It's a movie from 1987 that took place in 1963, but there's something about Dirty Dancing that is simply timeless. It has all the elements of good storytelling: romance (complete with a musical montage), the right balance of drama and comedy, and a touch of social commentary. It also had a stellar cast, including Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, and Jerry Orbach. And as a bonus, a hula dance so awkward words don't really do it justice.
But if you're like me, what really sticks out about Dirty Dancing is that it's an excellent coming of age story. (And if you've read any of my previous blog posts, you know I do love a good coming of age story.) While watching a few days ago, I realized that I actually identify with Baby quite a bit. I'm not talking about falling for an older man while on vacation. (That was not a part of my teenage years. It did, however, happen to just about every member of the Baby-Sitters Club.) I'm not even talking about Baby, who was always considered to be the good girl, openly defying her father, although that is something that most teenagers, male or female, can relate to at some point. No, the coming of age story I identify with is one that's far less dramatic, but equally poignant.
We're first introduced to Baby as an idealistic youth. She plans on going to college to study the economics of underdeveloped countries, and when she graduates she wants to join the Peace Corps. During dinner, her parents joke that her leftovers be sent to feed starving children. Baby feels that it's up to her to save the world, and she truly believes it's a task she can accomplish. When Baby finds out that Penny is in trouble, she takes it upon herself to make things right. Despite the fact that she wasn't involved in the situation to begin with. Despite the fact that Penny wasn't particularly nice to her when they first met. Baby still wants to help. Because that's who she is. Altruistic and compassionate.
Baby thinks that all she needs to do to help Penny is talk to Robbie, the jerk that got her in trouble in the first place. It's as simple as that, right? The guy did something wrong, he should be culpable, no? But Robbie simply shrugs the situation off, telling Baby that "some people count, some people don't."
And that is the coming of age moment I was referring to.
As children and teenagers, so many of our heads and hearts are filled with dreams of saving the world. We want to fight global warming. We want to cure diseases. We want to end poverty and put a stop to racism. But when we grow up, something heartbreaking happens. We realize that the real world doesn't seem to mesh with the vision of the world that we painted in our minds. We realize that even if we recycle all our soda bottles it won't end deforestation and even though the civil rights movement has made significant leaps it still has miles to go. We realize that we can stand up for our friends, but that won't prevent other people from being jerks.
But even though Robbie refuses to help, Baby doesn't give up. She finds another way to help. Because that's who she is.
Later on in the movie when Johnny's in trouble, Baby has to take the very difficult step of defending him, even though it means forever changing the way her family sees her. And though she takes this step, she still doesn't save the day. But he assures her it was not for naught, because just the fact that she was willing to stand up for him means a lot to him.
Because even if there are too many problems in the world for us to face, it doesn't mean we shouldn't try to face them. We just need to be ready for an uphill battle. And even if we don't win, the fight is still worth something.