Before he was an actor, Patrick Swayze was a ballet dancer. He began at his mother’s dance school in Texas, and went on to study at the Joffrey and Harkness ballet schools in New York before performing with the Eliot Feld ballet. He turned to acting because of an old knee injury (from football), but his first film role, in Skatetown USA (1979), was nevertheless a dancing one: gang leader Ace Johnson, king of the roller disco.
In his breakthrough film, Dirty Dancing (1987), he also played a dancer: rough diamond Johnny Castle, a dance teacher at a middle-American holiday camp, in a story about sex – a teenage girl’s first experience – and, powerfully, about romance. It was his most iconic role and most successful film, with an enduring cross-generational appeal to its largely female fan base.
When I saw the stage version recently, the auditorium was full of women of all ages, with a smattering of husbands and boyfriends looking rather surplus to requirements. The Times dance critic had led me to believe there would be knicker-throwing but I didn’t see any; instead I saw shining eyes and flushed faces, heard melting sighs and the hammering of 100 hearts. When I met the lead actor Martin Harvey backstage (ladies, he let me carry a watermelon), I asked him what it was like to be the object of such desire. He answered quite simply that he didn’t know: it was all for Patrick Swayze, not him.
Swayze’s dance training was central to his heart-throb appeal. In Dirty Dancing, dance is clearly used as a metaphor for sex: young Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) learns how to dance with Johnny, and as they come together as a dancing couple, they become a sexual one too. For that to work at all it’s not enough that Swayze looks really buff (OK, it’s a big factor): he has to establish a physical rapport on the dance floor, otherwise we won’t believe it’s there in the bedroom. Dance training is vital for that. Compare Swayze’s slow-burn smoulder with, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s graceless fumblings in True Lies. Arnie is going through the motions and so his partner has to do the same; Swayze and Grey are coming together.
That’s a potent, romantic fantasy, and again I think Swayze’s dance background is pivotal, because he has learned how to partner. The male-female duet is a cornerstone of ballet. The man attends to the woman, supports her, facilitates her, lifts her, frames her. Something similar happens in ballroom and Latin dancing, although the nuances are different. Traditionally the man leads and the woman follows, but control isn’t the objective: as with a ballet pas de deux, he is the ground against which she shines.
Look at Swayze in Dirty Dancing, and you can see that attentiveness, that focus: his “hungry eyes” fixed on hers, his concentration on her performance. It’s both powerfully romantic and deeply sexy, and Swayze clinches it not because of his acting but because he learned dance partnering.
Swayze played the romantic lead in his other best-remembered movie, Ghost (1990), which also has a devoted female fanbase. This isn’t a dance film, but its iconic sexy scene (the one with the wet clay) is certainly a musical number. And again I’d say that Swayze brings into play his dance-partnering sensibilities to portray a man so focused on his partner that he remains attentive even after his own death.
Swayze’s wife Lisa Niemi was also a trained ballet dancer, and if you want to see what I mean about attentiveness in partnering, watch the two of them dancing together in 1994.
They performed together again in Swayze’s last dance film, made in 2003. Based on a play the couple had written many years earlier, One Last Dance – written and directed by Niemi – told the story of former ballet dancers returning to their past to recreate a lost work. Once again, dance is the means which establishes and develops the romantic relationship.
Swazye and Niemi married in 1975. They were childhood sweethearts who met at his mother’s ballet school when she was 15 and he was 19 – which sounds like a coming-of-age drama in itself. I have no idea what the reality of that relationship was, but I’m pretty sure what the romantic fantasy will be: it began like Dirty Dancing and ended like Ghost. For his many female fans, Swayze will continue to play the romantic lead in death, as he did in life.