Thirty years ago, the world learned that nobody puts Baby in the corner.

On Aug 21, 1987, Dirty Dancing – that 1963-set classic staple of many a sleepover – was released in theatres. Karen Getz was there to help make it happen – and chew some gum along the way.

Dirty Dancing fans will probably recognise her as the gum-chewing dancer who gives Baby (Jennifer Grey) the stink eye at a raucous party for employees of Kellerman’s, the Catskills resort that serves as the film’s setting.

Getz, 54, a lifelong dancer, served as the film’s dance captain in addition to playing a dirty dancer, and helped choreographer Kenny Ortega build the movie’s dance scenes.

“It’s wild to be part of a juggernaut,” Getz says of the movie. “But I’m really proud of the work we did in it, and I’m happy that my dancing is forever archived in that particular style.”

The New York City native, fresh out of Binghamton University, auditioned for Dirty Dancing by “really sexually” manoeuvring with a partner for Ortega and late director Emile Ardolino. She received a callback and was offered her first professional film job. She was one of eight original dirty dancers on the production and, as dance captain, handled keeping extras on beat and doing the right dance moves.

The dances themselves, Getz says, were expertly choreographed by Ortega and his assistant Miranda Garrison (Vivian Pressman, the “bungalow bunny,” in the movie). That includes the famous “lift” scene, in which Patrick Swayze hoists Grey above his head for one of the most beloved dance moves in cinema history.

Karen Getz helped choreographer Kenny Ortega build the movie's dance scenes.

Karen Getz helped choreographer Kenny Ortega build the movie’s dance scenes. Photo: Tribune News Service

Expertly crafted

“Those scenes are so subtle,” Getz says of Johnny and Baby’s dancing in the flick. “They are connected to their character, so how they move really tells you a lot about who they are.”

Each scene was expertly crafted, including the party scene in which Getz gets some screen time. Though the dancing looks wild and primal, Getz says, the scene took several weeks of work in order to get it just right.

Getz wasn’t fazed by Swayze. They went fishing and watched movies together during breaks in filming. The pair were also jokingly competitive, with Swayze calling the film “The Karen Getz Show” during playbacks of Dirty Dancing’s finale.

“He was in no way threatened at all,” Getz says. “He was the sweetest, nicest, most delightful person, and an amazing, loving human being. I just didn’t know who he was when we got to the movie.”

Now, 30 years later, Swayze is a household name, and even Getz has a little fandom due to the film. She says she still gets a couple of letters a month from around the world regarding the film, including notes from a man in Australia who is using it to help PTSD patients. Another woman who corresponds with Getz is recovering from lung cancer and watches Dirty Dancing to lift her spirits.

For Getz, Dirty Dancing’s staying power comes down to the universality of dance and how it can connect people across societal hang-ups like class – though she concedes she’s not exactly sure why it’s still so popular.

“I did not expect it to become even remotely successful,” Getz says. “Maybe it just speaks to that deeper core of humanity in us, or maybe people just like watching Patrick take his shirt off. Maybe it’s like Grease for non-traditionally white Anglo-Saxon Americans.”

Whatever the reason, Dirty Dancing did lead to a career for Getz, who lived and worked in Los Angeles for about a decade after the film’s release.

There, she landed gigs in The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane (1990), Shout (1991) with John Travolta, Born Yesterday (1993), and Disney’s Hocus Pocus (1993), in which she was a flying stunt-double for star Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson, the middle witch sister). – The Philadelphia Inquirer/Tribune News Service