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26 Years of Dirty Dancing in the Catskills

“Nobody puts baby in a corner.” Six words that nearly every living woman recognizes, and knows well. Four others? How about, “I carried a watermelon?” — spoken, of course, with a regretful, I-can’t-believe-I-just-said-that tone. On this very day in 1987, “Dirty Dancing” introduced an epic cinematic tale of falling in love, coming of age, pushing the boundaries and, of course, dancing.

Thinking back to the first time I watched the movie (and, let’s face it, every time thereafter), I imagined myself as Frances “Baby” Houseman — winning the heart of Johnny Castle through dance, and dancing like my two left feet actually know how. But there can only be one real-life “Baby” and she is the reason we are celebrating 26 years of this classic flick.

“Dirty Dancing” is based on the life of the movie’s screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein, and takes place at a resort inspired by the luxurious Borscht Belt retreats that put the Catskills on the map many, many decades ago. Ms. Bergstein, born in Brooklyn, summered with her family (including her doctor father and sister named Frances; sound familiar?) in the Catskills, participated in dirty dancing competitions as a teenage Mambo queen and was even called “Baby” as a girl.

What’s more, Ms. Bergstein’s character of Johnny Castle was inspired by Michael Terrace, a retired ballroom and Broadway stage dancer from Spanish Harlem who was once a dance instructor at Grossinger’s, a popular Borscht Belt resort that closed its doors in 1986 — and is among those that inspired the movie's fictional Kellerman’s. While “Dirty Dancing” wasn’t filmed in the Catskills, it is New York to its core, paying homage to a bygone era and delighting audiences around the world even today. That its lead characters are based on actual people makes the movie's improbable love story — and our dreams of spending a lavish summer falling in love lakeside and dancing our hearts out in silver ballroom sandals — less out-of-reach than previously thought.

Ms. Bergstein is our New Yorker of the Day for this irreplaceable and timeless movie. Cozy up on the couch and invite your girls (and sensitive guys) over for a “Dirty Dancing” marathon, indoor-picnic style. We guarantee you’ll have the time of your life... (For more on the history of the Borscht Belt era, tune in to the NYSOM Magazine this autumn.)

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