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Thursday, October 17th, 2019

The Dirty Dancing lake war: Two U.S. travel destinations with a claim to the classic 1980s film

by July 30, 2017 General

The great Dirty Dancing lake war has been raging almost since that much-loved movie came out 30 years ago this August. It’s one of those rare wars in which both sides can claim a victory of sorts, as I learned this spring when I explored the two main locations where the film was shot.

They’re about 380 kilometres apart, and each is well worth a visit, especially in this anniversary year. Couple the two and you have the makings of an enjoyable four-day weekend, one that might make you feel the same wistfulness for things loved and lost that is invoked by the movie itself.

Dirty Dancing is one of the great sleeper hits in film history, a dance-filled love story starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey that moviegoers, especially women, latched onto with a fervour that surprised even the people who made it. Grey plays Baby, a teenager who with her parents and sister vacation at an old-school Catskill resort in the summer of 1963. There, she falls into a love affair with a dance instructor, Johnny, Swayze’s character, who introduces her to the forbidden joys of steamy, pelvis-grinding dances and more.

The fictional resort of the film, Kellerman’s, is inspired by Grossinger’s, the long-gone Catskill destination, but the movie was actually shot at two locations hundreds of kilometres south, at Mountain Lake Lodge in southwest Virginia and Lake Lure in western North Carolina.

The Mountain Lake Lodge in southwest Virginia.

Lake Lure in western North Carolina.

Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the movie and was one of its producers, told me that the reasons were partly monetary: Dirty Dancing was made on a shoestring and New York state’s work rules would have made it expensive to film there.

And so the first sight of Kellerman’s, an impressive stone building, is actually the Mountain Lake Lodge, which sits 10 kilometres up one of the most winding roads you’ll ever drive in Pembroke, Va., about 95 kilometres west of Roanoke. The current lodge was built in the 1930s, and the property also has an assortment of cabins and other buildings.

Bergstein wanted a setting that conveyed the grandeur that Catskill resorts were known for in the middle of the last century, and the Mountain Lake Lodge certainly did that. Moviemaking, though, is a disruptive process, so she also needed a second location where the crew could have more time and latitude. That was provided by a dilapidated former boys camp in Lake Lure, N.C., where there was no active resort business to get in the way of filming.

The world-famous lake lift

The famous “lake lift” scene from Dirty Dancing.

And thus the great lake war. Even if you’ve never seen DirtyDancing, you have seen the gorgeous, sexy image of Swayze hoisting Grey over his head as they stand in a lake, practising the pièce-de-résistance dance move for a show Baby and Johnny are to perform at the story’s climax.

Both shooting locations had a lake. People in both claim their lake was the one used for this signature scene. In both, you can take tours where you’ll be shown the exact spot where the filming supposedly took place. The Rutherford County, N.C., guide I grabbed at a highway welcome area when I crossed into the state from Virginia has a photograph on the front in which a couple recreates the famous shot in Lake Lure.

So which state’s version of events is accurate? Bergstein said she was quite sure the lake lift was shot at the Virginia location. But 30-year-old memories can be squishy, so she had me seek confirmation from David Chapman, the production designer for the film. And after some digging he came up with what he said was definitive proof that Bergstein’s recollection was correct: a sketch from his collection of storyboards for the movie, labelled Baby Does Lift in Water.

A doodle on the left side of that drawing indicates the pier at the Virginia lake, and a tiny symbol shows the placement of the camera, aimed at the spot where the actors stood on wooden platforms that had been sunk into the water and were held down with concrete blocks.

Sorry, North Carolina. The defining scene was shot at Mountain Lake in Virginia. But you get a consolation prize: Anyone who wants to recreate that scene on hallowed ground associated with the movie, as many fans do, is going to have to go to Lake Lure. Because Mountain Lake has gone missing.

The gazebo overlooking nothing

A dried lake bed at Mountain Lake Lodge.

In the movie, when you see Kellerman’s, you see a lovely lake in front of the lodge, vacationers enjoying the water. Now, though, the lodge overlooks a dry lake bed. Mountain Lake is a rare geological specimen that, a video on the lodge’s website explains, drains itself once in a long while as a sort of purifying exercise, eventually refilling naturally. It went dry in 2008. Now experts are trying to nudge it gently back to life, but when I was there in early April, it was about as empty as a lake can be.

That is certainly not the sight Dirty Dancing fans expect to see, but it’s eerily beautiful. There’s a gazebo on the grounds that locals say was built for the movie by engineering students from Virginia Tech. Several scenes were shot there, overlooking the water. Today, beside the gazebo is a stone memorial to Swayze, who died in 2009 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57. The boathouse and pier leading to the now-dry ground where the lake lift was filmed is off to the right. To sit in the gazebo and stare out at the lake bed when it’s shrouded in early morning fog is profound somehow, and humbling. A quiet reminder that time passes and carries everything along with it.

The restaurant

The Mountain Lake Lodge hosts Dirty Dancing Weekends every summer, which include a scavenger hunt based on the film.

Even without its lake, Mountain Lake Lodge makes a lovely destination. You don’t have to ask where the movie scenes were shot; at check-in you’ll get a map. Michael Richardson, the bartender, is a walking encyclopedia of the movie. When he shows you the shooting locations, he doesn’t just describe the scene shot there, he recites all the dialogue.

The lodge has Dirty Dancing Weekends every summer, special packages that provide guests with a tour, group dance lessons (with optional private lessons), a DirtyDancing scavenger hunt and more. A small cabin in front of the main lodge has an exhibition devoted to the movie and a guest book full of ardent inscriptions.

“I cannot believe I am here, in this place,” someone from Chile wrote recently.

Richardson keeps a list of the different countries fans have come from, and it grows every summer.

“Last year, I managed to scratch off Singapore, India and Taiwan in one weekend,” he said.

For some fans, passion for the film leads to petty crime. Richardson said the lodge used to have signs on the property marking the filming spots, but they kept disappearing.

And Room 232, where Swayze is said to have stayed? “The shower curtain has been stolen out of that room I don’t know how many times,” he said.

But one thing every fan can do guilt-free is eat in Harvest, the lodge’s restaurant, where a number of scenes were filmed. It’s an excellent one with a farm-to-table sensibility.

The staircase

The remnants of a staircase where a famous scene from Dirty Dancing was filmed, near Lake Lure in North Carolina. FRANZ PHOTOGRAPHY/NYT

A fan re-creates the memorable scene shot on the staircase. Bill Russ/

After two relaxing nights at the lakeless Virginia location, head down Interstate 77 and across North Carolina on Interstate 40 to Lake Lure, where there’s more to do but, for the DirtyDancing fan, somewhat less to see. The lake was created in the 1920s by damming the Broad River, and today it is an active tourist destination that embraces DirtyDancing every bit as much as the Mountain Lake Lodge does.

But the boys camp where most of the filming took place is long gone; it was on the way out even when the film crew was there. Chapman recalled that one of his biggest challenges was to cover up the scar where a road had just been ripped for the start of housing construction.

“It became a movie about growing grass, because we had to cover that bloody hill with something,” he said. “We got a highway contractor, because they deal with that kind of thing all the time to prevent erosion.”

Those private homes now occupy the filming site, and in the backyard of one are the remnants of a stone staircase that is said to have been used in two of the movie’s best-known scenes: one in which Baby helps another character carry watermelons to a dance party, another in which, alone, she gets in touch with her inner dancer on a white bridge at the staircase’s base.

This part of the lake is known as Firefly Cove, and unless you’re a homeowner there it’s now accessible only by a boat tour. On such a tour you might hear that the lake-lift scene was shot in the cove. It wasn’t, but certainly this is the lake to go to if you want to try your own lake lift. This year, come on the weekend of Aug. 18 and you can do it competitively.

That’s when Lake Lure’s annual Dirty Dancing Festival will be, and it includes a lake-lift competition: Whichever couple holds that iconic pose the longest wins.

At one of Lake Lure’s Dirty Dancing Festival, a couple tries the lift that Johnny and Baby made famous.

There will also be watermelon-related events, dance competitions and a screening of the movie. Michelle Yelton, a founder of the festival, said the 2016 edition drew more than 2,000 people. Because this is the film’s 30th anniversary (which Lionsgate marked with a rerelease of the DVD in a commemorative edition), the 2017 festival will no doubt be all the bigger.

The dance floor

Lake Lure seen from Chimney Rock at dawn.

Much of the cast is said to have stayed at the Lake Lure Inn and Spa during filming, a 1927 beauty that today boasts a Patrick Swayze Suite and a Jennifer Grey Suite. I chose the Grey Suite, a corner room on the third floor. And yes, it’s odd that it’s a corner room when the best-known line from the movie, emblazoned on T-shirts and in the memories of countless fans, is, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

The hotel has a delightful collection of antique music boxes in its public areas, but it is another inn just down the road, the Esmeralda, that is said to have an actual piece of the movie.

That inn, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, burned in 1997, and the rebuilding happened to coincide with the demolition of the old gymnasium at the boys camp, where the climactic dance scene that ends the film was shot. The floor was donated to the Esmeralda; when you’re in the inn’s lobby, you’re standing on it.