"Johnny Castle I'm a much better dancer than he is," says Patrick Swayze about his Dirty Dancing character. I had thought, falsely it seems, that the dancing in that film was pretty hot. Does Swayze have an exceptionally high opinion of himself? As it turns out, no. He's trained at several schools including the prestigious Joffrey Ballet School of New York. On Johnny Castle, he continues, "He's a guy from the streets of Philadelphia he didn't study from a ballet teacher or a dance teacher." The real proof of the difference comes when Swayze demonstrates difficult dance moves with the ease of a top pro. One who can improve your style with a few casual words. This writer probably learnt more in 59 minutes of this documentary than in ten years of jive, salsa and the social dance scene. Swayze's comments offer insight into dance as part of life. His mother (Patsy) and wife (Lisa) are particularly articulate in explaining how it has enhanced other areas of their life.
When Swayze says, "You have to allow the music to take you some place else you have to allow it to take you away," I recall Paul Mercurio's almost identical comments a few years later on the Strictly Ballroom DVD extras (given without, unfortunately, a simultaneous dance demo). Mercurio speaks of taking an audience on a journey through dance, whereas Swayze's 'journey' is the emotional preparation as a dancer becomes a character. Both processes stem from theories of Stanislavski ideas that had lead both to a revolution in modern dance on one hand, and 'Method School' acting on the other.
Swayze shows a genuine love of, and dedication to, his art. It's infectious. Dancing to him is as natural as living. It illuminates every part of his life. A Q&A with 'aspiring dancers' might seem over-rehearsed, but it is equally informative. Dialogue addresses different concerns, from nerves and performing in public, to finding the right dance partner. Swayze's explanation of 'deflecting momentum' (in words and practice) is superlative. Explanations on dance lifts are a sharp rebuke to would-be teachers who explain such dynamics inadequately.
Swayze shows deep respect for his mum, the dance teacher sitting at her desk and barking words of wisdom in a nasal twang. She taught him. Google her and you will find an established choreographer. The second part of Swayze Dancing shows sections from her classes. Putting students of different levels through their paces. It lets us see not only the hard work needed for dance sequences such as those in Dirty Dancing, but makes the moves look attainable.
Few modern dance movies feature top dancers - for few of them are also good actors. Dirty Dancing and Strictly Ballroom stood out in this respect (even if the former seemed let down by cheesy dialogue and teenage themes). Usually, directors cheat a bit, relying on fast montage to cut actors faces with the feet of dance doubles. In this sense, Swayze is one of the few remaining exponents of popular dance film in living memory. Watching this documentary, we lament that he never got more and better scripts to dance in. Or at a time when his health would have permitted it.
The bad thing about Swayze Dancing is the clumsy dramatisation in which the two teachers' lessons are set. The 'story' follows a group of young dancers competing in a contest. They arrive at Patsy's dance school for help as if they are near beginners, with "six weeks to learn to dance." But it is soon apparent to the viewer that they are already quite accomplished. They sport crazy 80's clothing and haircuts, with names like 'Gonzo.' Needless to say, all win some category or other in the dance-off. It feels quite embarrassing at times, right down to the fictionalising of Swayze's sister.
But as a dance instruction film it is priceless. A must for any aspiring salsa, Latin or performance dancer. Or of course, any 'dirty dancer' that wants to emulate the eponymous movie. It is also a short but moving testament to one of the screen's best known modern dance-actors. A chance to see him at his most commanding and best not as the hick from Philadelphia.
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