Dirty For Some
The film’s title holds as much appeal as the songs and dance numbers. We doubt it would’ve stuck around this long with a different title, especially something like I Was a Teenage Mambo Queen. Then again, it was the 80s, so it’s easy to understand why some people would think Dirty Dancing is a little too racy.
Censorship officers thought the film was a porn film. But the studio fought for the title, and Dirty Dancing was born. Not everyone in the cast loved it, though. In a 1987 interview, Patrick Swayze admitted that he hated it. He said he was one of the people who fought against the title, but the studio stood its ground. Sorry Partick, but they were right on that one.
The Film is Based on Real Life
Where better to get an epic film idea than your own life, right? That’s what screenwriter and co-producer Eleanor Bergstein did for Dirty Dancing. In the 1960s, her family, who was from Brooklyn, would always spend the summer in the Catskills. While her doctor father would take time to relax away from the city, she and her sister would go off doing shenanigans.
Bergstein was also nicknamed “Baby” in real life. She got the name on one of their summer trips, and it stuck well into her twenties. Where did the dance romance theme come from, you ask? Well, Bergstein also had her very own romance with a much-older dance instructor. She must have had such an adventurous life.
Patrick and Only Patrick
From the start, there was only one and only Johnny Castle for Bergstein, and it was none other than Patrick Swayze. Over the years, speculation and rumors have popped up that the role was offered to other actors, but Bergstein dismissed all that in a 2017 Yahoo interview, saying that Patrick was the only actor offered the role.
Once the movie was a go, producers went after Swayze. When Bergstein met him, she told him, “Now that I know you, if you decide not to do this, it’s hard for me to think that I’ll make the film.” Luckily, Swayze wanted the part. Much like any part of this movie, we simply couldn’t imagine anyone taking Johnny’s part.
Jennifer Grey vs Sarah Jessica Parker
Unlike Johnny’s part, casting directors had a hard time finding the right person to play Baby. There were plenty of young actresses auditioning for the role, and one of the ones in consideration was none other than Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker.
In the end, when the casting directors saw Jennifer Grey, they decided she looked perfect for the part. And though Parker lost the role, she did launch a hugely successful career with Sex and the City. As much as we love her, there’s just no denying the insane chemistry between Grey and Swayze.
Some Cast and Crew Members Thought the Set was Cursed
Production started nice and sunny for Dirty Dancing. On the sixth day, everything just started going crazy. Now, little snags here and there are fine on movie sets, but when it came to Dirty Dancing, it was just one bad thing after another. Within a short amount of time, some of the crew got robbed, the surrounding streets were flooded, destroying a van.
Not only that, a lot of people started getting in to accidents and hurting themselves. A set decorator fell off a ladder, a wardrobe assistant broke her toe, and a second assistant director broke her wrist. And nope, that was not the end of it. Three crew members also got food poisoning. Last but not least, Grey was also stung by a wasp. It was bad enough that a lot of people thought the set was cursed.
Crew Members had to Paint Tree Leaves Green
The film has that distinct summer feel, but we were all dupped because it was actually filmed in fall. While the actors were wearing all these loose and comfy summer clothes, it was freezing during filming. While the dancing did keep them somewhat warm in- between takes, they had to bundle up in blankets and big coats to stay warm.
Not only that, but the crew also had to do a lot of improvising with the set. Since it was supposed to be set in summer, the crew had to spray-paint all the yellowing leaves of the trees that were in the camera shot. They even had to stick leaves on some of the trees.
The Stars Weren’t Young
Hollywood always manages to dupe us with older stars playing younger characters, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s still a little bit surprising, though, especially when you consider how old Grey and Swayze were when they were cast as Baby and Johnny.
In the film, Baby is 18, and Johnny is 24. In real life, Grey was 26, and Swayze was 34 when they were cast. Grey reportedly was given just five minutes to prove that she could pull off playing a fresh-faced teenage girl, and, as it seems, she proved five minutes was enough to land one of the most iconic roles in her career.
It Was Dance From The Start
Before there was even a story, there was dance. From the very beginning, Eleanor Bergstein knew what the film should revolve around. When co-producer Lisa Gottlieb met her and asked what the story was about, Bergstein reportedly said she had no story yet but knew it should involve Latin dancing.
From there, the film was created around dancing. Bergstein drew from her own experiences vacationing in the Catskills to shape the script and bring the story to life. And the smaller details were simply later added on.
The Rain was Fake
As we have already learned in one scene, they had to fake paint green leaves on trees. In another, they had to fake rain. Even if it was the fall season, when the crew wanted rain, the weather just seemed to say nope and laugh at their faces.
So when they needed rain, like in the scene where Patrick Swayze had to break a window to get into a car, they had to fake the rain. Instead of using those expensive rain machines, though, the production simply set up a hose on top of a hotel entrance and let it spray. In all fairness, we couldn’t even tell the difference.
They Used Makeup to Make Cynthia Rhodes Less Beautiful
Cynthia Rhodes was the first person cast for the film. At that point, she was still building up her resume, but she was already regarded as a natural beauty. Even without makeup, she’s still gorgeous and radiant. At one point, though, this became a problem.
Despite her best acting efforts, Rhodes still looked too beautiful. To make her look a little more distraught and in legitimate pain, the make-up crew had to put bags under her eyes, they had to make her complexion paler, and they really had to roughen up her hair. Through great effort, they managed to get the look they wanted. Imagine having her problem, right?
A Summer Swim in a Freezing Lake
Remember that iconic lift in the lake scene? That looked like a refreshing dip on a hot summer day. In reality, though, the water was around 40 degrees, and Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze weren’t having the best time of their lives. The water was so cold that their lips actually turned blue!
When Patrick spoke about that scene in interviews, he recalled the water as being “horrifyingly, hypothermically cold” and that they filmed that scene over and over again. Both actors knew that the scene needed to be perfect, though, so some cold water couldn’t stand in their way.
It Was Rejected 43 Times
Really great works tend to pass past a lot of “blind” people before finally getting their big breaks and it was no different for Dirty Dancing. In an interview with HuffPost, Lisa Gottlieb said that the film almost wasn’t made.
Gottlieb first got MGM on board, but two weeks later, the executive who signed the deal was fired. The rights reverted back to Gottlieb, and she tried to sell it to everyone in Hollywood for a year. She was rejected 43 freaking times by 43 short-sighted companies before she finally found someone willing to take a risk.
The Studio Thought It was a ‘Soft’ Movie
Very fitting to its title, Dirty Dancing was, well, a little naughty. There wasn’t nudity, but the film was undeniably sexy. A lot of those dance sequences were steamier than the sex scenes movies today offer. And yet, studio execs thought the film was ‘small and soft.’
Lisa Gottlieb recounted that the execs criticized it as a ‘girl’s film.’ In addition to that, they also wanted to cast a blonde bimbo for the lead. Fortunately, Gottlieb and her co-producers fought against the archetype and insisted on a less than perfect lead. Jokes on whoever those studio execs were.
Kellerman’s was Inspired by Grossinger’s
The real-life version of Kellerman’s where Eleanor Bergstein and her family used to spend their summers was a vibrant vacation destination called the Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel. Bergstein simply made a name change but kept the family fun-filled feel of the place.
One other change was that although Kellerman’s was in the Catskills Mountains in the film, the scenes were shot in a resort called Mountain Lake Lodge in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Sadly, Grossinger’s was demolished in 2018 after being closed since 1986.
Swayze and Grey Didn’t Always Get Along
This might have broken some hearts of hardcore Johnny and Baby- shippers, but aside from the onscreen friction, there was also some real-life tension between Swayze and Grey. The two reportedly argued a lot before the cameras would start rolling, and yet, they’d put on this extraordinary chemistry once action was called.
In his autobiography, Swayze wrote, “We did have a few moments of friction when we were tired after a long day of shooting. She seemed particularly emotional, sometimes bursting into tears if someone criticized her. Other times, she slipped into silly moods, forcing us to do scenes over and over again when she’d start laughing.” Swayze admitted that he didn’t have a lot of patience for those retakes. Oops.
Dirty Dancing Wasn’t Swayze and Grey’s First Film Together
The tension between Swayze and Grey goes back years before Dirty Dancing from the 1984 film called Red Dawn. This is reportedly where their non-relationship began. According to Lisa Gottlieb, Swayze thought Grey was a wimp. She was emotional and was easy to cry, and he sort of made fun of her.
The pair worked through their differences, and though they didn’t get to the point of becoming close friends, they weren’t at each other’s throats either. Years later, though, Grey admitted that Swayze played a huge part in her ability to make those risky dance moves. She said that Swayze’s fearlessness was a perfect complement to her fearfulness, and while she’d be afraid to do things, he would be there willing to do anything.
The Crawl Scene Wasn’t in the Script
One of the most iconic scenes in Dirty Dancing, apart from many other unplanned iconic scenes, was when Johnny and Baby were flirting with each other while crawling around on the floor and lip-syncing to Love is Strange.
What makes this moment even more iconic is that it wasn’t even planned. Grey and Swayze were simply playing around for their warm-up exercise. Director Emile Ardolino loves it so much though that he kept it in the film. And now, we have him to thank for this flirtatious little scene.
The First Cut Was a Disaster
Dirty Dancing really had to face more obstacles than most films. It almost was not made, and then it was almost not released. Test audiences reportedly didn’t like Emile Ardolino’s first edit of the film at all.
Producers loathed it and were seriously discussing having a straight to video release instead of a theatre release. One even reportedly said, “burn the negative and collect the insurance.” Thankfully, the film recovered, and Ardolino’s final cut finally hit the mark, turning the film into a box office hit.
No Stuntman for Patrick Swayze
The film didn’t have blazing fires or big fight scenes but there were some things that should have still been left to professionals. Swayze, however, insisted on doing all his stunts on his own. Unfortunately, as daring as he was, it didn’t all end well.
In the scene where Johnny and Baby were dancing on the log, Swayze fell so many times. He kept banging his already injured knee. And he ended up having to be rushed to the hospital to have fluid drained from his knee to reduce the swelling and avoid a more complicated problem.
Swayze was Fighting the Pain of a Knee Injury in One Scene
Remember the lift scene in the lake again? Well, aside from the freezing water, Swayze was dealing with another thing: intense pain from a previous knee injury. The actor suffered a knee injury in his broadway days that sometimes interfered with his dancing.
The knee pain was also so bad that he also turned down numerous roles that might have needed so much movement from him. He really couldn’t stay away from the dance, though. And while filming the lake scene in Dirty Dancing, he was in severe pain. Remember, they had to repeat that scene so many times to get it right. Swayze fought through it, which makes it all the more impressive.
Shooting was an All Night All Day Party
Some cast members might not have always gotten along, but surprisingly, shoots were generally filled with fun and laughter. It reportedly felt like a party on set, and instead of seeing it as a problem, the director even encouraged it.
The cast and crew were allowed to have a drink and let loose, which often resulted in the dance rehearsals turning into all-out discos. It was such an excellent way for the cast to bond, translating to the comfortable familiarity they portrayed onscreen. It also resulted in more improvising, which everyone loved.
The Film Was Shot In Under Three Months
Fans who’ve tried to replicate dance sequences from Dirty Dancing know that it can take days to learn. When you add in a bunch of people, cameras, and such, everyone knows it can take weeks, especially for the more complicated ones. Surprisingly, the cast only had two weeks of dance training before filming began.
In two short weeks, the cast had to learn all those complicated choreographies perfectly, which is a feat in itself. However, they had no choice since the film was given one of the tightest filming schedules ever. For such a complicated film, it was finished in only 44 days! Even films nowadays with all their fancy gear wouldn’t try to compete with that feat. There was immense pressure on everyone, but in the end, it all paid off.
The Abortion Scene was a Big Deal
With a small budget and the prospect of reaching a bigger and younger audience, Dirty Dancing drew in plenty of brands who wanted to share in the benefits. Since abortion was illegal in the U.S. in the 1960s, though, a lot of these brands pulled out.
One of these was the skin-care company, Clearasil. They were already on the verge of marketing the film, but when they found out about Penny’s illegal abortion, they asked Eleanor Bergstein to take it out. She refused, so Clearasil backed out. “Hey I would love to, but I can’t because if I take it out, everything will fall apart,” the producer said. “There’s no reason for Baby to meet Johnny, for Penny not to be able to dance, for Baby to learn to dance with Johnny, for her to make love with Johnny – there’s no story without that.”
Mountain Lake Lodge Started Dirty Dancing Weekends
Mountain Lake Lodge has been very proud of its association with the film. Not only can you stay in the actual place the film was shot at, but you can also enjoy your very own Dirty Dancing vacation.
The lodge hosts three Dirty Dancing themed weekends every single year. This involves a screening of the film, of course, dance lessons, a Dirty Dancing-themed scavenger hunt, a watermelon toss, trivia games, a sock hop, and dinners. Who knows, maybe you’d find your Johnny or Baby there.
The Adorable Tickle Scene was Unscripted
When Jennifer Grey erupted into laughter after getting tickled in the scene where Baby and Johnny were supposed to be rehearsing, it was real. It wasn’t in the script. The director didn’t tell her to do it. She was just ticklish. And the annoyance in Swayze’s face? Yep, that was real annoyance as well.
Eleanor Bergstein explained that it was already very late when they were shooting that. Everyone was exhausted. When they rewatched the scene, though, they burst out laughing as well. Even Grey and Swayze ended up laughing as well, so they just kept it in.
Eastern Europe LOVES Dirty Dancing
The world loves Dirty Dancing, but apparently, Eastern Europe loves it more than anyone else. In a 2006 interview with The Guardian, Eleanor Bergstein revealed that the film was massively popular in the old Eastern Bloc.
Apparently, when a woman sought help from the woman’s shelters, it was tradition to wash her, tend to her wounds, then show her Dirty Dancing. When the Berlin wall came down, a lot of kids wore Dirty Dancing t-shirts while saying, “We want to have what they have in the West! We want Dirty Dancing!” Now, that’s what you call impact.
Everyone Thought It Would Flop
We can’t imagine how or why, but many people didn’t have high hopes for Dirty Dancing. When the initial test screenings didn’t get the positive reception they wanted, Vestron executives thought that was it for the film. They planned to put it up in theatres for the weekend then sending it straight to home video.
That weekend was all it took, though. People went absolutely crazy for it, and the repeat views made it an instant hit. From a small $5 million budget, the film made over $214 million worldwide, and it became one of the world’s favorite classics. If that’s not enough to say it was all worth it, we don’t know what would.
Patrick Swayze Loathed His Most Iconic Line
Until today, the line “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” is still living and thriving. Even those who haven’t watched the film would somehow have heard this somewhere. While we’re all here looking for every chance to coolly say it, though, there was one person who absolutely hated it, and it was none other than Patrick Swayze himself.
Swayze thought the line was absolutely too corny. He couldn’t even bring himself to utter it. Fortunately, Eleanor Bergstein convinced him to say it just once. And after seeing the finished film, Swayze had to concede that it did work. We wonder if he did ever repeat it, though.
She’s Like the Wind Wasn’t for Dirty Dancing
When She’s Like the Wind started playing in Johnny and Baby’s goodbye scene, it seemed like one of the most perfect songs for the movie. But it wasn’t made for Dirty Dancing. Patrick Swayze wrote the song with Stacey Widelitz for his other movie Grandview U.S.A.
The movie dropped it, though, and when the producers of Dirty Dancing said they needed more material, Swayze offered up his song. Upon hearing it, producers knew it was the perfect song. It felt like it was really made for the movie. Swayze even sang it!
Wayne Knight Got His Big Break
Before Dirty Dancing, Wayne Knight was just another actor filling in minor TV roles here and there. And although he only played the small role of social director Stan, his role in the film was what made people realize how talented he was.
He quickly started landing big roles. One of his most iconic ones was as the mailman Newman in Seinfeld. He also starred in Jurassic Park, JFK, Basic Instinct, and Born on the Fourth of July. And today, he is one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood.
Bill Medley Thought It Was a “Bad Porno”
We got to admit, without the proper context, Dirty Dancing might sound like the title of a “bad porno movie,” as Bill Medley put it. It’s the reason why it took months of coaxing to get the singer to sing the film’s most iconic song, Time of My Life.
Producers initially wanted Donna Summer and Joe Esposito, but they passed because of the title as well, and it went to Medley. He also didn’t think the movie would become a hit, so he just did the work and thought nothing more of it. Little did he know the song would win an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy. Plus, it’s one of the most iconic songs in the world to this day.
Swayze Sometimes Wore a Girdle
When you look at Patrick Swayze in the film, he is nothing but a fine specimen of a man. He had a fine dancer’s body and a sculpted frame. Unfortunately, the actor felt more like his actual age at the time, (34) and was a little insecure.
While those couple of shirtless scenes proved that he was more than fine, the actor wore a waist-tightening girdle when Johnny was fully clothed. It made him look thinner, and Swayze said this made him feel younger and closer to Johnny’s age in the film.
There is an Uncut Version of the Love Scene
Dirty Dancing is sexy enough without an ounce of nudity, but they actually filmed some semi-nude scenes for the love scene between Johnny and Baby. It was only revealed on the film’s 20th anniversary when the studio released an uncut and extended version of the film to home video.
In that uncut version, there was a whole racy kind of dancing sequence between Baby and Johnny. In the initial test screenings, though, the audience was vehemently against it. Remember, this was the conservative 80s. So they had to edit it out.
Dancing Runs in the Blood
When Baby started learning how to dance in the film, it seemed like she was born with a natural talent for it. And that might just be the case for Grey. Her father, Joel, was a dance cabaret legend, and it seems that he has passed on plenty of that talent to her.
In addition to genes, Grey also studied dancing in a New York private school. On the other hand, Patrick Swayze had formal ballet training while Cynthia Rhodes previously worked as a dancer and singer in Nashville, her hometown.
The Lift Was Shot Once and Only Once
In the film, Baby was so nervous about doing the lift that every other dance film has tried to recreate. In real life, Grey was also nervous as hell. After nailing it in their audition, she never wanted to do it again because it was, well, terrifying.
The duo never practiced what was probably one of the most dangerous moves in the film, and Grey waited until the very last moment before daring it one last time. Luckily, they nailed it that first time and that was the last she ever needed to do it. Seriously, how much more amazing can they get?
Only One Person Knows What Happened To Johnny and Baby
Although the ending was quite satisfying, we all still wonder what happened to Johnny and Baby. The only person who has a good idea about that, though, is Eleanor Bergstein. As she said, “I do have a very clear sense of a very complicated, long future that they have when this is over, but I never answer that.”
In 2017 though, three decades after Dirty Dancing was released, Bergstein revealed that she’s ready to bring back her beloved characters to life. She noted that her characters were particular people exploring a particular relationship with each other, and she was ready to explore all that in a sequel. In August 2020, the sequel was confirmed with Jennifer Grey set to return as Baby.
Kelly Bishop aka Mrs. Houseman was Supposed to be the Cougar
We can’t imagine Mrs. Houseman as anyone else but Kelly Bishop. This wasn’t her original role, though. She was first cast for Vivian Pressman, Johnny’s cougar friend, who tries to seduce him in one of their dance lessons. It’s cringe just imagining it!
Lynne Lipton was supposed to be Mrs. Houseman. Since an illness forced her to regularly be absent from set, though, the role was passed to Bishop. With the shortage of actresses on set, Vivian’s role was eventually passed to assistant choreographer Miranda Garrison.
Swayze Didn’t Want a Sequel
Sequels are often a hit or a huge, huge miss. Patrick Swayze knew this. And he didn’t think they’d be able to reprise the magic of the first film. So when studio execs came knocking at his door with a $6 million offer to return for a sequel, he firmly declined.
Fans supported the decision, and as it seems, Swayze was right about it. The sequel idea was scrapped since everyone knew they couldn’t make it without Swayze. Still, studios tried to milk the film’s popularity, and 17 years later, a reimagining of the film was released titled Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Swayze agreed to a little cameo on that, but all the same, it was good, but it wasn’t as great.
Swayze Believed the Film was a Hit Because it had Heart
Anyone could have made a coming-of-age dance film, and people would have liked it, but it might not have lasted as long as Dirty Dancing. This film is special. In an interview with AFI, Swayze revealed that he thinks the film’s magic lies more than its sexy dances or coming-of-age theme.
“It’s got so much heart, to me. It’s not about the sensuality; it’s really about people trying to find themselves, this young dance instructor feeling like he’s nothing but a product, and this young girl trying to find out who she is in a society of restrictions when she has such an amazing take on things,” he said. “On a certain level, it’s really about the fabulous, funky little Jewish girl getting the guy because [of] what she’s got in her heart.”
No Dirty Dancing Off Set
There was a lot of grinding in the dances in the film, and producers wanted to keep it there. They didn’t want the raunchiness on-screen to stray beyond it and start causing complications with the relationships between actors.
To make sure this didn’t happen, Eleanor Bergstein made it a rule that there should be no dancing outside the dance floor. The rule also extended to physical contact. Bergstein was very strict with this and wouldn’t let anything slide.
Sex Therapist Dr. Ruth was Almost in Dirty Dancing
Before Paula Trueman started swiping purses in Dirty Dancing as the sweet, old sneaky Mrs. Schumacher, the role was supposed to go to famous sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. She was a close friend of Eleanor Bergstein and was perfect for the role, but she passed on it.
Dr. Ruth considered it briefly but turned it down in the end because she didn’t want to play a thief. She thought this would negatively impact the future of her career so she contented herself by simply being part of the audience.
Dirty Dancing Went From Big Screen to Stage
With all those fantastic choreographies and amazing songs, it’s easy to see how Dirty Dancing would have translated so well from the big screen to the stage. It’s another magical experience. And in 2004, Eleanor Bergstein brought her feature film to the stage in a musical titled Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage.
Much like the film, the musical enjoyed tremendous success and received much love. It consistently sold-out shows in various countries. It even has the highest pre-sell record in London history. Up until today, the show is still going strong.
Jennifer Grey Got Into An Accident Before the Film Premiered
The film was done; the cast and crew had managed to overcome all the obstacles thrown their way. Unfortunately, Grey wasn’t able to fully celebrate these little victories and even the success of the film because of an accident she got into before it premiered.
A little while before Grey had to start her publicity tour, she and then-boyfriend Matthew Broderick visited North Ireland. While driving, Broderick veered into the wrong lane and collided head-on with another car, which had two passengers, a mother, and her 28-year-old daughter. They were instantly killed while Broderick suffered from a broken leg plus several other minor injuries. He was later convicted of dangerous driving and much to the dismay of the family of the victims, he only had to pay a fine. Grey was only bruised.
Dirty Dancing TV Series
With the film’s huge success, it’s no surprise a TV series was immediately in the works. Dirty Dancing The TV Series debuted in 1988 and only aired for 11 episodes on CBS. It had the same story and the same settings as the film. The only difference was the cast.
The series might not have been a huge hit, but some of its lead cast did go from relatively unknown to becoming well-known faces because of it. The two most notable actors who enjoyed this success were Melora Hardin, who played Baby, and Paul Feig, who played Norman Bryant. She went on to star in The Office while he created Freaks and Geeks.
It was also Made into a Reality Show
The possibilities for Dirty Dancing was just endless. And for the UK, they made it into a reality show titled Dirty Dancing: The Time of Your Life. It premiered in 2007 and was basically a dance competition. It was even filmed in the same place as the original film.
The best part about this was that the contestants had the honor of being judged by some of the film’s original cast members. The spinoff only lasted for two seasons, though. Even if it didn’t enjoy the same success as some alternate versions of the film, we still loved having a little more Dirty Dancing in our lives.