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Dirty Dancing: Top 7 Life Lessons from the All-Time Favorite Film

June 8, 2021

The Classic Movie that Almost Wasn’t

Dirty Dancing almost didn’t get made. Hollywood rejected the story 43 times. Bigwigs thought it was “too soft and too small.” They didn’t like that it was a girl’s film, but several critical male characters played significant roles in the storyline. Others thought it was more of a historical film about Jews.

Fortunately for us, Bergstein and company pressed on and were ultimately successful. The dancing was considered provocative enough that the Rating Board initially gave it an R rating. But the filmmakers put up enough fuss and got it switched to PG-13 since there’s no nudity, swearing, or violence depicted, opening it up to a broader audience.

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dirty dancing life lessons

My all-time favorite movie is Dirty Dancing. I’ve seen it so many times that I totally believe it only takes three weeks to fall in love and even less time to master the Mambo. 

Ring. Real-life called. Mastering dance moves takes time. And true love also takes time and work, amirite? 

This past weekend, I watched Dirty Dancing for the millionth time. I came away from it with a few new life lessons into well, real life, true love, and that no one puts Baby in the corner. 

Why this film is such a classic

If you haven’t seen it yet, or it’s been a while, here’s a quick recap. Spoiler alerts ahead. 

Released in 1987, Dirty Dancing is a romance movie set in the 1960s at a resort in the Catskills. Jennifer Gray plays the lead role as Frances “Baby” Houseman, a young woman from a well-to-do family who’s vacationing at the resort with her father, mother, and older sister. 

This vacation is set in the last summer of Baby’s youth. Here, she meets the resort’s dance instructor, Johnny Castle, played by the late, great Patrick Swayze. 

Sure, it’s a romance movie. But it’s got a sprinkling of coming-of-age on top with bass notes of women’s independence underpinning much of the life lessons in the film. 

Johnny’s dance partner becomes pregnant, and the role needs to be filled for the resort’s main performance. Baby steps up to the plate, and that’s how they fall in love. 

The meaning behind the title

The 1960s was a time of sweeping cultural changes. In 1963 when the film was set, conformity was widespread and, at times, stifling. You see this with how the women’s lives are portrayed throughout the movie — reserved during the day around rich and influential men. 

But at night, it’s a different story. 

That’s when the ladies head on down to the cabins, where the resort’s employees show them a different way to dance — a more provocative way. The name dirty dancing comes from these provocative dance moves. 

We watch the main character, Baby, go from the stereotypical daddy’s girl at the film’s start to an independent adult. In the beginning, she does what she’s told and doesn’t ask too many questions. 

But then she meets Johnny on the wrong side of the tracks and is introduced to a different perspective and a more independent way of being. The film follows her as she grows and learns who she really is and what she truly wants. 

The backstory

Many iconic romance movies are bittersweet and often tragic, like Titanic or Atonement. Not this film, which is very much an upbeat, feel-good story. But unfortunately, that wasn’t necessarily the case behind the scenes. 

During the summer months between 1920 to 1980, the Borscht Belt, a string of vacation resorts in the Catskills, attracted many Jewish-American families, including the film’s screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein and her family. 

Bergstein was born in 1938. The story was based on real-life events and real-life characters from Bergstein’s experiences when vacationing with her family in a Catskills resort. Even the main character’s nickname, Baby, was Bergstein’s. And yes, Bergstein also embarked on a romance with the resort’s much older dance instructor.

When researching the film, Bergstein was unable to contact the people from her real-life experiences. Most were in jail or out on parole. Apparently, it was a rough neighborhood, and there was a lot of crime and violence going on in this resort town.  

The Classic Movie that Almost Wasn’t

Dirty Dancing almost didn’t get made. Hollywood rejected the story 43 times. Bigwigs thought it was “too soft and too small.” They didn’t like that it was a girl’s film, but several critical male characters played significant roles in the storyline. Others thought it was more of a historical film about Jews. 

Fortunately for us, Bergstein and company pressed on and were ultimately successful. The dancing was considered provocative enough that the Rating Board initially gave it an R rating. But the filmmakers put up enough fuss and got it switched to PG-13 since there’s no nudity, swearing, or violence depicted, opening it up to a broader audience. 

Dirty Dancing Top 7 Life Lessons

1. Believe in yourself

One of the most famous quotes from the film is “nobody puts Baby in the corner”. Baby starts out in the story as a shy, almost timid person. But Johnny has a way of bringing out her confidence and encouraging it. 

dirty dancing life lessons

2. Be honest always

At one point in the film, Johnny is accused of stealing. Baby knows the truth that he didn’t steal the money. Although she’s going to get into some serious trouble with her father for standing up for him, Baby does it anyway. 

Here’s a direct quote from the movie regarding this iconic scene:

“I told you I was telling the truth, Daddy. I’m sorry I lied to you. But you lied too. You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break. But you meant everyone who was like you. You told me you wanted me to change the world, make it better. But you meant by becoming a lawyer or an economist and marrying someone from Harvard. 

I’m not proud of myself, but I’m in this family too, and you can’t keep giving me the silent treatment. There are a lot of things about me that aren’t what you thought. But if you love me, you have to love all the things about me. And I love you, and I’m sorry I let you down. I’m so sorry, Daddy. 

But you let me down too.”

dirty dancing life lessons

3. Humility is a virtue

Baby’s dad accuses Johnny of knocking up Penny, his lead dancer. Later, he learns the truth and admits he was wrong. 

“When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong”

dirty dancing life lessons

4. Trust your gut

Baby’s parents and many other resort goers think that slick and shiny medical student Robbie is a great catch. Spoiler alert — he’s not. It’s the lower classes with a bad rap who are good guys — Johnny and Penny. Baby picks up on this and acts accordingly. 

Through her experience with Johnny, she learns to not only trust her gut with people but to trust her newfound love and dance partner. While preparing for the epic lift, Johnny tells Baby, “Now, you’ll hurt me if you don’t trust me, all right?” Johnny nails it.

dirty dancing life lessons

5. Take chances and have no regrets

The odds were stacked against Johnny and Baby’s romance, but also her ability to dance and nail the lead role when Penny bowed out. Baby and Johnny took a chance on love, themselves, and had the time of their lives. When Johnny is forced to leave the resort after their romance was discovered, they meet up one last time Johnny tells Baby, “I’ll never be sorry.” 

Don’t be afraid to take chances and big risks to get the massive payoff you want. 

dirty dancing life lessons

6. Dirty Dancing Life Lessons: Lend a hand and open doors

Another famous quote from Baby is, “I carried a watermelon.” She decided to help another person, and it got her into a kick as$ party and falling in love. 

dirty dancing life lessons

7. The final Dirty Dancing life lessons: Break the rules and don’t overthink it

Sometimes, rules are made to be broken. At the end of the film, Johnny is wrongly fired. But he returns to the resort and does the final dance, including that iconic lift scene to thunderous applause. Don’t overthink stuff, and let your heart guide you!

Awesome quote incoming:

“Sorry for the interruption, folks, but I always do the last dance of the season. This year somebody told me not to. So I’m gonna do my kind of dancin’ with a great partner, who’s not only a terrific dancer but somebody who’s taught me that there are people willing to stand up for other people no matter what it costs them. Somebody who’s taught me about the kind of person I wanna be. Miss Frances Houseman.”

He gets Baby out of the corner and lets everyone else know how special she is and how much he loves her 😍. 

dirty dancing life lessons

Life Lessons from My Dirty Dancing Story

Fans of this movie all know the famous quote. After a summer of romance and a deep connection, Johnny asks, “What’s your real name, Baby?”

Johnny and Baby are an unlikely pair that come together and discover the chemistry is too much to ignore. A precarious situation of forbidden love and privilege meets the working class. Despite the fact, they have a summer of romance and fall in love, both teaching each other life lessons from a totally different perspective. And it changes them significantly.   

Just like Johnny, I too had to ask my now husband’s real name after a secret romance, and a connection we both knew couldn’t be denied. 

Pull up a seat. It’s storytime. 

My husband was my brother’s friend. You know where this is going, right? The unspoken rule among friends is no look, no touch applies here. 

One night, we all went out to a rooftop bar. On that particular night, my future husband and I sat and talked for hours. He made me laugh all night, just like Johnny and Baby. And, of course, we were complete opposites.

Growing up, my husband always went by the nickname Moose. It was a nickname he got as a kid, and the only name I and most people knew him by. I didn’t know his real name for the longest time.

After a summer of romance and not being able to deny this guy had something I wanted, I asked my brother, What’s Moose’s real name?”

He replied, “Brandon.”

It’s kind of funny, but I felt like I knew the real Brandon that no one else could see — the potential he had hidden under the many layers. My real-life romance was so similar to the movie, where the main characters felt like they’d discovered the natural person hidden beneath all the layers, and there was no turning back. 

I never called him Moose from that day on.

My Dirty Dancing Life Lessons: The rest is history. 

Well, Brandon and I have been married for 25 years, have five beautiful children together, and still push each other’s buttons and break barriers together. I’m still digging through the layers. Through all the good and bad times, each layer has brought us closer, and I can honestly say we are having the time of our lives

There have been many layers we’ve uncovered on our journey. But it all started with what’s your real name? 

Ironically, my husband has been calling me Babydoll since the day we met and only calls me by real name when he’s furious at me 😉.

Denise and Brandon recreate The Dirty Dancing Iconic Water Lift Scene! Check out the pic.

Okay, so the famous water lift scene. That had to be recreated!

I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I begged my brothers when I was a little girl to try and catch me. And I would fall flat on my face many times in the backyard. Am I the only one that’s happened to? 

Here I am, 30 years later, making my husband entertain the water lift. Trust me, it’s much easier in the water, and you can keep your face intact if you fall. 

Dirty Dancing was filmed at 2 locations — Lake Lure, NC, and Mountain Lake Lodge, Virginia. The Lake where the water lift was filmed in Virginia dried up years ago. But recently, it mysteriously filled back up with water after being dry for 12 years. 

Weird. 

Recently, we took a family trip to Lake Lure, NC, one of the two locations where the film was shot.

I couldn’t help but buy a pair of white jeans and bring my camera along for the chance to recreate the famous water lift pic with my own flair. 

You wouldn’t know it from the image, but we were deep in mud, and if I did fall, it would have ruined the white jeans and the pic, so falling wasn’t an option. Without any practice, it took us five tries to get this shot.

There were quite a few eyeballs on us, wondering what the hell we were doing. If they didn’t know, I assumed they were the crazy ones, not us, lol.

The final pic turned out way better than I could have imagined! 

Denise and Brandon Borrelli recreate The Dirty Dancing Iconic Water Lift Scene
Denise and Brandon Borrelli recreate The Dirty Dancing Iconic Water Lift Scene!
Top 1987 Jennifer Grey & Patrick Swayze, Bottom 2021 Denise & Brandon Borrelli
Denise and Brandon Borrelli pay homage to the epic film.
Top 1987 Jennifer Grey & Patrick Swayze, Bottom 2021 Denise & Brandon Borrelli.

It’s pretty cool to pay homage to the epic film I love so much with the man I love so much. I will forever have this pic and treasure our own iconic moment in time.

What are your Dirty Dancing life lessons?

I’ll never get tired of this movie. It has so many great life lessons, it’s as entertaining and romantic as hel$. But for me, I think the biggest lesson you can take away from this classic film is to have courage before you feel brave. Go with your gut, follow your heart, and know your real name, baby. 


If your up for the challenge would love to see your recreation of the iconic Dirty Dancing water lift! Tag me in your images on Instagram @denisemarieborrelli