Dirty Dancing (1987): The Movie Structure Archives
- Genre: Romance
- Writer: Eleanor Bergstein
- Director: Emile Ardolino
Act 1 (1%-25%)
- Frances Houseman (nicknamed “Baby”) is on vacation with her family at Kellerman’s resort in the Catskill Mountains for three weeks. It’s the summer of 1963. She’s a daddy’s girl, and in the narration admits to being naïve, but driven about bettering the world and joining the Peace Corps. Her dad knows Max, the owner of the resort.
- Hook: Baby and her family join in for a dance lesson with, as Max puts it, a “former Rockette.” Baby is clearly uncomfortable and out of place.
- Inciting Event: That evening Baby sneaks away to the main house, where she secretly overhears Max telling the male waiters to “show the daughters a good time… even the dogs.” Just then the entertainment staff walks in, including Johnny. Max berates them. There is a clear social separation between the wealthy waiters here for the summer, and the full time entertainers.
- Later that night, Max introduces Baby and her family to Robby, a Yale student working as a waiter for the summer. Baby saw him harassing Johnny earlier, and he has a clear interest in Baby’s older sister Lisa.
- Baby is later forced to dance with Max’s grandson, Neil, who is dismissive of her life goals and only interested in a good time. She watches Johnny and the former Rockette, named Penny, dance the Mambo for the crowd, and is intrigued.
- Key Event: That night, she stumbles upon Billy, Johnny’s cousin, and is taken to the entertainer’s secret dirty dancing party. Johnny tries to teach her to dance the way they do, and while she struggles to keep up, she enjoys herself.
- 1st Plot Point: The next evening, Neil tries to hit on Baby, but is overwhelmingly condescending. They are raiding the main house’s kitchen when Baby sees Penny hiding in the corner crying. She tricks Neil into leaving. She sends Billy for Johnny, and the three go to help her. Baby finds out she’s pregnant, and assumes it’s from Johnny, who lashes out at the implication.
Act 2 (25%-75%)
- Baby watches as Penny cries. She tries to offer comfort, but Penny lashes out, revealing that Robbie knocked her up in the process. Billy knows an abortion doctor they hope can help Penny, but they don’t have the money.
- 1st Pinch Point: Baby later confronts Robbie about it but he takes no responsibility, passing Penny off as a whore. Unsure what else to do, Baby goes to her dad, asking him for the money. She won’t tell him what for, but he trusts her and gives it to her.
- That night, Baby brings Penny and Johnny the money. There’s one problem; Penny and Johnny have a dancing gig the only night the doctor will be in town. Penny and Billy convince Johnny to bring Baby, as his dance partner.
- Johnny begins training her, and slowly Baby gets better. They develop some sexual tension as the lessons continue, but Baby is angry that Johnny won’t teach her the final lift. The performance is in only two days.
- Together, Johnny and Baby leave the resort, wandering through the woods and finally practicing the lift in a lake in case Baby falls. She finally pulls off the lift after the day of practicing.
- Midpoint: With Lisa covering her absence, Baby and Johnny leave for the performance at another resort. At the last minute, Baby fails the lift, but the dance is a success overall. Johnny is proud of her.
- When they return they find that, while the abortion was a success, the doctor was a quack and Penny is now dangerously ill. If they call the hospital Penny will be arrested, so Baby goes to her father for help. He saves Penny, but forbids Baby have anything to do with any of the dancer from then on.
- Baby secretly goes to meet Johnny in his cabin, to apologize for how rude her father was to him. Johnny reveals he believes himself to be nothing, and he wishes he could be useful, like Baby’s father is. He also reveals he whores himself out to the wives at the resort to try and make ends meet. Baby and Johnny end up having sex.
- 2nd Pinch Point: Baby goes to check on Penny, who will make a full recovery. Penny realizes Johnny and Baby are having sex and warns him to stay away from her (which of course, he doesn’t). Lisa tells Baby she plans to have sex with Robby.
- 3rd Plot Point: Later on, Johnny declines money from one of the wives who sleeps with him, feeling it’s the right thing to do because of Baby. In retaliation, that woman claims Johnny stole a patron’s wallet. Baby knows Johnny didn’t do it because she was with him all night. She is forced to tell her father and Max to prevent him from firing Johnny.
Act 3 (75%-100%)
- Baby and her father have a heart to heart, she apologizes for lying, but is angry her father taught her everyone is equal, yet he doesn’t treat everyone that way. Later, Johnny tells Baby he’s been fired for having a relationship with her.
- Johnny confronts Baby’s father, who tells him he thinks Johnny knocked up and abandoned Penny. Johnny is too angry to correct him and leaves the resort.
- Climax: At the end of season dance, Baby and her family are all there. Robby thanks Baby’s father for handling Penny and reveals he knocked her up. Baby’s father is enraged.
- Climactic Moment: Johnny returns and calls Baby up on stage with him, interrupting the show. The two begin to dance and soon the other entertainers join. This time, Baby does the lift perfectly.
- Resolution: All the other patrons join in the dance as well while Baby and Johnny dance romantically in the center of the room.
Character 1: Frances “Baby” Houseman
- Baby begins her arc looking to bring justice to the world. She wants to join the Peace Corps and help people no one else would. However, she’s naïve about how her own world and social circles work, having grown up rather sheltered.
- This naivety begins to disappear as she becomes entangled in Johnny and Penny’s lives. She sees how Robbie treats Penny, how Max treats the entertainers, and how her own father, her idol, treats Johnny. People she assumed were good people slowly lose their perfect veneer. Johnny shows her an entire world of people right in her backyard that are mistreated and disrespected for being of a lower class, something that disrupts her old world view.
- This all comes to a head when Baby acts as Johnny’s alibi, only for him to be fired anyways. Her belief that you should always tell the truth and do the right thing is challenged, and she is unsure if it’s even true anymore.
- Baby’s arc ends with Johnny’s return. She upholds her truth, and in the process teaches Johnny to become a better person and gains her father’s respect. She’s undergone a flat arc; despite her growing from naïve to more worldly, her core truth remains constant throughout the movie.
Character 2: Johnny Castle
- Johnny’s arc is directly tied to Baby’s. He begins the movie viewing himself as lesser than the rich people around him. While he pushes back against his mistreatment he’s also internalized it. It’s a way for him to excuse how others treat them to cope with it.
- As Johnny’s relationship with Baby grows, he’s surprised by how much she respects him and the other entertainers, and how unshakable her trusting world view is. As the two grow closer, Johnny realizes he’s being used by the other female patrons, that they see him as worthless, and that he sees himself that way too.
- This view of himself is reinforced by Baby’s father and Max, both when Baby’s father assumes he knocked up Penny and when Max fires him after Baby stands up for him. The world has confirmed that he will always be looked at as lesser, as “trash.”
- However, Johnny is able to overcome this and completes his arc in the process. Thanks to Baby’s influence, Johnny refuses to be told he is worthless. He comes back to the resort and takes over the final dance of the show, giving a speech about how Baby proved to him that there are good, honorable people in the world who will respect him.
Theme: What makes a good person?
When looking at Baby’s arc, the theme of the movie becomes clear; what makes a good person? Baby and Johnny both struggle with this question throughout the movie in their own way. Baby struggles as people she thought were good and honorable prove not to be, and Johnny struggles to realize there are good people at all. But the rest of the cast reflect this question as well, as characters you expect at first glance to be trustworthy or trashy prove to be generous or cruel.
Additionally, this theme is tied to the plot largely through the character’s motivation. With a movie so focused on character building and relationships, that makes sense.
Finally, this movie uses dancing as its primary symbol. However, this symbol is more focused on each character’s individual growth than the movie’s broader theme. As Baby progresses in her dancing skills you also progresses in her understanding of the world. Similarly, as Johnny gains more acceptance of his “dirty dancing” he is also gaining more self-respect.
Dirty Dancing handles it’s pacing very well, and if anything, the Climax probably should have been further fleshed out. Realistically though, the Climax did everything it needed to, wrapping up the conflict between Baby’s father, Robby, and Penny. When looked at holistically, Dirty Dancing’s pacing is basically spot on for its genre, taking the audience on a smooth and steadily growing journey of the love and acceptance between two people in different circles of life.
Overall, Dirty Dancing is an excellent romance movie, one that handles all the tropes of the genre in a way that’s engaging, fresh, and actually has something meaningful to say about our own world. The personal growth of Baby and Johnny both as individuals and as a pair is both emotional and sexual. It’s no surprise why this movie has seen the success it has over the years!