The Not-So-Dirty 'Dirty Dancing' Story

Eleanor Bergstein and Jackie Horner Look Back at the Catskills Sensation

Dirty Dance Teacher: Jackie Horner was a consultant on the film ‘Dirty Dancing.’
Abigail Jones
Dirty Dance Teacher: Jackie Horner was a consultant on the film ‘Dirty Dancing.’

By Abigail Jones

Published September 22, 2013, issue of September 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In the mid-1980s, Eleanor Bergstein returned to Grossinger’s Resort in the Catskills, where she had vacationed as a child during its heyday, to research her screenplay for “Dirty Dancing.” One night, she got a call from Hollywood.

“While I was on the phone,” she told the Forward, “the operator broke in and said: ‘You better hurry up! You’re gonna miss dinnah.’ I went downstairs. I’d gotten an off-the-shoulder dress; I thought, now I’m coming back as a grown-up, and it was so exciting. I looked at the room, and it was all filled with bearded men with yarmulkes! It was a singles weekend for Jews.”

The Catskills that Bergstein remembered from the 1950s and ’60s had been replaced by a struggling local economy and a growing Orthodox population. “There was almost no vestige of the way things were,” she said. “All I could do was re-create it in my 13-year-old imagination.”

Bergstein grew up in Brooklyn, where she competed in local dirty dancing contests, and spent her summers in the Catskills. Inspired by both environments, she wrote “Dirty Dancing” to capture the romance of partner (and dirty) dancing. She set it in the summer of 1963, before John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the radical action of the ’60s, when “traditional values” America was on the cusp of losing its stronghold.

To understand the Catskills’ golden years, Bergstein turned to hundreds of sources, including, first and foremost, dancer Michael Terrace, Bergstein’s Johnny Castle, who provided her with innumerable stories and unique access to the dancing world. Resort owner Paul Grossinger also consulted, as did dance instructor Jackie Horner, who contributed voluminous scrapbooks and details.

“Door’s open, darling! Welcome to my museum; entrance is free,” declared Horner, 81. She greeted me at her modest apartment in Liberty, N.Y., wearing sparkly black leggings and an oversize white T-shirt emblazoned with a pastel “Dirty Dancing” illustration. She has short red hair and wore red lipstick and a thick spread of bright-blue eye shadow. Horner got her start with New York City’s famous June Taylor Dancers before landing a full-time gig teaching at Grossinger’s in 1954 (she stayed until it closed, in 1986).

Horner’s apartment is a shrine not just to her career, but also to the world from which it emerged. “Dirty Dancing” paraphernalia abounds. Photos of her with famous celebrities of the era hang cheek to cheek on nearly every wall. Hundreds of pairs of dance shoes are stored in one closet; in another, there are dozens of gowns, wrapped in plastic. On shelves and tabletops sit menorahs and miniature Christmas trees (Horner’s father was Jewish, and her Protestant mother converted when Horner was a teen).

“Everyone said it would be a piece of fluff, a little Catskills movie,” Horner said of “Dirty Dancing.” “Opening night, the line was around the block.”

Everyone seems to have a Catskills story. Do you? Send us your memories and photos at catskills@forward.com.

The movie premiered in 1987, introducing audiences to the Catskills on the eve of decline. More than 25 years later, the film continues to resonate. The spin-off, “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” came out in 2004, and a stage version debuted in London, New York, Sydney and Berlin, among other cities.

“Dirty Dancing” illustrates the triumph of nostalgia, revealing just how meaningful Catskills mythology has become. No one knows that more than Bergstein.

“Baby believed, as did I, that if you reached out your hand and your heart, you could make the world better,” she said. “One of the reasons Baby’s father was a hero is because he could have lost his medical license [for helping Penny after her illegal abortion]… I wanted to show what would have happened if we had illegal abortions,” she added, making reference to today’s sociopolitical skirmishes over Roe v. Wade. “These battles go round and round. They’re never won.”

Abigail Jones is the senior editor and head of special projects at The Forward. She also edits its women’s blog, The Sisterhood. Find her on Twitter @abigaildj


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.