'Dirty Dancing' at 30: Philly's dirty dancer, Karen Getz, remembers the flick

Thirty years ago this month, 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 theaters. Philly’s Karen Getz was there to help make it happen — and chew some gum along the way.

Getz, 54, these days is known as a Barrymore Award-winning Philadelphia theater artist who has worked with Pig Iron, 1812 Productions, and the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival. Dirty Dancing fans, however, will probably recognize 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, 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” maneuvering 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.

“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.

Despite Getz’s position on the set, she was starstruck by some of her costars — such as Jerry Orbach (Dr. Jake Houseman) and Kelly Bishop (Marjorie Houseman), two Broadway vets who made the jump to film.

But she wasn’t fazed by Dirty Dancing‘s big breakout star — 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 nontraditionally 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).

In the late 1990s, love came calling, and Getz moved to Philadelphia to pursue a relationship. “I wound up packing up my entire career and moving to Philadelphia not knowing anybody,” she says. “But it worked out very well. This is definitely where I was supposed to be in every way.”

Since coming to Philly, Getz says, she has “rediscovered that I’m an artist” and began pursuing theater as her primary creative outlet. That effort earned her two Barrymore Awards,  in 2008 for her work on 1812 Productions’ Suburban Love Songs (best choreography and best ensemble), and in 2007 for Hair at the Prince Music Theater (best choreography). Before that, Getz was with ComedySportz Philly, where she worked for nearly two decades, and she  contributed to a number of early Fringe Festival acts.

Currently, she is producing two shows as part of this year’s Fringe Festival.

She’s directing The Vicissitudes of Travel (Sept. 10-22), a one-woman show starring Jennifer Blaine, a sort of guided bus tour through brain surgery based on Blaine’s brother’s battle with brain cancer — which might sound like a bummer, but Getz calls it “funny as hell.”

The other, Gorgeousity: The Army of Love and Art (Sept. 15-24), features choreography and dance from Getz. Described as a “play romp for grown-ups,” the show, Getz says, offers attendees the chance to “take off your skin for a couple hours” and have “permission to sing and dance and play.” It will run several times throughout Fringe and will cost $20 per ticket.

Getz is well-established enough on the Philadelphia dance scene that she doesn’t even mention Dirty Dancing in her theatrical bios. “I have a neurotic fear of living in the past. It’s not something I tell people about at all, but not because I’m hiding it — I just genuinely don’t think about it as part of me,” Getz says. “When people find out, it’s fun to deal with that.”