Say Anything has the boombox scene. Taxi Driver’s got “You talkin’ to me?” And Dirty Dancing has The Lift. After hours of practice, Baby runs into the arms of Johnny Castle, who lifts her above his head. Admit it: You've always wanted to try it.
That's where we come in. Because we're going to tell you how to do it.
The touring production of the stage adaptation of the 1987 flick that put Baby in the corner, Dirty Dancing, is coming to the Merriam Theater from Tuesday to next Sunday, and, naturally, they’re bringing the big finale lift with them.
“The pressure about it is when you're doing it eight [performances] a week, but the lift is surprisingly not difficult for me,” said Christopher Tierney, who plays Johnny Castle, the role made famous in the movie original by Patrick Swayze.
His nonchalance at holding a woman by the palms of his hands was puzzling, so I asked Tierney, Baby, played by Rachel Boone, and show choreographer Michele Lynch to share the secrets behind the epic lift. Here’s what you need to know.
You must have a good foundation
Before the actors are even cast, they’ve got to have the dance fundamentals to do The Lift (or at least a version of it) during auditions. The actors’ core, shoulders, arms, legs, glutes, and back are engaged for this move, but those are already muscle groups that professional dancers use regularly, Lynch said. Tierney also does a lot of yoga.
While Baby is hoisted, her engaged muscle groups include those strengthened by the “Superman” exercise (that is, when you lie on your stomach and simultaneously lift your arms and legs).
Trust is key ...
Trusting that your partner is going to keep you up (and catch you if things go sour) is imperative. Don’t make a big deal of it, and just do the thing.
“You have to do exactly what it says in the show,” Boone said. “Johnny says: ‘You have to trust me. You’re going to hurt me if you don't trust me.’ If I don’t completely go for it, he can’t lift me.”
“Some people, we start them out on their back on a gymnastic mat,” Lynch said. “This is for the guy to find where to put his hands.”
... and so are balance and proportion
Hand placement is especially important since everyone has a different center of balance. For every Baby whom Tierney lifts, he makes tweaks based on her proportional center so she doesn’t topple forward or backward while in the air. “Some people are top heavy, bottom heavy,” he said. “It’s within an inch, and you have to adjust on the fly.”
Get a running start
Momentum is an integral part of executing the perfect lift. Baby should approach Johnny with some speed, five or six steps, Boone estimated, to ensure she’ll go up with ease. “I’ve had to take a person from a dead stance and I have to lift them like that,” said Tierney, "and that takes away from the magic of it."
Don’t forget about timing, too
As Baby’s approaching Johnny, they should be making eye contact. He should be bracing for the lift. If his hands aren’t there to meet her, things will be out of sync. Baby offers a little jump, and the rest is Johnny's bench-pressing her into the air.
Eyes up, heart open
Baby should keep her eyes fixed upward — not at the ground or toward the audience — her chest up and core tight. Johnny uses his core and deltoids to hoist her while rotating for about 10 seconds. “The girl’s hip bones are balancing on the guy’s palms of his hands,” Lynch said. “It’s just spectacular. She’s balancing on two palms of hands.”
The dress is a player
Just prior to the lift, Johnny performs a solo, so his hands might be a little sweaty. Combined with the slick fabric of Baby’s dress, getting a good grip sometimes gets a little tricky. Further, when you’re hoisted 10 feet above the stage, you tend to forget you’re wearing a dress and should be a lady. Lynch reminds Baby to keep her knees together.
Let her down easy
While Johnny is slowly lowering Baby back to the stage, she should keep her body still lifted in an arched-back position and abs tight. “Once she collapses, that will hurt him,” Lynch said, "and it won't be as graceful."
Once low enough, Baby will grab on to Johnny’s shoulders, bend one leg while keeping the other straight until she reaches solid ground. Then they go into a dip.
More tips from the pros
Tierney has a few: Don’t attempt after a few drinks, but do take risks and “don’t hold back.” Boone suggests being “light as a feather, stiff as a board, and let the guy do all the work.” As for Lynch, fearlessness is key.
And for the rest of us? “A great way to practice is in the pool,” Lynch said. “It's still exciting.”
Dirty Dancing, May 16-21, Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. $65-$119, kimmelcenter.org.