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A Conversation with Eleanor Bergstein, Writer and Producer of ‘Dirty Dancing,’ on its 30th Anniversary

Why a 1987 film about 1963 still resonates in 2017

Sophie Aroesty
August 28, 2017
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Writer Eleanor Bergstein attends the 65th annual Writers Guild East Coast Awards at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill on February 17, 2013 in New York City.Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Writer Eleanor Bergstein attends the 65th annual Writers Guild East Coast Awards at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill on February 17, 2013 in New York City.Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

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It’s rather unnerving to talk with one of your idols, and when I called Eleanor Bergstein last week—the writer and co-producer of Dirty Dancing—I was unreasonably nervous.

“I’ve loved Dirty Dancing for as long as I can remember, so this is just a huge honor for me,” I gushed.

“Always sweet to hear, thank you,” she replied.

Last week marked the 30th anniversary of Dirty Dancing, but for Bergstein, it doesn’t seem like that big of an occasion. That’s probably because there’s been no shortage of fangirls like me over the past three decades. And she’s probably had to say that line even more times than I’ve watched the movie.

“There’s always a letter that comes in, or someone’s having a party about it, or someone’s broken their wrist trying to do the lift at a wedding. It isn’t as if it’s really been underground and suddenly people said, ‘Oh my God, it’s the 30th anniversary,’” Bergstein said.

Dirty Dancing’s unending popularity is in part due to the many revivals the franchise has seen over the years. There’s a prequel film, TV spinoffs, music tours, and re-releases. This year, the movie was (painfully) remade for TV. But it has also had more honest remakes, like the Dirty Dancing musical Bergstein wrote. It has broken box-office records, screening around the world for almost 15 years. So Bergstein’s constant influx of fan mail isn’t that surprising. But the original itself warrants this kind of worship. I’ve never seen any of these revivals; watching the film as a preteen was enough to cement Dirty Dancing as one of my all-time favorites well past my teenage years.

The film has some hot scenes that middle school-me was into, but it’s not just shirtless, sweaty Patrick Swayze that has reeled audiences in for so long. The underlying themes of Dirty Dancing have proven to be timeless—for better or for worse.

“All the things that were central to me about what was going on then turned out to have been topical in ways I wouldn’t have thought 30 years later,” Bergstein said. “That, of course, is only sorrowful for me. It would have been nice if they weren’t.”

She originally imagined that America would have come so far from the tumultuous 60s that future audiences wouldn’t catch all of its socio-political subplots.

“I put in very specific language—dirty knife, folding table—because I thought that if it didn’t have that, people would have thought [Penny] had a stomachache or an appendectomy at Planned Parenthood that went wrong. They wouldn’t have understood what was happening.”

But 30 years later in 2017, we still empathize with Penny, the victim of a botched abortion. She isn’t just some irresponsible floozy (but even if she was, as woke millennials, we wouldn’t slut-shame her). Penny found herself in a situation no one is immune to: pregnant by a man she thought she loved, who turned out to be a real dick. She was scared, with no good options, the best being almost unaffordable and illegal. And she suffers as a result of this best option, because the government refused to regulate a serious medical procedure. Today, some government officials are working towards a reality that would more closely resemble Penny’s in 1963. So we still relate to her. She could be any of us.

And it’s not just abortion that makes Dirty Dancing resonate with modern audiences. Bergstein put references to both Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War in the film, which, in 1987, felt like long-ago historical events. But now, she says, “young men are sent across the world to a war to fight in,” and “everywhere we go with the stage show there’s Black Lives Matter marches.”

Bergstein is once again thinking about what idealistic, socially-minded Baby would do about today’s headlines. She’s started writing a sequel. “For the first time now I suddenly am very interested in the idea, which I never was because I thought it could stand on its own. But what’s happening in the world is reflecting in real time what happened in ‘63,” she said.

My follow-up questions were both in the interest of journalism and indulgent of my inner preteen fangirl. “Do you have a timeline for the project? How much later would the sequel take place? Do Baby and Johnny end up together?” Bergstein wouldn’t say. My fangirl will just have to keep on fantasizing. But she does have an idea of how Baby and her lover boy end up. (“I feel that they have a future and I wouldn’t have written them meeting years later,” she said, referring to the TV remake.) But it’s more important for her to address those socio-political subplots, the deeper meaning behind the dirty dancing.

“The most important thing is trying to make the world better… If I can influence one person to see that, that it’s the most intense and necessary way of life, I’m happy. I’d be happier if the world didn’t need it, but it does,” she said.

Trying to make the world better, Bergstein notes, is a classic Jewish value. And the Jews of the real Jewish resort that Dirty Dancing’s “Kellerman’s” is based off—Grossinger’s—“were very concerned to be ethically and morally committed,” she said. Grossinger gave a eulogy when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and they had candlelight vigils there in honor of civil rights workers who were killed.

That summer of 1963 when the film takes place was right after Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and right before Kennedy was shot. “You felt like you could reach out your hand and change the world,” Bergstein said. Which is exactly what Baby is like. Johnny says to her, “I’ve never met anybody like you. You look at the world and you think you can make it better… You’re not scared of anything.” Which leads Baby to say, “I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you.” Which leads to a really hot dance sequence and sex scene.

The timing of the scene is metaphorical, really. Because, for Bergstein, this fearlessness, believing you have the powers for change, is the best foreplay. “What I would like to do is get young people to understand that the most exciting, most sexual, most alive thing you can do is to be very, very active in politics,” she said. “I think that’s the only thing that will turn the world around in the way it needs to be.”

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Sophie Aroesty is an editorial intern at Tablet.

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