Do you remember the first time you saw “Dirty Dancing”? Did it blow your mind half as much as it did mine?
I was a teenager, yearning for Someone Special and Something Amazing to happen, and suddenly, there in the popcorn-strewn multiplex of suburban Houston, everything I longed for began to unfold. Over the course of 100 astonishing minutes, Baby—the not-quite-pretty protagonist who appeared to be exactly my age, with exactly my levels of uncertainty and awkwardness (high) and exactly my success rate at attracting beautiful, mysterious men (zero)—emerged from her proverbial corner and blossomed into a strong, independent, desirable woman, a woman who questioned authority, defied convention, refashioned her own identity—and did it while looking incredibly sexy and earning the devotion of a totally, totally, totally hot older man. Like, totally.
It was the most wonderful and inspiring thing I had ever seen.
“It was the best movie ever,” I told my mother. “You have to go see it.”
Which she did, a week or so later.
“Didn’t you love it?” I demanded. “I mean, didn’t you love it?”
“I don’t know.” My mother smiled, tried to look enthusiastic. “I guess so.”
“You guess so? How did you not love it?”
My mother smiled again, weakly, and shrugged. “It was fun to watch, and the dancing was good. But,” she paused, took a deep breath, and concluded, “all I could think of was, oh, her poor parents.”
Flash forward almost 30 years (eek!), and I have totally turned into my mother. I’m much less enchanted by Baby’s quest for self-determination, and I’m a heck of a lot more worried about the fact that she seems to be in waaaay over her head. I’m also freaking out about her taking up with a worldly, experienced guy who’s encouraging her to sneak out at night, lie to her parents, and wear some awfully revealing outfits, a guy who, not to sound judgy but, is not going to make the best impression ever on my fellow Hebrew school parents or the machers at temple. I’m also wondering how often those costumes Baby’s donning get cleaned, and if she could be exposing herself to MRSA slithering across that filthy floor.
And hey, Mr. “No One Puts Baby in a Corner”—don’t talk to your girlfriend’s father that way. You sound like a putz.
So who’s right about “Dirty Dancing”? My teenage self, or my mom self?
I wish my mom self could go back to my teenage self, achingly watching “Dirty Dancing,” and tell her that hey, it’s going to be OK. You don’t need Patrick Swayze and a mad dance talent to grow up, to differentiate yourself, to become the person you are supposed to be. That your life might not be as interesting as Baby’s, but that it can still be pretty full and awesome. That your parents may sometimes disappoint you, but that they love you like no one else ever will and they’re trying their best. That you should maybe hold onto your virginity a little bit longer, even if the guy is totally hot and seems to have a heart of gold. And that you should definitely use Purell after touching almost everything in that staff quarters.
But my teenage self has some wisdom to share as well. She reminds my mom-self that children have dreams and hopes and hungers that are all their own, that may drive them towards experiences we never imagined. That our children may choose a path we would not have chosen for them—but it could still be the right path for them. That our children are deeper and wilder and much more fascinating than we realize. That other people will see our children as objects of beauty, objects of interest, even objects of desire, and that can be OK. And that our children are growing up, and that that’s OK, too.
My daughter is still too young for “Dirty Dancing,” but I’m already wondering what it will be like to see the movie again, through her eyes. I’m pretty sure I won’t like it nearly as much as I did before I became a mother, and I’m pretty sure I’ll find plenty that makes me cringe; but I’m also pretty sure I’ll come away remembering what it felt like to see the movie for the first time—and that it will be good for me to relive that teenage frustration and uncertainty and awkwardness and tumult and exhilaration and hopefulness and sense of endless possibility.
I’m also pretty sure the movie will spark some interesting discussions with my daughter—maybe about loyalty to friends versus parents, maybe about honesty and integrity, maybe about looking beneath the surface to find out what kind of person someone truly is. Almost certainly about sex. And totally, totally, totally about the importance of Purell. Like, totally.