Dancing Dirty, or Blurred Lines and Other Balancing Acts


by Loie Merritt

Dirty Dancing came out the year I was born. It received an unanticipated level of popular acclaim. It seems no one thought the film would do well. After test audiences shuddered at the abortion subplot and rumors of the cast despising each other (naturally calling their quick and engorging passion into question), the film nearly went straight to VHS and into the dusty corner of your local video store forever. Instead, it became a fixture in late 20th century American Romance. Patrick Swayze made modern dance cool, combining ballroom style with the dirty boogie. It won an Oscar. It won a Grammy.

I can’t recall when I first watched Dirty Dancing in its entirety. It was probably at the VFW hall on Cliff Island, on that swaying projector screen lit up for a Friday Teen Night. I was certainly not a capital T – Teen, but with so few real ones on the island my presence usually seemed welcome. Or maybe it was on the sun porch of that summer friend who had one of those super speed rewind machines, all the faster to watch her impressive video collection over and over on lightning afternoons, when we couldn’t go swimming. She also had an older brother. He was tall and lean, and played the drums.

It was probably 1998. I was probably eleven years old. I had gotten my first period the previous summer. The body I had then is not so different from the body I have now. I knew what the blood meant. I knew how to receive the knowing stares that were like sugar rolled dates, stuffed with violence. I did not know the ways I would lose my body, suddenly aware of something that was no longer mine: my pubic bone hot, small and special organs squeezing themselves in preparation, a steady breaking from within, rusty rainwater smells from all of my crevices.


* * *


I was five when my mother explained the act of sex to me. She was pregnant with my younger brother and after my evening bath we knotted together on her queen-size waterbed to read a story. On this night, it was a medical anatomy book she used in her dance classes to show musculature and where injuries frequently occur. She slowly flipped through the red silhouettes of bodies on shiny backgrounds of deep blue. Striated muscles, fatty tendons, and stone colored bones. Bodies stripped of their skin so we could glimpse inside, more naked than just naked.

The images zoomed in, with each flip the pages scraped along my nightshirt and the pale sheets. I could hear the slow rumble of water beneath me as I fidgeted every few turns. She pointed to an isolated vagina, a lone uterus pulled out from between a two dimensional pelvis, the symmetry of fallopian tubes and the ovaries, the clusters of fish eggs inside. She whispered in a proud and dreamy voice, you have all this too. The penis and its companion organs were much less interesting. Can we read a real story, I recall saying while tying my damp hair in a knot. This was just more of the same. The testicles and vans deferens mirroring what was also inside me but lower, larger, and much less beautiful. These fleshy organs entered and swallowed each other. Thus, in some month’s time I would have a baby brother to prove their existence. That’s all you need to know for now, and she gently closed the book.


* * *


The first time I saw a real testicle attached to a strange body was probably in 1997. I was probably ten years old. We had just received a half-broken and out dated videogame system from another family; my older brother had a sleep over with a friend from the mainland. In the morning, he was showing us all the buttons to push and how to reboot when necessary. I don’t remember the videogame on the screen. I do remember we were also playing cards on an old milk crate. When I turned my head back to play my hand, the friend was crouching down. I was on the floor and I saw one of his testicles. It was small, mashed up against his right leg and sort of half shadowed by his thin boxer shorts. I remember suddenly feeling very warm. I don’t know if he noticed the growing shape of my eyes. I don’t know what my mouth was doing. I looked away and back and away and back again. I thought about the book my mother showed me. I lost the card game.

I recall these moments to preface a kind of automatic hunger for the insinuated visual authority of Dirty Dancing. The borders of bodies in print, the wrinkled curves of an organ belonging to a boy both became lines that I wanted to erase under the pressure of other lines, other bodies, maybe some day my body.


* * *


Sticky summer: thin cloth grazing supple, tight skin. Long unbrushed hair left wild. Limbs flying through the air as two bodies synchronize across a hard stage. Hot mirrors. Spotlights. Bright makeup and belly buttons. Necks exposed, collarbones kissed by the strong fingertips of a rebel. With the abandon of a thunderstorm, he smashes the window to get out of there. I can see through her shirt to the unadulterated curve of her virgin breasts. The risk of physical violence is real and exciting. Hungry eyes.


* * *


The deeper a woman can stretch her back, the more pleasure she experiences. Slowly pulsing, two pelvises forcing the air out from between. Mouth only slightly open. The occasional spasm, involuntary break down of appropriate evaluation. Intergrity. Illegitmacy. How to tell the truth and still fucked. How to lie and break someone. The abortion nearly killed her. Can there be romance in the suggestion of an aggressive slashing? Did the heavy grinding and cabin surgery teach me how to be safe or did it make the theater of sex all the more enticing? Was this my first lesson in risk versus reward? Love is Strange.


* * *


When Johnny Castle hoists Baby’s hipbones from the lake to form that arch, that statue of dripping strength and desire, I learned what a sexual grip can look like. What’s real? This scene was filmed in the autumn. The forest was spray painted green. The water was nearly freezing and the camera had to stay away so as not to show the actors’ blue lips and goose bumps. I learned this much later, but it is important in the context of how I have continued to learn about and experience sex. Disappointment is critical.


* * *


But in 1998, on high tide nights while my friends jumped from the landing into dark water, I would hook my ribs onto the edge of the dock ramp and balance there precisely as Baby balanced in Johnny’s massive hands. I would try to make the same lines with my body, arched back, tense thighs and pointed feet. Numb toes. Feeling the flow of salt-water collapse between my legs, enjoying the sensation of movement. My expression as serious as I could make it, indistinguishable, yet all pleasure. Overload.


* * *


After their triumphant performance, Johnny and Baby go back to his place. He puts an old record on. This is how a man takes a woman’s shirt off, her arms clamped limply over the head. He takes her hair down. Surrender. Slow sway dancing, that deep dip rocking her side to side, to a simple song. Now, this is foreplay. Her skintight jeans peel off with ease. They roll around effortlessly, without pause. He never falls out of her. It never seems to hurt. No leg cramps. No stuttered maneuvers. No blood. It is always reciprocal and graceful. They have sex better than they dance, if that’s possible. His low-slung bed is a glass case in which everything is sensually, exhaustively, perfect. He’s not concerned about her climax because it’s quite simple. They always come together. Folded into each other, the sheets somehow unstained, they laugh and rub noses. They make eye contact. He is a kid again, experiencing penetration for the first time. Payment unnecessary. She grows suddenly into a woman as if instantly fertilized. Yes.


* * *


It wasn’t until I turned nineteen that I had sex to the sound of a real record going round a real record player. I can’t tell you now what the song was, all I heard was the crackle of sound rotating along the waves of conflicted pleasure I experienced in that late afternoon sun. I remember watching the dust particles settle on my skin and thinking this was just like that scene in Dirty Dancing, except I pretended to enjoy his hands on me. I was acting. I would leave him. Things rarely work out according to script, of course. Most versions of love are never as easy as Johnny and Baby running towards their final lift. Sex is sometimes even harder than love. Disappointment is critical.


* * *


These images of film cling to us whether we want them to or not. Unreasonable expectation blends with an embellished passion, idealizations of how another body shakes under your touch after sweaty dancing for hours. What more reference point did I need than dancing dirty into the summer night? What more should I really crave than a Romeo in a leather jacket and cowboy boots who knew how to move and knew how to move this budding and horny Juliet. At a certain moment, a moment I still mourn every now and then, hot chocolate and Reese’s peanut butter cups stopped being enough.


* * *


Dirty Dancing is now a safe escape into the narrative satisfaction of that child which I will never be again. And that’s okay. Temporarily, and blissfully ignoring, the political, economic, or feminist readings of the film, I reenter an early moment of sexual education and will make no blushing excuses for it for the simple pleasure it still sometimes gives me.

* * *


Slowly grinding into another person’s pelvis, the zipper of our jeans rubbing together, to music. This still can rev me up. I still like to be spun around until I’m dizzy, sometimes even picked up and forfeited to another person’s hands. I enjoy being Johnny Castle too. I both love and use Baby, and all her claims to status. I can get just as turned on dancing dirty all by myself. At eleven years old, I thought these scenes were teaching me about how pleasure is supposed to look, how easy it is supposed to come, and what roles we are supposed to play. I can reject all of that. I know better now and in so many ways surpassing this early knowledge is far more fun. Yet, the scenes still resonate.


* * *


The dance, the blurring of bodies, the erasure of our personal borders, will always be essential to me. I am still trying to nail that perfect swaying rhythm, that perfect balance of my arched ribs on a hard piece of wood and the dark water warming between my legs, just waiting to swallow me whole.


Loie Merritt poetLoie Merritt is a literary and mixed media artist currently pursuing her MFA at the University of Colorado, where she teaches creative writing and faithfully performs the duties of Prose Editor at Timber Journal. Her prose and poetry has been featured in Vannevar, Storyacious, The Cafe Review, and Lemon Hound among others.


Image: Zoran Nova

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