Dirty Dancing at 30: How it Nearly Fell Apart

Dirty Dancing was one of the biggest indie hits of the 1980s. But, as it turns out, it was beset by a whole bunch of problems...

Dirty Dancing, I fully accept, isn’t the kind of film you necessarily load up a site like Den Of Geek to read about. I can’t sit here and tell you that it’s ever been a movie that’s been particularly special to me, although I know people who could happily watch it on loop.

I’ve never met anyone who could say that about its sequel, Havana Nights, however.

That said, since writing about the troubles that befell the production of The Addams Family, I’ve been hunting for other generally off-radar stories of just how many problems a seemingly trouble-free film had behind the scenes. And I struck gold with Dirty Dancing.

The bits you probably know about Dirty Dancing. It gave Patrick Swayze his big breakthrough movie. He and co-star Jennifer Grey supposedly weren’t best of friends. It went on to be a huge hit. The soundtrack sold a few copies too.

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However, Dirty Dancing was the epitome of a surprise breakthrough hit. It was a cheap, independent production that broke through, building up off sizeable word of mouth. It would be fair to call it something of a phenomenon.

That said, producer Linda Gottlieb had costed the film out at $8m at its very cheapest at first, and was struggling to find funding. When she got it, from Vestron Pictures, it came with a proviso: she had $5m. As she recalled in an article she wrote for Premiere magazine back in May 1988, Vestron told her that if its chairman “sees so much as a decimal point after the number 5,” the funding would disappear.

Between Gottlieb’s article and the late Patrick Swayze’s autobiography, The Time Of My Life, the picture I’ve got of Dirty Dancing is a very different one behind the scenes to how I imagined. And whilst nobody concerned ever seems to say it was a horrible production to work on, it was certainly a very difficult one.


Patrick Swayze charted in his book the growing pain in his knee that he was getting from dancing. In particular, he talked about how it nearly derailed his Broadway career, often dancing through extreme pain in order to keep the show going – and to keep himself in work. Film, in theory, should have been easier on his body (without the demands of eight shows a week), and off the back of his minor breakthrough movie, Skatetown USA, he was starting to get film offers. But for many years, he resisted any that involved dancing. “I’d always be seen as a dancer-turned-actor, rather than an actor,” he wrote.

Dirty Dancing changed his mind, but he wasn’t automatically cast. He went in for an audition on his own, then for a second where he had to dance with Jennifer Grey. The pair had worked together on Red Dawn previously, and it would be fair to say that no life-long friendship had been forged. But after a successful audition process, the pair were cast. The late Emile Ardolino was firmly attached to direct by this stage too.

For Gottlieb, she realised that the only way she could shoehorn the film into the given budget was to house the cast and crew in the same hotel she was hiring to shoot the film. Yet terrorist incidents in Europe that took place in 1986 led to many Americans cancelling their foreign travel plans. US hotels began to get booked up. Prices soared. In the end, she secured a hotel in Virginia, on the condition that the cast and crew shot in September. By this stage, it was already June.

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That’s when things start going wrong.

The Shoot

Production on Dirty Dancing started on September 5th, 1986. At this point, the small production has already had to battle severe weather issues, and a cast who, well, weren’t too impressed with where they were going to be staying. It didn’t take long for trouble to start.

Day one involved scenes with the mother of Jennifer Grey’s character. The unnamed actress concerned “complains of fatigue and weakness,” Gottlieb wrote. Her scenes were shot, and she had to lie down a lot. Day two? “It is clear to everybody that this woman will not be Jennifer Grey’s mother for much longer.” She’s sent home at lunchtime, leaving the film with a hole in the cast, and a scene involving said character to be shot in the afternoon. Oh, with 200 extras on standby.

Kelly Bishop, originally cast in a different role, changes roles. As Gottlieb wrote, “we realise she has one strong thing going for her: she is here.”

Bishop’s original role was filled by the film’s assistant choreographer, Miranda Garrison. She continued her role as Swayze’s off-screen dance coach, too. It would be fair to say that this was the kind of production where everyone was expected to muck in.

On day five actress Paula Trueman, playing the hotel thief, collapsed on set. Fortunately, she recovered. But it’s the day after where all concerned must have thought the film was cursed.

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The Sixth Day

The following all happened on day six of the film’s shoot.

Firstly, burglars ransacked the film’s rehearsal space. Hmmm. Time for an urgent journey to get replacement material. However, the hotel where everyone was staying was up a mountain. And there’d been severe flooding. The roads were blocked. For added fun, “an art department station wagon destroys a prop department van” (I’ve looked, and I can’t uncover just what happened there).

There’s more, though. The set decorator fell off his ladder and injured himself. The second assistant director broke her wrist. The wardrobe assistant broke her toe. Oh, and three of the crew were hit by food poisoning.

Quite a day.

The rain would continue, holding up the shooting of exteriors. In which time, the leaves on the trees outside took on autumnal shades. The leaves had to be sprayed green. Just a month later, when Dirty Dancing moved to its second location in North Carolina, the opposite weather problem kicked in, as reports of heat exhaustion amongst the actors filter through. As Gottlieb wrote, “a nurse hovers on the set dispensing oxygen and Gatorade.”

Meanwhile, Patrick Swayze wrote about the ongoing rewrites that he was contributing to as the film went on, and how he fought vigorously to have the line “nobody puts Baby in the corner” removed from the film. He won many of his fights on Dirty Dancing, but he lost that one. Probably for the best.

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Crucially, though, Swayze wasn’t having joy with his knee either. Throughout the production, he would have to ice his knee as it swelled up on a regular basis. Furthermore, he had to get it regularly drained, something he’d not had to do since his New York theatre days. It was the scene where Grey and Swayze balance on a log where his knee hit rock bottom. “Because most of the cartilage in my knee was gone, the bones were just grinding painfully on each other,” he recalled. Ouch. “I can only imagine the pain he must be feeling,” Gottlieb recalled.

Swayze’s book also tells of how he and Grey got along reasonably well for most of the shoot. But he remained critical of her. “She slipped into silly moods,” he wrote, “forcing us to do scenes over again when she’d start laughing.” He admitted that “I didn’t have a whole lot of patience for multiple retakes.” Whilst they got on better than was generally perceived, there was still friction.

And there’s more

Away from Swayze, further problems mounted up. A month from the end of the shoot, the lead make-up artist had to quit the film, returning home for personal reasons. On the same day she announced that, a wasp infestation was discovered. Jennifer Grey’s arms took the brunt of said wasps.

The new make-up lady, incidentally, lasted just over a week, before she broke her wrist and two fingers of her right hand. She was not left handed. She too left the production.

And one final treat: with three weeks left of shooting, one of the labourers on the film was arrested for driving without a licence. Turned out he’d not been out of prison long in the first place. In the non-internet age, nobody found out.

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The Happy Ending

Dirty Dancing‘s shoot lasted for 44 days, and director Emile Ardolino duly went to his edit room to assemble a cut. It would be fair to say that his first take on the film did not go down well, leaving one producer to reportedly say “burn the negative and collect the insurance”. In fact, for some time, there was serious talk of letting Dirty Dancing bypass cinemas altogether, in favour of a straight to video release.

But Ardolino’s later cut worked. And a film that cost $5m, and not a cent more, would go on to be a huge hit, with a massive tie-in soundtrack success too.

Every film has sizeable problems during production of course – as Zoe Saldana told us of issues on Guardians Of The Galaxy earlier in the year, “I call that a Tuesday on a film set” – and some suffer more than Dirty Dancing did.

But still: I find it interesting to look behind the curtains, particularly on smaller films, at the mounting issues that can throw a film spectacularly off course. That producer Linda Gottlieb and her team held Dirty Dancing together is no small feat. That she steered clear of Havana Nights, the ill-fated Dirty Dancing sequel? All the better…

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