Dirty Dancing in the Blue Ridge Mountains

The movie that launched a million slumber-party fantasies wasn’t filmed in the Catskills, where it was set, but in North Carolina and Virginia.

The stone stairs that climbed the hill before me didn’t look very impressive – particularly compared to the multimillion-dollar homes and graceful docks that wrapped the rest of the lake. But I recognised them instantly.

Our boat tour of Lake Lure, at the edge of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, had just pulled into Firefly Cove. But this quiet corner of the lake is better known by its nickname: “Dirty Dancing cove”. And the staircase, which we could clearly see as we bobbed in the water, is where Frances “Baby” Houseman, the protagonist of the 1987 film, carries a watermelon. It’s her ticket to the staff party that introduces her to a world of dancing beyond the foxtrot – and, of course, to Johnny Castle, played by Patrick Swayze.

I’d come here on a quest to see the locations where Dirty Dancing was shot. While it was actually filmed in Virginia and North Carolina, the movie that launched a million slumber-party fantasies was set in a scenic family resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains.

That’s where 17-year-old Baby, played by Jennifer Grey – who is bound for Mt Holyoke, the Peace Corps and, it seems, a lifetime of being a daddy’s girl – vacations with her family in the summer of 1963. In that safest-seeming of places, Baby’s life changes. She falls in love with Johnny, the resort’s dance instructor from the other side of the tracks. Johnny helps her see her own value (“Nobody,” he tells her father in the film, grabbing Baby to come dance on stage, “puts Baby in a corner”). She also helps a new friend get an abortion, solves a minor crime, stands up to her father, sheds her nickname and, as in any classic coming-of-age movie, learns that her family didn’t prepare her for life’s complications, and that how she responds defines who she will become.

Against so much turbulence (even turbulence sweetened with an implausible romantic arc, fun dance scenes and a catchy soundtrack), the film’s peaceful setting stands out. The decades-old Kellerman’s Resort, lush mountains and placid lake couldn't seem further removed from Baby’s angst. Or from America’s angst, for that matter: although Baby alludes to the summer of 1963 as a kind of age of innocence before events such as President Kennedy’s assassination, the country was already in turmoil; more than 978 civil rights demonstrations had taken place in 109 cities in the first six months of 1963 alone.

“It’s not the changes this time, Tito. It’s that it all seems to be ending,” the resort’s owner says to the bandleader – who, in another telling nod to the era, is the only black person with a line in the movie. “It feels like it’s all slipping away.”

The entire film is supposed to take place in a single location, so the setting was key. When screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein was driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, she noticed that they looked just like the Catskills. She should know: like Baby (in fact, her family called her by the same name), she had spent summers at an upstate New York resort with her family.

Mountain Lake Lodge, a 2,600-acre resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia, just north of Blacksburg, was chosen as the Kellerman’s stand-in. The lodge’s rambling stone face, shown frequently in the movie, hasn’t changed much since the film was shot here. But the lake outside the lodge, which features as a frequent backdrop in Dirty Dancing, has dried up; its disappearance baffles even experts.

Luckily for fans, though, the movie was filmed in two main locations. And, as I found one weekend, the second lake used is just as wet – and lovely – as ever. It also remains deeply connected to the movie: in 2009, locals even launched the Dirty Dancing Festival, which draws about 2,000 participants each summer with activities including lift competitions and watermelon-carrying races.

Lake Lure sits 235 miles southwest of Mountain Lake and 90 miles west of Charlotte. Created in 1925 when a hydroelectric dam was built on Broad River, the lake is one of the most stunning bodies of water in the US South. Today, its 27 miles of shoreline are lined with elegant, balcony-wrapped homes and private docks, surrounded by thick forests and granite mountains. At the lake’s western end rises Chimney Rock, the 315ft-tall formation that featured prominently in another movie, 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans, where North Carolina’s mountains stand in for the Adirondacks.

 

On an October day, I signed on for a Lake Lure boat tour. At “Dirty Dancing cove”, the guide pointed out the hill above us, where an old boys’ camp once sprawled. Its red cabins served as the staff housing of Kellerman’s. The cabins are gone today, having burned in a fire (and first having been picked at by rabid fans, who even carried away rocks from the foundations). The large gymnasium that was here also burned down; that was where the movie’s pivotal dancing scenes were filmed – Johnny’s mambo with his dance partner, Penny, at the beginning, and the iconic finale, where Johnny and Baby dance together. Only the floor of the gym was salvaged; it’s now the floor of the lobby of Chimney Rock’s Esmeralda Inn.

Firefly Cove, too, is where Baby and Johnny perfect their lift. There were just two problems. First, it’s all but impossible to jump from a muddy lake bottom, so a wooden platform was built underwater. Second, the movie was filmed in the fall of 1986. Leaves were turning orange and red, and temperatures were dropping fast. The trees and grass had to be brushed with green paint, and during filming, the two actors had to take frequent breaks to keep from freezing.

The famous staircase, though, was the most recognisable sight from the film. Although it’s most famous for the watermelon scene, the staircase appears often: it’s where Baby practices her dance steps, applies makeup and, later, runs for help when she finds out Penny’s abortion was botched. Dirty Dancing isn’t necessarily a film to be overanalysed, but even so, it’s hard not to see the staircase as a symbol of Baby’s pathway to adulthood.

The other lake site most associated with the movie, the 1927 Lake Lure Inn and Spa, has more debatable connections. An employee of the inn told me that several interior scenes were shot in what are now the Veranda Restaurant and Roosevelt Hall. Dirty Dancing Festival co-founder Michelle McConnell Yelton, though, says that the inn’s then-owner told her that none of the scenes were shot there.

In fact, Yelton said, the town’s residents were worried that the movie would be too risqué; they didn’t want the iconic hotel featured. Anticipating concerns, producers called the script “Dancing”, not “Dirty Dancing”, to help win approval for film shoots in Bible Belt town halls. Few could have predicted that the film – which had a modest production budget and did so poorly in audience testing, it was almost released straight to video – would become the year’s 11th top-grossing movie and, over two decades, sell 10 million home videos.

Whether or not the film was shot at the hotel, the cast did stay there. Walk along the rambling inn’s creaky, green-carpeted halls, past the walls hung with antique paintings and black-and-white photographs, and you can glimpse the room where Patrick Swayze stayed (number 215). Up a floor and at the other end of the hall is Jennifer Grey’s room (number 304/305). It’s said that the distance reflected the cool relationship the co-stars initially shared off-screen.

Just as important, the Lake Lure Inn & Spa was the site of real-life dirty dancing. “We had dance parties at the hotel, and they were really crazy dance parties, and we kind of practiced our moves,” Doriana Sanchez, one of the movie’s main dancers, said in an interview for the first Dirty Dancing Festival in 2009. “So if you can imagine what was on film – add a little beer and heat, and it was pretty fun on the dance floor on our times off.”

For both Mountain Lake and Lake Lure, many things may have changed since the fall of 1987. One lake dried up; cabins burned down. But the Blue Ridge Mountain remain as close to the heart of Dirty Dancing as you can get – closer, even, than the Catskills.