Looking for Dirty Dancing: The Teenager’s Guide to Lake Lure -The Toast

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I had been living in North Carolina for five years before anyone told me that Dirty Dancing was filmed at Lake Lure, a summery vacation spot just a couple of hours away from me. This information was shocking, like learning that God resided quite nearby and was up for visitors. 

I got out my atlas and circled the blue dot with a pencil. Just a small circle, so I could find it again. Lake Lure. Kellerman’s. There it was: an actual place that could be located on a map. 


I wanted to go, but I hesitated. Was this a strange thing for a grown woman to do? I didn’t care. I didn’t hesitate long.

Like all other teenage girls in the late eighties, I acquired most of my knowledge about life from Dirty Dancing. It gave me a glimpse of the future. I saw that the future held romantic lake-lifts and awkward watermelon-carrying. I knew that this future would involve tempestuous older dance instructors. And I knew that the scenes of my life would be set to “I’ve Had The Time of My Life.” In this future, which would be my future, I would wear sparkly high-heeled dance shoes and a skirt that twirled out into a flat line. I would dance the final dance at a crumbling Catskills resort. Nobody would put me in the corner.


As a Californian, I had no idea what the Catskills were. They did not seem to resemble the enormous and awe-inspiring Sierras. They seemed to contain a lot of summer camps and pretty lakes. Families on vacation, all in bathing suits. Lots of greenery. Lots of communal meals. This was not the way my family traveled. I was intrigued. I understood this to be “the East Coast.”

 So I was Baby, I decided. But we were all Baby. And we were all still Baby in college, when my friends and I ordered Chinese food and re-watched the movie again and again, cross-legged on mattresses on our dorm room floors. We swapped stories about when we had first seen it. We reflected on how completely and wonderfully it had warped our understanding of life. We sang along with the songs, pounding our chests in mock-melodrama. We loved the montages: Baby learning to dance. We were all wearing those long cut-offs. We were all on those stairs.

But before college, when I was first Baby, I was Baby with my friend Anne, and we would hole up in her T.V. room and eat White Castles with spicy mustard and rewind the lake lift scene countless times, Jennifer Grey going up and then down, over and over. Readjusting her wet tank top. Pushing back her hair. 

The VHS tape gathered dust. We worried that we might wear it out.

We also played the movie soundtrack on the tape player in Anne’s room, which was wallpapered with pink flowers and always smelled like whatever perfume were trying out. Had I been forced to testify in a court of law, I would have sworn that “Hungry Eyes” was the most beautiful song ever recorded by man.

And then we grew up and stayed close and became fairly different people, but also the same. We both teach English. And then, this spring, Anne’s mom died suddenly. When I found out, I was sitting in my office, going over lecture notes between classes, and I thought of all those afternoons watching Dirty Dancing, and I thought of her mom coming in and out of the room while we sat in front of the television. Sometimes she would tell us to get up and go outside – “Really, you guys. It’s beautiful out!” – and sometimes she would just walk past us, naked, and go take a swim in the pool because she was always taking naked swims in the pool.

Anne’s mom was so bound up in Dirty Dancing that it seemed impossible that she was dead. The movie was still around. How could anything connected to it not be? And so I decided to set off for Lake Lure, thinking that if I could drive into the mountains, and into summer, maybe I would find something resembling the past.

The 74A from Asheville is a two-lane highway that follows the Rocky Broad River through the Hickory Nut Gorge, past farms and fields of yellow flowers, past the towns of Fairview and Bat Cave and finally Chimney Rock, which counts as a completely different town despite its location only one mile from Lake Lure. The gorge reminded me of a canyon in Montana where I had worked over the summers in college. Montana was so green I thought it must be a land of Green Men who might appear at any moment and challenge you to a knightly quest. On my way to Lake Lure, I had the same sense, as if these creatures were off wandering in the woods, just beyond what I could see. 

The gorge was peppered with vacation cabins and ruins. More of the former than the latter, but the ruins seemed to be there to remind me of Kellerman’s and of other places that no longer exist. One house had been almost completely taken back to nature, overgrown by brush. But it still stood there, slightly crooked under its greenery, right next to the road. I passed an abandoned inn in the style of a Swiss chalet, its windows boarded up, and then, further down the road, an old motel. The motel had beautiful lattice work, maybe from the middle of the century, maybe from about the time of Dirty Dancing

These places were closed, probably never to reopen. And then there are the places that just exist for summer and are closed otherwise. These places have a particular light and temperature, and when these things change, the places go into hibernation until the next season. The nearby town of Cherokee has a Christmas theme park that’s only open in the summer. Santa’s Land. In the winter, the town is cold and gray, but in the summer, it vibrates with people, and its river fills with children in inner tubes.

We say that an off-season vacation destination is dead. It ceases to live, and then it comes back to life, like a character in a Greek myth. This happens very suddenly, sometimes in just a day: the weather warms, and people arrive in throngs, as if controlled by some sort of invisible force, to populate a deserted place. When I drove into the parking lot of the Lake Lure Inn in the late afternoon, I saw that the people of summer had not yet arrived.

I asked the woman at the reception desk if there were many more people at the hotel. “No,” she said. “Not very many. It’s quiet tonight.”

“How many rooms are taken?” 

“Nine,” she said. “Out of eighty.”

“Is the restaurant open?”

“No, she said. “Not until next weekend. Sorry.”

I dropped my bag in my room and then took a walk through the lobby. The hotel had Dirty Dancing themed cabins – Baby’s Bungalow and Johnny’s Cabin – but I chose a standard room in the main hotel building. I wanted to see what I could sense of the movie without any obvious tourist trappings. The trappings go far beyond a few cabins. In mid-August, Lake Lure will host the fifth annual Dirty Dancing Festival, which includes dance lessons, “Watermelon and All-Ages Games,” and a lake lift competition.

The Lake Lure Inn took me back further in time than I had intended. Built in 1927, it operated as a luxury resort and as a rest and recovery location for soldiers during World War II, some of whom still supposedly roam the hotel as ghosts. When I told an English friend about this detail, she laughed. “What, ghosts from the forties? The ghosts in this country only date back to the forties?” 

DrtydancingsoundtrackFor me, the ghosts of Lake Lure only date back to 1963, which is when Dirty Dancing is supposed to take place. Of course, the movie’s rather eighties soundtrack – including, of course, Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” – generates a sensation of accidental timelessness. The story is itself a memory. It’s told as a flashback, although it’s not clear from how far in the future Baby, or maybe finally Frances, speaks. There’s only Jennifer Grey’s voice-over, which insists on, but fails to register, the passage of time.

The hotel’s lobby was filled with old grandfather clocks and broken music boxes, the walls lined floor to ceiling with portraits of society dames and paintings of nymphs frolicking in streams. Heavy mahogany furniture. In one corner, a vase of peacock feathers and an old globe, browned with age, the ocean and land faded to almost the same color. Tiffany lamps. A player piano labored away, played by invisible hands. The movie’s staff stayed here, and some of the restaurant scenes were shot in the restaurant, including the pickpocket scene. Those Schumachers. The dance practice scenes were filmed in the hotel’s old mirrored gymnasium, but now the room has been renovated into an event space.

I walked across the street and along the beach, a man-made stretch of sand peppered with red lifeguard chairs. There was a playground off to one side with a waterslide that went right into the lake. And there it was: the lake. It looked like the movie. I thought: Of course it does. 

The beach was gated, and the gates were locked. There were only a few other people around. A man walked past. 

“It’s not open yet?” I asked. 

He shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not till next weekend.”

Summer would start next weekend, and not a moment sooner. Down at the end of the beach, in the distance, a small wedding was wrapping up. The bride struggled to move around in the sand in her fluffy dress. By gathering up the layers of fabric in her arms and walking very deliberately, she was able to make it out to the water’s edge, where she stood for some time, looking off at the mountains as the DJ packed up his equipment. I wondered if she had chosen to get married here because of the movie. 

It’s strange to see an actual place when you’ve seen it represented before. You struggle to determine which is real: the thing itself or its image. There seems to be some disagreement about whether the movie’s lake-lift scene was absolutely, certainly filmed at Lake Lure or somewhere in Virginia, but one thing is certain: Lake Lure is only part of Kellerman’s. The crew also shot some of the scenes at the Esmeralda Inn in Chimney Rock and at a nearby Boy Scout camp, which is now gone. Many of the resort’s buildings are actually the Mountain Lake Lodge in Pembroke, Virginia. 

Dirty Dancing is based on writer Eleanor Bergstein’s own experience of a summer romance in the Catskills. But by 1987, the resort of her youth had been torn down, and there was nowhere in New York that resembled this lost place. So Kellerman’s is a composite. Lake Lure, something that stands in for something else. 

In the early evening, it looked like it would rain, but then it did not. It was still a bit cold out once the sun went down. I walked around the outside of the hotel and sat by the pool, which had a view of the lake. I bought some reproduction vintage postcards of the hotel at the gift shop. Like all old postcards, they looked like a painting and a photograph merged into one. These images depict neither the hotel of the movie nor the hotel of the present. They depict an unknown place, a place before what I know. I thought I would send one to Anne.

Before I went up to bed, I snuck into the closed dining room and sat down at one of the tables, where I stayed for a while, in the semi-dark, looking out at the quiet town. On the walls were black and white photographs of the hotel in the twenties and thirties. I watched the headlights of cars as they drove into town, off to my left, and then kept driving, past the lake and the gas station and the ABC liquor store at the edge of town, and then off into the distance. They were all going somewhere else. As I fell asleep, I heard geese honking out on the lake.

When I got ready to leave after lunch the next day, I saw that I had a flat tire, which kept me in Lake Lure a little bit longer than I intended, and as I sat in the parking lot and talked to the guys who were changing my tire, I thought this must be a final manipulation of time. I did in fact get back home by early evening, and the next day I started to fill my car with all the things I would need for New York, where I would spend the summer.

As I was packing, Anne was boxing up her childhood home so it could be sold. All of her mother’s things went into boxes. Some of these boxes will be kept, and some will be given away. I wondered if the VHS tapes were still there in the house, stored away in the cupboards in the television room. I suppose that another generation of teenagers will watch movies in that room. Maybe they will watch different movies. 

The things that take hold of you when you’re young do so in a way that few things can as an adult. You still come to love new things when you’re older, but never with the same sense of total identification. As you become more yourself, you resist total identification. It seems odd, perverse, self-annihilating. I think this is why, even now, no one I know really makes fun of Dirty Dancing. We may mock it, affectionately, the way you mock a sibling you love, but there is a sense that our youth can’t be separated from it, and to reject it would be to reject a part of ourselves.

Before I left for New York, I watched it again. Because it was a way of mourning. Because it was a way of knowing something. And because it was time for summer to start.

Susan Harlan is an English professor at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in Shakespeare. Her essays have appeared in venues such as The Guardian US, The Morning News, Roads & Kingdoms, Nowhere, The Awl, Public Books, and Curbed.

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