8 Life Lessons From 'Dirty Dancing'

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I’m on the road with a touring stage production of Dirty Dancing. My boyfriend dons a tux every night so that he and his Kellerman’s bandmates can kick things off with “This Magic Moment.” It’s just like the movie, much to the delight of live audiences eight times a week. The show has been presented more than 350 times in 32 cities over the past 11 months. I’ve heard it more than 200 times myself, seen it all the way through twice.

The film dropped in the summer of 1987, right before I began seventh grade. I absolutely had to get my hands on a pair of Keds and some capri pants ASAP after seeing it. (Didn’t you?) I begged for a perm like Baby’s, but my mom wasn’t having it.

Tonight as I walked out of the stage door, it hit me. This story is chock full of teachable moments. Here are a few that stand out:

1. Jake Houseman: “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.”

Johnny didn’t get Penny in trouble—Robby the Creep did—and Baby’s dad wrongly accused him. Jake makes things right in this scene and eats crow. He wasn’t very nice to Johnny, but at least he admitted it. We can all take a lesson from this one.

2. Johnny Castle: “I’ll never be sorry.”

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Johnny and Baby went for it even though the odds were against them. Who wants to live life wondering “what if”? They took a chance on summer love and had no regrets.

3. Baby Houseman: “We’re supposed to do the show in two days, you won’t show me the lifts, I’m not sure of the turns, I’m doing all this to save your ass, what I really want to do is drop you on it!”

Baby reminds us to speak up if we’re not feeling appreciated. She learned intricate dances (and let’s not forget about that giant watermelon she carried around) in just a few days for this guy. Johnny needed to honor her hard work and dedication, so she let him know! Never let anyone take you for granted.

4. Penny Johnson: “How many times have you told me never to get mixed up with them?”

When she notices a spark between Baby and Johnny, she says something. As house entertainment at Kellerman’s, Johnny and Penny must maintain boundaries with the clientele. Penny gently reminds Johnny not to dip his pen in company ink, so to speak. Before crossing professional boundaries, step back and consider whether or not you can handle the potential consequences.

5. Baby Houseman: “Have you had many women?”

Nope. The takeaway here is not to ask this question. Do you really want to know the answer? He was a hunky dance instructor at a resort full of frisky Cougars, we get it. True love excludes judging your beloved for past digressions. Let sleeping dogs lie.

6. Johnny Castle: “It’s not on the one, it’s not the mambo. It’s a feeling, a heartbeat.”

Johnny’s saying so much more here. Go with your intuition, surrender to the music and romance. Closing our eyes and organically experiencing a moment can take the ordinary to a sublime new level. Right on, Mr. Castle. Don’t overthink everything. Just let your heart be your guide.

7. Johnny Castle: “You don’t understand the way it is, I mean for somebody like me. Last month, I’m-I-I’m eating Jujubes to keep alive, this month women are stuffing diamonds in my pockets. I’m bouncing on shit and quick as that I could be down there again.”

Here, the lesson is impermanence. Diamonds from wealthy patrons one minute, the next he’s back to painting houses. Johnny has obviously experienced his share of highs and lows. Nothing is guaranteed, so live in the moment and appreciate what you have.

8. Johnny Castle: “Sorry for the interruption, folks, but I always do the last dance of the season. This year somebody told me not to. So I’m gonna do my kind of dancin’ with a great partner, who’s not only a terrific dancer, but somebody…who’s taught me…that there are people willing to stand up for other people no matter what it costs them. Somebody who’s taught me about the kind of person I wanna be. Miss Frances Houseman.”

Johnny proves himself to be a real stand-up guy. He drives back to Kellerman’s, makes a big entrance and speaks up. The world wasn’t cheering Johnny and Baby on, but he wasn’t going to let their chance at love slip through his fingers. In the end, he shines a light on Baby and her goodness. He lets everyone see how special she is and gets her out of that flipping corner.

The show rolls on and each night, thousands of people hear these corny lines. I personally have witnessed my late-thirty- and fortysomething peers shed a tear or two upon leaving the theater. I thought I was impervious to the magic of Dirty Dancing after 28 years; turns out that I’m not. I recently saw the show again, and maybe it got me a little choked up. Perhaps, I too shed a tear when Johnny Castle and Baby Houseman finally nailed that darn lift.

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