The Behind-The-Scenes Secrets of Dirty Dancing

It’s been more than 30 years since Dirty Dancing pulled off a genuine box office miracle. This low-budget movie with unknown stars told the story of a hunky dance instructor named Johnny (played by Patrick Swayze) who changed the life of a shy teenager named Frances “Baby” Houseman (played by Jennifer Grey).

But the real miracle is how this film even got made in the first place. Dirty Dancing’s history is packed with crazy facts, surprising secrets, and near disasters. We’ve collected all these behind the scenes moments into an article you have to read to believe. It all starts with the real-life Baby…

Meet the Real-Life Baby

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Eleanor Bergstein wrote Dirty Dancing. She was a Jewish girl from Brooklyn whose father, a doctor, took the family to the Catskills for vacations. Sound familiar? Eleanor wrote all those personal details and memories into the character of Baby. One dancer who worked with Eleanor recalled how a manager dismissed sexy tangos with a phrase that would become iconic. “They’re Dancing Dirty!” he complained.

The creative team behind Dirty Dancing carefully chose every iconic setting and moment in the film—including the year when Baby meets Johnny. You might be surprised to learn why the filmmakers chose one particular year for this iconic love story.

1963: An Epic Year for an Epic Love Story

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You might not remember everything that happened in 1963, but it was one of the craziest years in American history—filled with hope and tragedy. The Vietnam War raged overseas, The Beatles recorded their first record, 250,000 people marched on Washington DC to hear Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Tragedy also followed the summer of love that Baby and Johnny shared: John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.

Everybody remembers Dirty Dancing as big hit these days, but you will be shocked to discover how the screenwriter struggled to get her film made.

The Unexpected Way Dirty Dancing Got Written

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Unlike most movies, screenwriter Eleanor chose the music for the movie and then wrote a story that fit the music. She even included a “Dirty Dancing” cassette tape with every copy of the script. “I had about sixty pages of dense description in the script,” she told a journalist. “But they couldn’t really envision it. So I would get up on a table in a very short skirt and do all the dirty dancing steps for a lot of men sitting with cigars.”

Unfortunately, every single studio in Hollywood turned down Dirty Dancing. You’ll never believe the company that actually made the movie.

The Unknown Studio That Made One of the Biggest Hits in History

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In the 1980s, the home video company Vestron Pictures decided to start making movies. The company went out of business in 1991, and most of the movies they made are now forgotten: Slaughter High, Big Man on Campus, and Cat Chaser. However, when the studio opened, they received a flood of scripts nobody else had wanted. One producer spotted Dirty Dancing and remembered fondly visiting a summer resort just like Baby. Vestron gave them a $5 million budget to make the story happen.

With this shoestring budget, the unknown studio had to hire an unknown director who had never made a fictional movie in his life. Can you guess who it was?

The Director Who Had No Experience

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Emile Ardolino had never directed a feature film before helming Dirty Dancing. Before this, he specialized in creating documentaries and television centered around dance. It was a love of dance that led Ardolino to Dirty Dancing. Even though he didn’t have feature film experience, he was an expert at shooting dancers. Without his magic, Dirty Dancing would have never got off the ground.

Despite the real-life source for “Dirty Dancing,” the movie almost ended up with a terrible alternative title. Can you guess it?

Dirty Dancing Almost Had This Terrible Title

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The 1950s dance competitions Eleanor Bergstein participated in were considered racy at the time, though they were quite tame compared to “twerking” and other suggestive dances today. Mambo was Eleanor’s preferred naughty dance in her day. Fearing that “Dirty Dancing” might give potential moviegoers the wrong idea about the movie, the producers almost decided to rename their film I Was a Teenage Mambo Queen. Thankfully, this title never saw the light of day! Still, other problems on set threatened to derail this now-classic film—two actors had big problems on set.

Dirty Dancing’s box office success was great, but then, this little movie faced off against some major competition in front of millions.

From Box Office Flop to Blockbuster

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Dirty Dancing was expected to flop on release. The film was poorly tested with audiences and it was originally scheduled to show in cinemas for one weekend before going straight to VHS. ‘Dirty Dancing‘ was the first movie to sell a million copies on video. It was one of the top theatrical releases of 1987, bringing in $170 million, and it was the top rental of 1988. Many moviegoers liked it so much that they bought a second ticket immediately after leaving the theatre.

Even though Dirty Dancing had a great box office run, one single award changed the movie’s fate forever.

The Award That Changed Everything

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At the 1988 Academy Awards, Dirty Dancing won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.” This award catapulted the film into a new realm with single phrase: Academy Awarding Winner Dirty Dancing. How many other nominated songs do you remember? “Cry Freedom” (Cry Freedom) “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” (Mannequin) and “Shakedown” (Beverly Hills Cop II) “Storybook Love” (The Princess Bride).

That’s not all. “The Time Of My Life” has become a popular choice to play at a certain kind of event. You will never guess what kind.

What Dirty Dancing Song Would You Play At Your Funeral?

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Strange as it may sound, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” performed by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, the closing song from Dirty Dancing, is the third most popular song played at funerals in the UK. If you think about it, it is a beautiful way to remember a lost loved one.

But that’s not the most surprising fact about this iconic song. You’ll be shocked at what Bill Medley thought the film was about based on its title…

A Bad Porno?!

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Singer-songwriter Bill Medley was the one who was asked to perform the theme song of the movie, which turned out the be the now legendary “The Time of My Life.” When Bill was first told about the movie, however, he was certainly eyeing the production questionably. In fact, it’s said that he felt like the movie’s title sounded more like the title of a “bad porno” than a blockbuster flick. He also wasn’t impressed that the top names of the film, Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, were not well known. Either way, he eventually came around and wrote a huge hit for the movie.

Bill wasn’t the only one who thought the film was porn. You’ll never believe what one producer went through when crossing into Canada with materials for the film…

That Other Time Dirty Dancing Got Mistaken for Pornography

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Back in 1987, the dancing and subject matter of Dirty Dancing was a bit risky. When crossing the border into Canada with boxes of Dirty Dancing materials, one producer even got strip-searched by customs officials. Amazingly, the customs officials hadn’t heard of the box office sensation yet. These days, it’s harder to find somebody who hasn’t seen the movie.

There’s one thing most fans agree on. Out of all the characters in Dirty Dancing, fans love to hate one particular character.

The Most Hated Character

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Actor Lonny Price played Neil Kellerman, the conceited and conniving son of the hotel’s owner. He tries to woo Baby with his money and power, but she’s having none of it. The actor recalled watching Dirty Dancing in a packed theater in the 1980s. In the movie, his character said “Sometimes, in this world, you see things you don’t want to see.” Suddenly, somebody yelled out: “Yeah, like you!” inside the theater and everybody laugh. “They hated me, but in a good way,” he said. He now works as a director in theater, and is perfectly happy to be the character everybody loves to hate.

But enough about hate. There’s one particular question that every Dirty Dancing fan LOVES to answer…

What’s Your Favorite Dirty Dancing Quote?

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Fans have been ranking quotes for years. Everyone knows “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” but IMDB fans also voted these quotes among their favorites from the film.

“Me? I’m scared of everything. I’m scared of what I saw, I’m scared of what I did, of who I am, and most of all I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you.”

“Look, spaghetti arms. This is my dance space. This is your dance space. I don’t go into yours, you don’t go into mine. You gotta hold the frame.”

“Oh, come on, ladies. God wouldn’t have given you maracas if He didn’t want you to shake ’em.”

Find out what Patrick Swayze Thought of the film’s most famous line…

Swayze Hated the Film’s Most Iconic Line

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“Nobody puts baby in a corner,” is arguably the most famous line of the entire film and has made its way into the pop culture lexicon as an unforgettable quote. It was even rated by the AFI as the 98th greatest movie quote ever. However, not everyone was on board with the way the line was written. Apparently, Patrick Swayze (who is the one who had to deliver the line) was not a fan of it. Patrick Swayze later wrote about having to say the super cheesy line in his 2009 biography. Patrick said, “I could hardly bring myself to say: ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner.’ It sounded so corny.”

Just after that iconic line comes the sequence the movie will always be remembered for. You’ll be shocked what Jennifer Grey did to prepare for it.

Jennifer Grey Never Practiced the Lift

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Unbelievably, Jennifer Grey never practiced her famous lift scene. The moment where Baby leaps into the arms of Patrick Swayze pulling off the perfect lift. Earlier in the film, the two characters, Baby and Johnny, are seen practicing the lift over and over again with many failures. However, something particularly interesting about this amazing moment in cinema history is that Jennifer Grey didn’t actually rehearse for the impressive move. In 2015, Jennifer recounted the famous scene saying, “I only did it on the day I shot it. Never rehearsed it, never done it since.”

Although Grey didn’t practice the lift, one couple practiced that move over and over and over again.

The Dirty Dancing Wedding Dance

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Unbelievably, Jennifer Grey never practiced her famous lift scene. The moment where Baby leaps into the arms of Patrick Swayze pulling off the perfect lift. Earlier in the film, the two characters, Baby and Johnny, are seen practicing the lift over and over again with many failures. However, something particularly interesting about this amazing moment in cinema history is that Jennifer Grey didn’t actually rehearse for the impressive move. In 2015, Jennifer recounted the famous scene saying, “I only did it on the day I shot it. Never rehearsed it, never done it since.”

Although Grey didn’t practice the lift, one couple practiced that move over and over and over again.

The Rain Was Faked

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It wasn’t really raining in the famous rain scene when Patrick Swayze breaks a window to get in the car. In reality, the rain came from a hose on top of the covered entrance above the hotel. This earns Dirty Dancing a place among many other Hollywood films to shoot iconic rain scenes by faking the rain.

The rain wasn’t the only thing that was fake. Two characters were faking their relationship as well…

Fighting On Set?

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Although you would never know it by watching the movie, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey were not really in love. In fact, they didn’t even really get along on set. The two later reunited for the 1980s film Red Dawn, which played on the American fear of Russians leftover from an earlier era. Even on that set, they were said to have had tension between the two. Perhaps, it was merely sexual tension and the two were actually attracted to one another? We will probably never know, but Patrick wrote about Jennifer in his autobiography. He said that when they first auditioned, Jennifer “couldn’t stand” him.

The story is set in the Catskills, but you may be surprised where it was actually shot…

They Shot Virginia in Fall for the Catskills in Summer

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The entire premise of Dirty Dancing, is that a family is away from the city visiting the Catskills for their summer vacation. The Catskill mountains are located in the southern region of New York state, far away from the hustle and bustle of big city life. They are renowned for the beautiful landscapes and wildlife. The cast actually filmed at a lodge located in Virginia to give a similar appearance, however, summer was already coming to an end when they were shooting. As fall came around, the leaves began to change color. This created yet another job for the crew who had to spray paint yellow leaves green and even add additional foliage in order to make it seem as though it was still summer time.

There’s something even more surprising about the film’s location.

The Lake From the Film is Gone & Nobody Knows Why

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Although the film takes place in New York’s Catskill Mountains, parts of it were actually shot at Mountain Lake Resort in Virginia. That resort is still around today, only the lake it was named for has dried up and vanished. Although there are some speculative theories, no one knows exactly why the water dried up or where it went.

The real-life resort that Mountain Lake stands in for could be coming back to life soon.

The Real Resort Exists in the Catskills

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In real life, a famous dancer named Jackie Horner told her life story to writer Eleanor Bergstein who’d also grown up dancing in the Catskills. However, Jackie’s life likely provided more inspiration for the character “Baby.” According to Time: “Horner, who spent summers at Grossinger’s Hotel and later worked there as a dance pro, consulted with Bergstein in 1985, prior to filming. Not only did she see the music, dancing, and fashions firsthand—she really did bring watermelon when she crashed staff-members’ parties.” Jackie said the film was meant to be shot at Grossinger’s Hotel but was ultimately moved to Virginia. The resort closed in 1986, but a new owner talked of renovating it as recently as 2017.

Jackie Horner’s dance knowledge was incorporated into the film in an iconic way.

Practicing Lifts in the Lake Was Based on Real Life

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The real-life Baby, Jackie Horner, actually practiced lifts in a lake when she was younger, to avoid falling and injuring herself on the wooden floors. Apparently, that piece of advice came from Poseidon Adventure star Shelly Winters, who was a regular at the hotel where Jackie was a dance pro. The lift in the lake scene was directly lifted from Jackie Horner’s real experiences.

Find out what lines real-life fans love the most from the film…

Conservative Sponsors

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Although the film was shot in the 1980s, and one might think that viewers were not as conservative as they had been decades before, this was not the case. Due to the fact that the character Penny had an abortion, a sponsor of the film pulled out. While many films seek out investors or sponsors in order to get their project made, Dirty Dancing was no different and was made on a very tight budget. The producers were able to find a sponsor in a company that made acne cream, however, after the revelation that an abortion was in the plot, the company pulled out. The company was afraid that there might be backlash to their product because of their involvement. Although, if you have seen the film it certainly does not show abortion in a glamorous light.

Though the financing put the production in trouble, that wasn’t the only thing that went wrong during the making of the film.

Injuries On Set

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While many films over the years have been rumored to have been cursed, they are typically horror films. For example, both The Exorcist and Poltergeist are said to have cursed both cast and crew members. Dirty Dancing cast and crew also began to believe they were cursed very early on. First, the set was broken into and property was stolen. Then the Catskills flooded, causing the roads to be blocked off and cause major damage including a destroying one of the production team’s van. Then, several crew members got injured while working, followed by three separated cast members coming down with food poisoning. The real kicker is that all of these incidents apparently happened within 24 hours of one another.

Injuries weren’t the only unplanned scenes in the film, many iconic moments were improvised.

The Crawling Scene Was Improvised

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One of the most iconic scenes in the entire film is when Johnny and Baby are in the dance studio for practice and they begin crawling around on the floor lip-syncing to the song “Love Is Strange.” However, it turns out that this particular scene was neither choreographed nor scripted. In fact, it wasn’t supposed to appear in the film at all. The entire routine was really supposed to just be a warm-up, however, the director Emile Ardolino thought the entire interaction looked great on film so he decided to keep it as an actual scene in the movie.

Another key moment from the film almost had to be made without the award-winning song that defined it…

“I’ve Had The Time Of My Life” Almost Didn’t Happen

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Bill Medley (of The Righteous Brothers) and Jennifer Warnes song “I’ve Had The Time of My Life,” became an immediate star upon release of the film. It was used during the classic ending sequence of the movie, where Baby and Johnny end up performing for the entire audience of guests including Baby’s parents. The song even won an Academy Award later on. However, that was the only accolade given to this classic song. Also, perhaps aptly, the song garnered some renewed attention in 2016 after someone dubbed it over footage of a debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the election.

Editing Disaster

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Dirty Dancing was not an instant hit from the producer’s point of view. After editors and the director Emile Ardolino first handed producers the first cut of the movie and they were able to see what was done with it, they thought it was a total disaster. Apparently, the producers hated what they saw so much, they thought the entire film needed to be scrapped. Allegedly, one producer told director Emile, “burn the negative and collect the insurance.” Obviously, he was given another shot and now we are left with the film we all love and cherish today.

Maybe part of the reason the film was so hard to sell was because of all its unplanned moments. Like this caught-on-camera genuine moment between Patrick and Jennifer that made it to the final cut.

Jennifer’s Giggle Fit

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The scene where Johnny and Baby are practicing dancing is one of the most iconic montages in the whole movie. Particularly the scene where Johnny runs his hand down Baby’s armpit and onto her side and she cannot stop laughing, was actually more organic than the audience ever knew. Apparently, Jennifer wasn’t acting at all and her laughter was totally natural. Jennifer had a giggle fit and could not control herself. Johnny’s annoyed look was actually Patrick Swayze’s natural reaction as well. The scene definitely ended up being one of the most iconic parts of the film.

Patrick Wants To Do Everything

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Patrick Swayze apparently wanted to perform all his own stunts. This was a fine idea since Swayze already did all his own dancing. Despite having the honor of doing all his own stunts, it did backfire at times. At one point while filming the scene on the log, Patrick Swayze kept falling off of the log. He apparently injured his knee pretty terribly from falling so much. He ended up having to have the fluid drained from his knee to reduce all the swelling. Poor Patrick! But knowing that all the stunts were his own performance is pretty respectable!

A Stressful Timeline

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With the seasons changing, the tight budget, the on-set injuries, and the tensions flaring between Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, you would think that those things made filming already stressful enough. But to make things worse, the cast and crew only had a total of 44 days to film the whole movie. Before that, they only had two weeks to rehearse all of the dance numbers! Talk about hard work! It’s crazy to think that a movie with so many dance numbers was only made in about a month and a half.

Baby’s Like The Wind

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Remember the song “She’s Like the Wind” in Dirty Dancing? The song was originally written in 1984 by Stacy Widelitz and Patrick Swayze, himself. However, it wasn’t even meant to be used in Dirty Dancing. Swayze and Widelitz originally wrote the song for another Patrick Swayze film, Grandview, U.S.A., and was supposed to be about Jamie Lee Curtis’s character. It obviously wasn’t used in that film so Swayze showed it to the producers of Dirty Dancing and they loved it. It ended up being a song about Baby instead.

Please, No Close Ups

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The iconic lake scene was one of many memorable scenes in Dirty Dancing. But do recall that earlier in this article we mentioned that filming took place at the end of summer and into the autumn months. Well, this was certainly the case when filming the lake scene in October. If you haven’t noticed, none of the shots with the lake are close up shots. This was intentional. The filmmakers didn’t use any close-up shots of the actors in the lake because it was so cold, that their lips were blue!

A Strange Connection

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Despite their apparently contentious off-screen relationship, Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze were connected before they were in movies together. Jennifer Grey’s father is Joel Grey, an Oscar and Tony award-winning stage actor. At one point in Mr. Grey’s career, he starred in a short-lived Broadway musical called Goodtime Charley, which was about the son of Charlemagne. According to the Playbill for that show, which was in 1975, Patrick Swayze was one of the ensemble dancers! Who knew that Swayze would end up being in a successful film with the star’s daughter?! We’re sure no one did at the time.

Before He Was Newman

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Actor Wayne Knight might have Dirty Dancing to thank for his acting career. His film debut was in Dirty Dancing in 1987, but before that, he only had bit parts in commercials and television. After the film’s success, however, Knight’s career took off as he went on to star in other movies such as Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and Basic Instinct. After his role in Basic Instinct, he was the first actor cast by Steven Spielberg in Jurassic Park. He would later go on to more iconic roles, such as that of the mailman Newman on Seinfeld.

The Weather Worked Against Them

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Because Dirty Dancing was filmed during a shift in seasons, the cast and crew underwent some pretty extreme weather conditions. At one point, the outside temperature rose to 105 degrees Fahrenheit! With all the film equipment needed, scenes that were filmed indoors on those hot days rose the temperature to 120 degrees. The sweltering heat was also met with frigid coldness. When filming on the lake, cast and crew wore coats, gloves, and boots, while Swayze and Grey had to wear summer clothes. Grey would later say that if she wasn’t “young and hungry,” she would not have dove into the “horrifically cold” water.

A Jewish Movie?

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Eleanor Bergstein herself characterized Dirty Dancing as a Jewish movie “if you know what you’re looking at.” In addition to the Houseman family and other characters being Jewish, the Kellerman resort that they stayed at is based off Grossinger’s Hotel. Grossinger’s Hotel and other resorts in the Catskills were located on the “Borscht Belt,” known to house a string of resorts that welcomed vacationing Jewish families back in the day, since back then it was common for popular resorts and hotels to reject Jewish customers. Not many people would consider this a Jewish movie, but if you really think about it, it kind of is.

Why Dirty Dancing Leaves A Lasting Impression

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Dirty Dancing became a phenomenal success and is a classic over many generations to this day. In an interview with AFI, Patrick Swayze was asked about why he thought this movie was such a classic to many viewers. Swayze said, “It’s got so much heart, to me, it’s not about sensuality; it’s really about people trying to find themselves – this young dance instructor feeling like he’s nothing but a product, and this young girl trying to find out who she is in a society of restrictions when she has such an amazing take on things.”

Nobody Nose

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After the success of Dirty Dancing, Jennifer Grey was quite popular into the late ’80s and early ’90s. It was around that time that she decided to do what a lot of celebrities do and get a nose job, but it didn’t work out so well for the actress. She had to undergo two rhinoplasty procedures and she only did the second one due to complications that stemmed from the first one. Afterward, she was so unrecognizable that she briefly considered changing her name and starting her career over! Needless to say, it was a road bump in Grey’s career.

Grey Is Gosling Fan

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The scene in which Baby nails the lift with Johnny is an iconic movie scene, so much so, that many people have tried to recreate it. This is exactly what went down in the 2012 movie Crazy, Stupid, Love. starring Ryan Gosling. In that movie, Gosling performs the move with actress Emma Stone, in order to get her to sleep with him (it works). When Jennifer Grey saw the film, she was shocked, telling Yahoo! “I’m such a fan of Ryan Gosling and all of a sudden he’s saying my name [in the movie]. I’m just in the theatre with my husband and I look at him like, ‘Oh my God, Ryan Gosling just said my name. What’s going on?'”

An Unfortunate Passing

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Two people who worked on Dirty Dancing have lost their lives to cancer and unfortunately, one of those people was the main actor Patrick Swayze. In 2008, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was given just weeks to live. He was put on an experimental drug in addition to chemotherapy and appeared to be responding well for the following months. He even came out publicly to announce that he was alive and well after his initial diagnosis. Unfortunately, by 2009 he grew ill again and developed pneumonia from the chemotherapy. Swayze passed away on September 14, 2009, at the age of 57.