‘Dirty Dancing’: giggles . . . and gritty reality

Theatre production is returning to Dublin and there’s more to the show than a marketable whoopfest of chemistry, biology and quotable bits

Sat, Jun 14, 2014, 01:00

Dance is “one of the only pure languages”, if the late Patrick Swayze was to be believed. On stage – “without the luxury or hindrance of words” – the level of communication that could take place was an amazing, intense, nuanced thing, he said, and dancers were “the most organic actors”.

Their bodies, their beings and their whole universe were “all made of up rhythms”, he said. “And when you key into those rhythms, something magical happens.”

In Dirty Dancing, that rhythm goes a bit like “g’gung . . . g’gung . . .”, and if, at this point, you can picture dance instructor Johnny Castle (Swayze) taking the hand of ingénue Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) and drumming it against his chest to teach her that dance is “a feeling, a heartbeat”, chances are that you are fan.

You will remember, although perhaps not as well as you think, the main beats of the 1987 coming-of-age film, set in the Catskills at the Kellerman’s resort, in the summer of 1963 – as told in a near-perfect script by Eleanor Bergstein.

The film has found a new rhythm in a hit stage show, and for Gareth Bailey and Claire Rogers dancing isn’t just a feeling, but their living. The pair play Johnny and his professional dancing partner Penny in Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage, the hit show currently touring Ireland and the UK. The parallels may not be as extreme for this cast as they were for Swayze, who grew up amid a Texan “redneck mentality” and had to fight his way up “just like Johnny”, but as performers they share an empathy with their characters – dancing is a precarious profession.

“We are so lucky to be successful,” says Bailey, speaking in the bar of Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre as he prepares to rejoin the tour after a seven-week recovery from a sprained ankle.

He “came down on it”, painfully, while practising the Time of My Life final sequence – “it was just before the lift, actually” – and no amount of physiotherapy, strapping and icing could stop it swelling up. “There isn’t a dancer who hasn’t had an injury,” he says.

Even though the show “looks like fun”, it has “a real serious side for us as professionals”, says Rogers, who gets to do all of Penny’s thrilling leg extensions. Establishing a rapport with fellow cast members, including any understudies pressed into action, is part of the job.

“The dancing is quite structured, even though it looks quite free, so we do spend a lot of time together with our partners, learning each other’s bodies. We become very close.”

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage premiered in Australia, in 2004, and raked in more than £42 million (about €52 million) on its last UK and Ireland tour. It tends to cast the central role of idealistic, virginal teenager Baby from an acting rather than a dancing background, with the effect that the actor’s professional “journey” in the rehearsal room echoes Baby’s physical education.

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