In a world that routinely abandons genuinely critical thought in favour of populist diversion, it is easy to overlook the finer distinctions that identify the shape beneath what looks like an amorphous blob…
Patrick Swayze’s ballet dancing career was finished early, cut short by injury, but he never stopped being a ballet dancer. That is what he brought to the screen, in a broadly varied career spanning three decades. That is what is so special about him, although it has never been adequately recognised, despite the media blitz and public outpouring of tributes that followed his death, from pancreatic cancer, on September 14. News of Swayze’s death featured on the covers of newspapers and magazines; prime-time broadcasting lamented his passing and celebrated his life. Fans across the globe mourned and sought consolation from a condoling media.
Again and again, we were reminded that “the star of Dirty Dancing” was dead. When more labels were needed, the choice was abundant: dancer, actor, fighter, tough guy, cowboy, hero and loving husband. Now, “dancer” is a generic term – like singer or musician or performer – that tells us very little. In a world that routinely abandons genuinely critical thought in favour of populist diversion, it is easy to overlook the finer distinctions that identify the shape beneath what looks like an amorphous blob. In terms of dance training, Swayze was the equivalent of a concert pianist, to use an example from a fertile field littered with careers that wilted even before the seed sprouted. If you can ripple your fingers through the classical piano repertoire, you are a pretty good piano player even if you never perform another concert after your graduation from a conservatorium. Patrick Swayze had every intention of a professional ballet career and even though it didn’t work out that way, he carried ballet in his body and in his heart until the day he died.
Swayze’s unusual ability to carry a chick-flick, a biff-flick and a spliff-flick, gained him a broad fandom. Judging by Internet tributes, he touched many lives, often in their formative years. In Dirty Dancing (1987), his strong golden body and smooth, predatory dance moves strutted their way into the romantic fantasies of very young women. In Point Break (1991), his strong golden body, skydiving and surfing skills infiltrated the anti-social dreams of adolescent boys and the film became something of a stoner cult classic. In Road House (1989), his strong golden body, starring all four limbs and lustrous mane, flattened an entire town of bad guys while alluding to the fact that tai chi can make you invincible, which would have gone unnoticed by the film’s 99% male fan base. In Ghost (1990), the golden body came back, literally and metaphorically, to give moviegoers a lesson in undying love – women paid close attention. The golden body’s accomplishments were recognised by the world at large and in 1991, Swayze was named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.
More recently, Swayze introduced himself to a whole new audience, as a pedophile in Donnie Darko(2001), and departed from the screen, on a dramatic high note, with the TV mini-series, The Beast (2008). The latter was made after Swayze started aggressive chemotherapy for the lethal cancer that was then already ravaging his body. Suddenly, he was the gaunt, battered hero, on screen and off.
From birth, Swayze was destined for the stage. His mother, choreographer and ballet teacher, Patsy Swayze, named him “Patrick Swayze” because she thought it would look good on a marquee. His father’s physical display skills included rodeo riding and boxing. Swayze learned much from both parents. His ballet education was topped off with stints at the Harkness and Joffrey ballet schools, which turned out top-flight professionals. Without being the high classical type in terms of finish and refinement, Swayze would still have found plenty of opportunity on the ballet stage of the 1970s but a knee injury cut him out. However, ballet isn’t the only kind of dance, and Swayze turned his efforts to the musical stage, chalking up a range of credits, spanning Grease on Broadway to Guys and Dolls in London in 2006. He launching himself on the screen in Skatetown USA in 1979.
As film is a visual medium, the big screen has always been disproportionately populated by performers who are deemed, by enough people, to have an attractive appearance. Patrick Swayze was the blond, athletic, classically proportioned type. But he brought a lot more than poster-boy good looks. The physicality of Swayze’s personality had the quality of a seasoned circus acrobatic performer: highwire, trapeze, any kind of wheels. When he was young and penniless he got around the vast American distances on his motorbike. When he made the big money, he got himself a plane. He did his own stunts. He understood that every physical art has its own area of expertise and although himself a life-long practising martial artist, he ramped up the volume in Road House by training with Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. The full-contact karate fighter and kick boxing champion got a bit more out of Swayze by putting on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, as a training inspiration with a dance angle. Urquidez, who started his karate training at the age of three, knew a dancer when he saw one.
As movement practice, the Asian, and most specifically, Chinese martial arts, are unrivalled for cultivating physical mastery and well-being. Nevertheless, as aesthetics go, I will always favour dance and, in particular ballet of any style from the purest high classical to the most renegade mutation of contemporary influences. With Swayze, you didn’t have to choose because he offered the lot in one package that also featured the bonus of an authentic cowboy swagger and a Texan drawl.
As an actor, Patrick Swayze was essentially a dancer. Give him a move and he can copy and project it. Give him a script and his body will act it. Dance is a physical language in many dialects and although ballet is only one, the level of mastery required is physiologically so demanding that it facilitates a profound understanding of how movement works, how it looks and what it is saying. It is also a language geared up to story telling, whether literal narrative or psychological exploration. Dancers are traditionally notoriously taciturn in public. Often, this is because they are so eloquent physically and, knowing exactly how to put a foot right, they are fearful of getting a word wrong.
Regardless of how he adapted to each screen role, Swayze always retained full balletic pull-up and placement: knees gripped, pelvic floor held tight, abs rising out of the hips, the ramrod spine perfectly aligned right through to the top of the skull, head poised on a long neck, shoulders held back, body weight inclined slightly forward, each step taken through the ball of the foot. He also had beautiful line. His every move on screen was a consciously refined physical manipulation harnessed in the telling of the story.
In Dirty Dancing, Swayze carries the story with his dancing, which is sensual, sexually-charged and shamelessly suggestive – until you look at what is actually going on. There is a lot of writhing and pumping but the action is all in the face and the feet: the body bits alluded to, connect even less than a screen punch and its target. And Swayze’s Johnny Castle has to do all the work for both himself and his co-star, Jennifer Grey, as Frances “Baby” Houseman, whose dance skill is very limited. As a dancer, Grey is the equivalent of a singer who can hold a note but has a poor vocal quality. Her movements are stiff, lacking articulation and feeling. In the just-published autobiography, Time of My Life (written with his wife and artistic associate, Lisa Niemi), Swayze states that he thought the Castle-Houseman partnership unrealistic as anything more than a brief dalliance, which made him treat the film’s famous finale Time of My Life sequence as a swansong to what had transpired. No matter. The ordinary -nay, ugly duckling – middle class girl got her Prince Charming – a sweaty bit of rough – and girls around the globe swooned.
As a dancer, Swayze was, above all, an actor. In the ballet firmament, he would not even register next to Nureyev and Baryshnikov, both of whom made sorties into film. But unlike these superstars, Swayze made his artistic life on screen, a medium that was mostly interested in exploiting his physical talents and accomplishments. You rarely saw Swayze in aphysical roles; even in Donnie Darko, he is glimpsed threading through a tai chi form and, as the medical doctor in City of Joy (1992), he is battling alcoholism, which he endured repeatedly as a real-life affliction. The latter proved a depression-inducing box office and critical flop for Swayze, largely because it was a relatively dull story, full of altruistic intentions but not enough substance to engage viewers. Swayze was a master of the shirt-off, action acting genre and was far more compelling stitching up his own fight wound in Road House than dispensing medicine in the slums of Calcutta. Ironically the City of Joy experience drove him back to the bottle for a time.
Fred Astaire and Patrick Swayze were the 20th century’s two great screen dancers, both working from a high centre of gravity, everything happening in the sternum. Gene Kelly, who is also universally well-regarded was, strictly speaking, a song and dance man with classically unfavourable soft-hard tissue and limb-torso ratios. Also, he worked from a very low centre of gravity, giving him an all-leg and pelvis style. It is the union of the high centre of gravity with the pelvic consciousness that Michael Jackson drew on to create his iconic and pervasively influential contribution to 20th C popular dance.
While Astaire made many movies featuring dance, Swayze made his contribution with just one, Dirty Dancing, although he did also appear in two other films, in a strictly dance capacity. In Dirty Dancing, Havana Nights (2003) he has a cameo as an instructor and he starred in One Last Dance (2003), co-starring, directed and written by Lisa Niemi. This is a serious dance film, based on the couple’s experience as professional company dancers in New York, with choreography by Doug Varone in the late 20th century neoclassical style. But, like all true dance material, it failed to cross into the mainstream. Nevertheless, it does illustrate where Swayze’s allegiances lie.
Swayze always related well to the media and the public, regarding the “dog and pony show” of media rounds and public appearances as an essential part of his work. As a veteran of the live stage, he had an implicit understanding of the role of the audience in a performer’s work, which is so well summed up in the words of Australia’s ballet great, Robert Helpmann, “You don’t become a star. The public make you a star.” Working the crowd is a key part of your work. Likewise, an open, easy relationship with the press actually gets the tabloids off your back, especially if, like Swayze, you don’t think of yourself as a star. Choosing to live a relatively ordinary everyday life outside the reaches of Hollywood, running two ranches, tending animals, managing conservation projects and pursuing personal interests, kept Swayze in touch with an ordinary, mundane reality. Dance, with its exacting physical demands, was also always a part of that everyday life. One way or another, you not only have to work out to maintain condition, you need to move, you want to move. Right up until his final illness, Swayze maintained excellent form and it had everything to do with his ballet background. For him ballet was second nature. In an interview about Point Break, he said skydiving was easy,”like ballet in the air.” Conversely, “Surfing was not easy to master, it’s a sport that would take you your whole life to master.” If you look at the movie, Swayze is faking the surfing very convincingly. What needs to be understood, is that to attain professional standard as a ballet dancer, you already have devoted just about your whole life to reach that point.
“Dancing is like a magic place, it’s like living in a beautiful storybook, where you can fly, if you want to…” so says Patrick Swayze’s character Travis, to his screen daughter in One Last Dance.
Swayze liked to fly on stage and off. In 2000, he emergency landed his Cessna on a dirt road in Arizona. Although there is a lot of tabloid colour to the story’s details – he may have been drunk, he may have had litres of booze stashed in the plane, he definitely had his dogs with him – fact is, he was obviously a skilled pilot and a man of physical adventure, with enough mastery over space and motion to not fear risking life and limb the way the rest of us mortals do.
But Swayze was mortal and even though he was willing to get up at 4 am every morning to kick start his organs in his fight against pancreatic cancer, he could not keep repeating this heroic daily battle forever. His forthright discussion of his physical condition, and his way of dealing with it, in an exclusive interview with American TV presenter Barbara Walters, gives a glimpse of the intense physical self-awareness that underlies talent for movement art.
I came across Patrick Swayze’s work by chance, walking past a TV screen showing Ghost. Swayze was in motion, running and climbing; I was rivetted. When I learned who it was, I remembered having read that he was a Joffrey old boy. However, when it comes to dance, many are called but few are chosen and if you leave, it’s a bit like leaving a monastic order. Ballet, in particular, is a very insular world. Luckily, by that stage, I’d already broken out and was seriously indulging a hot new passion for Chinese martial art (Wing Chun Kung Fu, Cheung style). My aesthetic snobbery about film had been whacked out of me by mega doses of Hong Kong action cinema featuring stars like Jackie Chan, rigorously trained in the greulling physical art of Chinese Opera. Naturally, I watched every Swayze opus I could track down. Now there will be no more.
Vale Patrick Swayze – ballet dancer, actor, cowboy
Blazenka Brysha 17/10/2009
Why Patrick Swayze was the Second Best Movie Star Ever – very funny tribute by Seanbaby; a companion piece to the above
YOUTUBEOGRAPHY illustrated reference
Point Break trailer
Road House trailer – also has glimpse of Tai Chi
Time of My Life finale of Dirty Dancing
One last dance Swayze, Niemi and George De La Pena extended trio sequence
Patrick Swayze dancing with Lisa Niemi at an awards ceremony
Patrick Swayze singing She’s Like the Wind, which he co-wrote
Barbara Walters 7/1/2009 interview (a portion)
Jackie Chan and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez in a dining room; no real furniture was damaged in the making of this movie
To Wong Foo (Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar)
PATRICK SWAYZE QUOTES
Dancing is like a magic place, it’s like living in a beautiful storybook where you can fly if you want to, you can reach up and grab a star.
Swayze’s character Travis – One Last Dance
Skydiving is like ballet in the air or gymnastics. Surfing was not easy to master. It’s a sport that would take you a whole life to master.
Point Break interview on Japanese TV
Interview with Barbara Walters, January 2009 – excerpts:
-The issue is, when do you decide that the fight isn’t matching up to your quality of life…I plan on spending a lot of time on a horse…and seeing if I can accomplish the things I want to do…in this lifetime, like nurturing my forest. We spent a lot of money on some of the best foresters in the country to help us design a 200-year forest stewardship plan that we have almost pulled off in 15 years. If I can leave those kinds of legacies by way of example…I’m a happy man.
-We’re all dying, it’s only a matter of when.
-It (The Beast) had an incredible timely energy, this character of mine just felt right for my soul…this guy that breaks the rules, that is unorthodox and lives by the art of war and fights non-stop.
I was never collapsing on the set…nobody ever saw me whine, moan like a girly-loser man. If I had a six o’clock call, I had to get up at 3 o’clock just to get the plumbing going. The cancer shuts off the exit from your stomach, it shuts off all the bile ducts out of your liver. If you shut off those bile ducts, all the toxins start dumping into your body. That’s where the jaundice comes from, that’s where you start going downhill really quickly. It takes me hours to get things flowing in both directions…There’d be many mornings where I’d be curled up on the bath mat, just this side of a scream so I didn’t wake Lisa up.
If it’s about pain, I can deal with it, I can rage my way through it.
When you’re shooting, you can’t do drugs. I can’t do hydrocodone or Vicodin or these kinds of things that take the edge of your brain and in 5 months, I missed a day and a half of work because I had the sniffles.
I’d be very specific when I’m lying on the bathroom mat, curled up, “you son of a, you’re not going to beat me.”
The tabloids say, “Patrick is winning the battle against cancer.” I’m not winning the battle against cancer – what winning is to me, is not giving up. No matter what’s thrown at me, I can take it, I can keep going.
With cancer, we have nothing but caveman tools. You fight a monster with poison (chemotherapy). How much of that poison can your body take, can you still keep functioning? One thing it gives you is colonitis and seriously inflamed bowels. What most people don’t understand, it’s not the cancer that tries to kill you, it’s the plumbing, it’s all the things that are around the cancer.
-(Alternative treatment) I do very specific immune system Chinese herbs but not much. One of the pieces of advice you get is, (if) you feed your body, you feed the voracious, insatiable appetite of the cancer. What makes you stronger, can feed the cancer. It’s just gonna pour gasoline on the cancer…one thing I’m not going to do is chase staying alive. You spend so much time chasing staying alive, you won’t live.
-(Still smoking) I’ve been dealing with one thing at a time as it comes, in the order that it’s trying to kill me. Will stopping smoking now change anything? No, but when it looks like I’ll live longer than five minutes, I’ll drop cigarettes like a hot potato. Right now, it’s not my priority.
-If I leave this earth, I want to leave knowing I tried to give something back and tried to do something worthwhile with myself. That keeps me going. That gets me up in the morning. My work is my work; my work is what I do.
-I’ve said that I was on borrowed time since I was 30 years old, I’ve had 159 lives but I plan on shaking this tree. When they say what your options are, you get busy living or get busy dying.