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Photo credit: Dirty Dancing cast 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dirty Dancing)

Get ready to have the time of your life at 'Dirty Dancing' shows in London

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Nobody puts Dirty Dancing in a corner! The iconic 1980s film has become a theatrical favourite too, from the hit musical theatre version to the lavish Secret Cinema treatment. It’s proof of the everlasting legacy of this beloved tale, which began so modestly and surprised everyone to become a global sensation.

So, why do we still adore Dirty Dancing, and how can you have the time of your life seeing the story play out in London’s theatreland — ideally while carrying a watermelon? Here’s our definitive guide to Dirty Dancing.

Book Dirty Dancing tickets on London Theatre.

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Dirty Dancing - 750 - LT

The Dirty Dancing movie

First came the big-screen incarnation. Eleanor Bergstein had actually spent her childhood summering in a resort in the Catskills much like Kellerman's, the one we see in Dirty Dancing. She took part in their dance competitions. Her father was also a Jewish doctor from New York, and she was called Baby by her family.

This was the biographical basis for the movie, but Bergstein added some key fictional elements too. Her heroine Baby (Jennifer Grey) doesn’t just discover dancing, but also has a summer of awakening: romantic and sexual, as she falls in love with hotshot ballroom profession Johnny (Patrick Swayze); coming-of-age, as she finally grows out of her “Baby” phase and discovers herself as a woman; and sociological, as she leaves her privileged bubble and comes to understand the inherent unfairness of class divisions and prejudice.

Set in 1963, the movie shows an America on the cusp of change, with talk of the Civil Rights movement. The family unit is dramatically shifting, from kids obediently echoing their parents to the rise of the rebellious teenager, and Max Kellerman, owner of the resort, laments that soon they won’t want to come here anymore - they’ll be demanding trips to Europe instead.

That social revolution is also brilliantly illustrated in dance form, with the resort’s underclass - the entertainment staff, mostly working-class and radically diverse - more liberated sexually and more socially progressive, so engaging in the raunchy dirty dancing and mixing together exciting street styles from different cultures.

That’s in strict contrast to the formal ballroom dances preferred by Max, and danced by the wealthier guests - less skin and shimmies, more ballgowns and box steps. However, there are implicit double standards here: Max knows that women like Vivian enjoy “dance lessons” - and a little extra - while their husbands are busy, but as long as it’s discreet, it’s overlooked.

Crucially, Bergstein ensured that her entire plot hinges on dancer Penny’s need to get an abortion - which meant that the studio couldn’t remove references to it without unravelling the whole story. That element, of course, has become freshly, grimly relevant following the overturning of Roe vs Wade.

However, we must admit that Dirty Dancing is also a glorious fantasy. It’s the favourite movie of every earnest girl who was ever overlooked by a handsome guy and left sitting in a corner. Johnny - a dreamy Patrick Swazye - sees Baby for who she really is and he brings out her inner glamour, while admiring her intelligence and moral conviction. It’s swoon-worthy stuff, climaxing in an incredible end dance with That Lift. What more could you want?

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The Dirty Dancing stage show

The 1987 movie became a massive hit, both in cinemas and on home video — plus its incredible soundtrack went platinum. It was only a matter of time before it became a theatre sensation too. Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage premiered in Australia in 2004 and became a West End phenomenon in 2006, with the highest ever ticket pre-sales of £6 million. After running in London for five years, Dirty Dancing toured the UK, then returned to the West End in 2013.

Dirty Dancing was back in town again in February 2022 for another triumphant West End run, stopping in at the Dominion Theatre during its latest tour. But if you missed it then, fear not: Dirty Dancing brings its fancy footwork and incredible love story to the Dominion once more in spring 2023. Find out more about Dirty Dancing in 2023.

Like the film, the stage show has all those brilliant songs - “(I've Had) The Time of My Life”, “Hungry Eyes”, “Hey! Baby”, “Cry to Me”, “Do You Love Me?” - and your favourite lines from the movie (yes, Baby carries a watermelon), with the added bonus of getting to watch the dynamic dance routines performed live. Choreographer Austin Wilks builds on the dazzling work of original dance-master Kenny Ortega (who went on to direct the High School Musical films). It’s a love letter to the film, with added theatrical flair - and a must-see for any Dirty Dancing fans.

Secret Cinema Dirty Dancing - 750 - LT

The Secret Cinema Dirty Dancing experience

If you’ve ever dreamed of entering the Dirty Dancing world, that dream can now come true thanks to Secret Cinema. The famed immersive experience company - who have conjured up the likes of Back to the Future, Moulin Rouge!, Casino Royale, Stranger Things and Bridgerton - have worked their magic on Kellerman’s.

Of course, we can’t give away too many details, since the whole fun of Secret Cinema is that only those who have attended the show know exactly what happens, but you can definitely expect plenty of Sixties fun, some of the games and sports from Kellerman’s, a dance class or two, and plenty of those incredible characters and moments from the film brought to life.

It’s just one more way in which the Dirty Dancing story continues, capturing a new generation with its fantastic music, moves, messages and, of course, that all-conquering love story. Secret Cinema Dirty Dancing has now closed in London, but maybe one day, Kellerman's can return to London. Find out more about Secret Cinema shows in London.

Book Dirty Dancing tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Dirty Dancing and Secret Cinema Dirty Dancing (Photos by Mark Senior and Dirty Dancing and 2022 Lions Gate Entertainment Inc)

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