Dirty Dancing and Diegesis

Photo: Luke Harcourt for Future Cinema    http://lukeharcourt.com

Photo: Luke Harcourt for Future Cinema    http://lukeharcourt.com

Last week a few of the Shag Pile crew were lucky enough to be asked by Swing Patrol London  to dance at a special screening of Dirty Dancing. Curated by Secret Cinema, the event saw five thousand people gather in a field in East London to be thoroughly immersed in the world of the film, with sets, activities, food, drink and entertainments themed to the movie. We helped kick start the evening by dancing to soul, r'n'b, rock 'n' roll and calypso in the 'staff quarters' before being joined by 'Johnny' and 'Penny', who thoroughly outclassed us with an impromptu performance taken directly from the film.

The event was a huge success; - there's nothing quite like being in a sea of women screaming for Patrick Swayze's oiled torso - and for me it was a long overdue chance to see what the fuss was about - apart from Patrick Swayze's oiled torso. There was just one thing which had me puzzled for the following week.

'Dr. Shag' doing the rounds with the juniors.

'Dr. Shag' doing the rounds with the juniors.

(I've Had) The Time of My Life

Even those of us who had reached adulthood without seeing the film knew the ending, which is pretty much common knowledge, given both the 'wish fulfilment fantasy' genre, and the fact that it was spoiled in the music video before anyone saw it anyway: The couple overcome their problems and defy social norms to come together in heterosexual union and jubilantly dance to '(I've Had) The Time of My Life' - hereafter 'IHTTOML'.

What I hadn't realised before, and what puzzled me hugely, is this: The film is set in 1963. At the beginning of the scene, a record is placed on the turntables, the needle drops, and woomph: 'IHTML’ plays. The couple dance, everyone joins in, fade out, happy end.


Dirty Dancing was released in 1987, as was the number one smash hit power ballad it features.
Up until the end of their story, the characters have been firmly rooted in their world of 1963, so surely there's no way they can be hearing what we're hearing? But if so, how come they're dancing in time with the beat and joining in with the words? What on earth is going on?
Has someone used a DeLorean to transport a copy of 'IHTTOML' back in time?

I was perplexed. This deliberate anachronism bothered me. Why had they messed up the end of the film like this? Was it deliberate? The questions kept resurfacing for the following days, so I had a read, had a think, and came up with the theory you're about to read.

Setting the Scene

The movie begins with slow motion, black and white footage of people dancing to 'Be My Baby'. The effect is a nostalgic, like looking through an old photo album, or hearing a familiar old song on the radio - which is what it turns out to be, as a radio announcer cues up the next track, and the action cuts to the interior of a car. [Aside: Pulp Fiction pulls a very similar trick - is Tarantino a Dirty Dancing fan?] An opening voiceover sets up the plot: 'Baby' is off with her family to a holiday camp in the Catskills - and for sexual awakening amongst the pines...


This opening sequence sets up an important concept that will come into play down the line: the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Brief definitions:

  • Diegetic sound comes from within the movie world. 
  • Non-Diegetic sound is overlaid on the movie world.

In the opening scene, we hear diegetic sound from the car radio:
We then hear non-diegetic commentary on the story from the unseen narrator.

This sets up the relationship between audience and action that will continue throughout the movie. We're looking into the past through the magic mirror of the cinema screen, and this separation between now and then, here and there is made clear in the use of music.


Characters living within the world of the film hear only era-appropriate diegetic music: for example, when Baby approaches the Staff Quarters from a distance we hear faint music: as she gets closer the music gets louder but remains muffled by double doors, filmed square on to form a 'wall' at the back of the screen. We're hearing what she's hearing. Then - boom; the conveniently-wide-format-doors crash open revealing the room beyond the back wall of the cinema, the music fills our ears, Baby walks through the portal, the camera walks through behind her, and we are both engulfed. Lighting plays its part too - where the lighting outside was chilly and naturalistic, inside the light is hot reds, pinks and oranges. Baby has passed through the proscenium arch into the forbidden, sexual space of the dancers, and we have dropped deeper into the fantasy with her. 

Billy pushes open the doors with his watermelons.

Billy pushes open the doors with his watermelons.


Non-diegetic music plays in the world outside the story of the film during a couple of montage sequences. On these occasions, the action is compressed, and music smooths what might otherwise feel uncomfortably choppy editing. 
Whilst thematically and emotionally appropriate, these non-diegetic pieces are resoundingly magnificent '80s power ballads. Songs like 'Hungry Eyes' work to reinforce our separation from the time and space of the action, and remind us that we are looking back at the past as older, wiser individuals. These ballads are themselves now period pieces, which makes them feel more jarring than perhaps they did when the film was released. The music helps transport a contemporary adult audience back to the time when they first saw the film as part of the target tween-age demographic. 

The Grand Finale

So, with that digested, back to the end of the film. 
Can we use our digression about diegesis to clarify anything? 

Let's briefly rewind to the beginning of the film:
At first, when 'Be My Baby' plays, we are led to believe we are hearing non-diegetic music. In fact, it can't possibly be diegetic, or it would be slowed down to match the stock footage. Then the radio announcer crashes in, revealing that yes, we are hearing diegetic music from the car radio in the next scene. This blending of diegetic-and non-diegetic music is trans-diegetic - we are moved from an external viewpoint looking back at the past to an internal one inhabiting the past.
The technique draws us smoothly out of our time and transitions into the time-frame of the film.

Once again, back to the ending.
Johnny shows up in the hall, takes Baby from the corner, and the stage is cleared for the resolution of their story. The camera ducks offstage and watches as 'Billy' makes such an elaborate show of popping  a record on that he has difficulty helping Jonny with his leather jacket. IHTTOML fades up... and the walls between past and present that have been reinforced throughout the film collapse. 

DJ Billy - spin that tune!

DJ Billy - spin that tune!

The people within the story - the happy couple, fellow dancers, and patrons - hear the same trans-diegetic music as the cinema-going audience, as proven by Mr. Kellerman's incredulous "You have sheet music of this stuff?".
At the opening of the film, the viewer was pulled into the past:
As the film closes, the cast is pulled into the present. 

The result?  Their victory becomes our victory! We share the resolution of the film with them, and enjoy their barrier-shattering unification in an inclusive way.

The breakdown of boundaries is underlined by Johnny jumping off the stage into the audience. (Note that as he jumps, the film shifts into slow motion, but the music continues at normal, non-diegetic speed.) This leap is a literal representation of all the boundaries that have been broken: between performers and patrons, working class and upper-middle class, gentiles and jews, bad boys and good girls, and vitally, breaking the boundary between fiction and our reality.
The leap doesn't just propel him into his audience - he leaps towards the viewer, through the fourth wall and into the space of the cinema going audience, strutting down the aisle, first framed by the audience in the film, then (as he stands up in close-up) by the audience in the cinema auditorium. The frame of the film is further blurred by two layers of arches at the back of the stage:


Geronimo! Note the frame-within-a-frame, blurring the borders of the screen, similarly to the previous 'staff quarters' scene.

Geronimo! Note the frame-within-a-frame, blurring the borders of the screen, similarly to the previous 'staff quarters' scene.


At the very end of the film, the action freezes (in the past) and we are left with the slowly fading music - their story is over, ours goes on. 

Closing Thoughts

I wasn't expecting much more from Dirty Dancing than an enjoyable bit of fluff - and whilst it succeeds admirably at this, I certainly wasn't expecting it to provoke an essay. I hope you enjoyed reading it, and that you would agree that genre movies can contain plenty of food for thought. A lot of very clever, talented people sweat blood to make films, and think very carefully about every element of the production. An audience may not consciously notice all the choices that the filmmakers have made, but this care is absorbed on a deeper level, and makes for a rewarding film that stands up well to repeat viewing. The audience is left with a smile on its face, a spring in its step, and something more to think about than Patrick Swayze's oiled torso. Not that there's anything wrong with that.


Huge thanks once again to Rebecca G for booking us, and Swing Patrol London for having us as part of your gang for the evening.
We had the life of our times.
No, hang on... 

Oh alright - one last clip:
This is what happens when you remove music - diegetic or otherwise.

Further reading:
Is Dirty Dancing a Musical?
The Multiple Modes of Dirty Dancing.


I was trying to think of other examples of trans-diegetic sound with someone who works with Ridley Scott - I suddenly remembered the scene in Blade Runner; The camera floats through an apartment as we're enjoying the soupy score, then pans to reveal the protagonist absent-mindedly playing along with the score on his piano - the trans-diegetic collapse diegetic boundaries here standing in for a woozy dream state, and mirroring the collapse of his identity. Can you offer any other examples?