Belfast Telegraph

Now I’ve had the time of my life - the day I got to live the dream as Baby in Dirty Dancing

La La Land may be the squeaky-clean musical hit of the moment, but dancing is much more fun when it's dirty, contends Jennifer O'Brien, who joined the cast of the stage show for a steamy rehearsal ahead of its run at Belfast's Grand Opera House this month.

I'm in the rather sizeable and distracting arms of one Johnny Castle. Behind me, his dance partner Penny attempts to guide me through some basic steps of the routine. It's a scene straight from Dirty Dancing - and, it turns out, I don't even have to channel any of my (limited) acting abilities to depict the sheepish and doe-eyed Frances 'Baby' Houseman, caught in the strong grip and intimidating stare from Johnny. Today, I am her.

The delightful all-singing and dancing La La Land - which swept the board at the recent Golden Globes, and was this week nominated for 14 Oscars, including the big four of Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress - has garnered a sense of giddy excitement. Breathless fans are declaring it a watershed movie, one that will herald in a new era of modern-day music and dance-based film-making.

Not that there's any need, for one movie has already redefined the idea of a musical for the modern era - the cult classic that is Dirty Dancing.

Released in 1987 to none of the fanfare that La La Land has enjoyed, this low-budget film by a small new Hollywood studio starred two actors little known at the time, Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. It's safe to say that few foresaw what lay ahead in terms of its success.

Dirty Dancing has gone on to make close to £260m in cinemas worldwide since its release. Back in the days of Vhs, it was the first release to sell over one million copies, and also went on to produce a multi-platinum album and an Oscar-winning single in the form of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes' (I've had) The Time of my Life.

However, things could have been very different, as Grey was said to be initially unhappy with the casting of Swayze, with whom she had already starred in teen drama Red Dawn. Among the other actors tested for the role of Johnny was a then 20-year-old Billy Zane. Thankfully, there was no denying the hip-thrusting and ballet-trained talent of 34-year-old Swayze - Grey didn't get her way and filming at Mountain Lake, Carolina was wrapped up in just 44 days.

In 2011 there was a film remake in the works from Lionsgate, but thankfully, as far as die-hard fans are concerned, it never amounted to anything.

Now, it's three decades since Johnny took Baby out of the corner and the theatre adaptation has been filling up venues from the West End to Broadway in recent years.

With a new tour hitting Ireland in February, there's no end in sight for the Dirty Dancing phenomenon.

And so, when asked if I wanted to join the cast of the musical ahead of its stop at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, I was firming up my spaghetti arms within minutes. Let's face it, being Baby in the Johnny/Penny dance sandwich while Hungry Eyes plays in the background is something that has probably crossed the mind of every female who has ever watched the film.

I arrive at the Dance Attic studios in south-west London for what can only be likened to a dizzying scene from Fame. What seems like a group of some of the most genetically blessed dancers on earth are flinging themselves and their leg warmers around in acrobatic sequences. Long-limbed beauties sit casually doing the splits for warm-ups, others are leaning ballerina-like on mid-height poles - legs well above their heads and mine, which incidentally I soon realise I'm in way over…

After a series of gruelling auditions, the cast have been selected and are just a couple of weeks into rehearsals for the show, which will see them touring the UK as well as Dublin and Killarney. The energy is high, and as the director calls the cast into place it's straight into the show-stopping group dances for Do You Love Me? and Otis Redding's Love Man. I sit watching open-mouthed at the sheer talent and raw sexual tension in front of my eyes as Johnny flings Penny around, making mashing potatoes more appealing than it had ever seemed previously.

Turns out I'm more like wide-eyed Baby than I ever would have thought - Irish dancing classes in the Sacred Heart Convent were never like this…

While there aren't many men up to the task of taking on the iconic Patrick Swayze role, British actor Lewis Griffiths is more than capable of it.

Griffiths has had a prolific career in musical theatre, most recently starring as Nick Massi on the UK tour of Jersey Boys, as well as tours of Legally Blonde and that other Swayze guilty pleasure, Ghost.

"It's a bit of a dream role, to be honest," he admits, "but it was certainly daunting when I got the part. I grew up watching the film and my sister was just crazy about Johnny, like all girls. I've always considered myself as an actor who can dance, and not primarily a dancer, but this part offers the chance to do both."

Joining Lewis in the role of Baby is musical theatre newbie Katie Hartland, who graduated from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 2015. Naturally, she's thrilled that her career has gotten off to such a flying start, and is also keen to do her part justice.

"The film is something that means so much to so many people and they have this love for the characters and that's the sort of emotion we want to put across on stage also," she says.

When Dirty Dancing was released, much was written about the chemistry between Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in the lead roles, and even during rehearsals, it's clear Lewis and Kate are also completely at ease in each other's company.

"Kate is nine years younger than me, but it doesn't feel like that," Lewis adds.

"She has this natural instinct and ability and I think we feel very at ease around one another onstage."

Right now, I'm far from at ease. Having kept the cast talking as long as possible, there's no avoiding my turn on the dance floor. As I'm pulled into hold by Lewis, we're joined by Carlie Miler, who plays Penny. Hungry Eyes fires up in the background, Lewis informs me which is his dance space and which is mine, and we're off.

Having managed to get a basic sequence down, it isn't long before I get ahead of myself and have notions of attempting "the lift" from the end of the film. A panicked-looking Lewis informs me that he and Katie have been practising the iconic move on a daily basis since they had met. Perhaps we could attempt another lift with less of a chance of breaking my neck?

I resist the temptation to sulk like Baby - that may be taking things too far.

Half lift it is. Off I leap into his arms, swinging around the dance floor to the tune of The Time of My Life. London disappears. It's the summer of 1963 and I'm 17-years-old and on holiday with my annoying older sister and my parents in the Catskill Mountains. I've fallen for the resort's bad boy dance instructor and been thrown in at the deep end as his leading lady both onstage and off.

I giggle, blushing like a schoolgirl. Hell, I'm so convincing, the director even jokingly offers me a role as a stand-in.

Pass me some watermelon, I need to cool down!

  • Dirty Dancing comes to the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from February 20-25. For further details and to book tickets go to or tel: 028 9024 1919

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