From Classical Ballet to Dirty Dancing

Former cruise ship performer Carlie Milner is having the time of her life in a new musical adaptation of the '80s favourite, soon to steam up the Millennium Forum

We all remember the first time we saw Patrick Swayze and Cynthia Rhodes defining the film title in that raunchy scene in Dirty Dancing. Their clinch and erotic lift with her legs round his waist is, frankly, pretty unforgettable. It was considered so sexy in fact that Swayze mentioned in one of his autobiographies, The Time of My Life, that he and Ms Rhodes looked so hot together, there were concerns they would overshadow the later dances with Jennifer Grey. That didn’t happen, of course, but you can see why the film people were bothered.

English performer Carlie Milner (29), who is playing the role of Penny Johnson in the musical theatre version of the movie that is set to wow the Millennium Forum from February 13-18, remembers her first time too. 'One of my earliest memories was going into the living room and seeing my mum and her friend watching the film,' she says down the line from Coventry, where the show was entertaining audiences in the Midlands, 'I never understood the appeal at that young age and now I obviously do.

'But it was when I went to see the theatre production of Dirty Dancing in London’s West End in 2013 that I thought "That’s incredible, I’d like to do that." I am from a classical dance background and thought some of those crazy lifts must be back breaking, but it is part of the show’s style.'

The moves are part of Dirty Dancing’s unique choreography. Not only do they fire up the audience, they are the key to the 'dirty dancing' competitions that introduce Baby to a new world and a new guy. 'Johnny Castle describes the dancing as a cross between Cuban rhythm and a salsa but it’s more acrobatic than both of them,' Milner explains.

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This touring production of has been reinvented with new choreography by Gillian Bruce, but still remains true to the original. 'You can’t get away from the soundtrack which people have come to hear,' says Milner. 'They want the moves and the music so we make the dances look like the film.' That means with feeling, as dance supremo Johnny pinpoints the appeal in the show; 'It’s not the mambo, it’s a feeling, a heartbeat'. And the soundtrack to that feeling is pretty peerless, featuring music by everyone from Marvin Gaye to the Drifters, and also Otis Redding’s first solo record, These Arms of Mine.

Milner, who comes from Sheffield, is still roused by Eleanor Bergstein's film original. 'It is inspiring, for both of the dancers, for you and the man. Once you’ve got past the back-breaking stuff, you get to know the man’s body and it’s a case of making the dance look wild. In essence, it is Dirty Dancing as in the film.

'I am a fan of Patrick Swayze, of course,' she adds. 'Who doesn’t like Dirty Dancing and Ghost? I have read both his autobiographies and it’s lovely for someone like me, who started in ballet, to read about him and how he originally wanted to be a ballet dancer.'

Her co-stars aren't bad on the eyes either. 'Lewis Griffiths, who plays Johnny, is good and it’s quite nice to grab onto a muscular shoulder,' she laughs. 'In fact, the first time I walked in to rehearsal, I thought the cast was so attractive, I felt I was in an Abercrombie and Fitch shop.' 

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Milner also reassures that even with more adult content dominating the small and large screen, the 1987 story still has a frisson in the 21st century. 'Definitely. There are two people dancing, thinking about what they’re doing and I hope there is a sexual vibe. But It is choreographed. Plus we’re British and as we’re trying to appeal to a broad spectrum, it’s tasteful and not too vulgar.'

When Dirty Dancing, which is set in 1963, opened in the 1980s, critics saw this tale of a young woman crossing a class divide and finding love as symbolic of the age. The New York Times critic wrote that Kellerman’s Hotel, where the film is set, was a bit like JFK’s Washington – 'prosperous, bursting with good intentions, a sort of Yiddish-inflected Camelot'.

The show has a dual identity, being one of the best ever teen love stories, a summer divertissement with exuberance, laughs and tears plus a serious subtext about women’s choices and ethical conflicts. With President Trump having just appointed a very conservative and pro-life figure, Judge Neil Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court, this makes Dirty Dancing newly topical. Penny Johnson’s back street abortion and the fact Baby gets money to help her, still raise questions.

'When I first started rehearsals as Penny, Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the show, came to talk to us,' says Milner. 'She is a very switched on lady. We talked about the double nostalgia, for the 1960s and the 80s. She also told me that if it was found out that Jake, Baby’s father and a doctor, had helped Penny survive the botched abortion, he would have been in trouble. It was illegal, the rules were strict, it was a world apart.'

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But as Bergstein said soon after the film opened, she really wanted to celebrate a time of your life when you could change the rules and make society in your image. This was in the hopeful era when President Kennedy was still around.

So who does the touring version of Dirty Dancing target and is the show for girls or for boys? Milner thinks it’s for everyone. 'Thinking through the evidence, most of the time the show appeals to women who have loved the film,' she says. 'But we get quite a few men and families too. People relate to the story of Baby growing up, of Johnny struggling to find work, of Penny trying to be a strong female and deal with things herself. They’re young characters, meant to be no older than their late teens or early twenties. So it’s really traumatic for Penny to go through something like that but she’s a tough cookie. Penny also goes through a nice journey as originally she is quite rude to Baby. I have to admit I really enjoy getting angry in the so-called fridge scene.'

But in spite of the period and almost political sub-plots, as we all know, Dirty Dancing is about the love between Johnny and Baby. 'Yes, the main story is the love story and it’s great,' echoes Milner.

The dancer/actress, who trained at Elmhurst Ballet School near Birmingham, performed in ballets including The Nutcracker with the National Ballet of Ireland before making the break into a freer genre. She says the discipline of being in the corps de ballet was 'overwhelming' and that she wanted to try a different style of dancing.

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The Cunard liners became Milner’s stage for a while. 'I loved being on them and worked on the Queen Mary and the Queen Victoria. It trained your brain and your body as you had to learn so many roles so quickly.' Plus she got to see the world. Yet in the end home drew her back, plus the chance of finding that magical musical theatre part. 'I wanted to come home and be based in GB, and on land. It was like starting from scratch. You have to keep at it and cope with a lot of rejections but after a year and a half, I got Dirty Dancing.'

Audiences round the country are appreciating Milner's performance, with one critic in Aylesbury enthusing about her 'exquisite, perfectly toned' dancing. Milner sounds amused and says she swims and practises yoga to keep toned.

According to Milner, the appeal of musical theatre lies in the way it reinvents itself. 'There are lots of new productions and new ideas around, so musicals are current,' she says. 'Yet they still offer us the chance to escape and switch off. It’s like watching a film, you don’t think about anything else, it is pure entertainment.'

Originally a low budget film costing around five million dollars, it did very well, winning an Oscar for Best Original Song, Frank Previte’s '(I’ve Had) the Time of my Life', and netting $170million. The touring show has also been a popular, critical and commercial success, becoming the biggest pre-sell musical when it reached London’s West End in 2006.

So now Derry~Londonderry will be dancing to the beat and watching as some familiar characters navigate their way through one hot, significant summer. Milner says the principals have their fan base – 'we get free chocolates and presents which is lovely'. And keen Dirty Dancing fans will be joining in the dialogue with Johnny and Baby and Penny and the rest. Listen out for his famous order for 'spaghetti arms' to keep in her own space and maintain the form. Not to mention Penny’s delicious line – 'Oh, come on ladies. God wouldn’t have given you maracas if he hadn’t wanted you to shake them.'

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For two hours or so, the spectators in the Millennium Forum will definitely enjoy the time of their lives, dancing in the aisles and re-experiencing one of the most successful stories, soundtracks and slices of risqué choreography of our era.

Dirty Dancing runs from Monday, February 13 to Saturday February 18. Tickets, priced £24.50 - £45.00, are now on sale via the Millennium Forum box office online at www.millenniumforum.co.uk or by calling 028 7126 4455.