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Real Dirty Dancing: Fox’s celebrity reality TV remake is surprisingly sweet

Real Dirty Dancing: Fox’s celebrity reality TV remake is surprisingly sweet
Cat Cora and Corbin Bleu dance during The Real Dirty Dancing's first episode (Photo by Antony Platt/FOX)

As pop culture artifacts are excavated and remade or rebooted, the obvious question is “Why?” The answer is that, in a crowded TV landscape, executives and producers hope emotionally attached fanbases of the properties will show up.

Those things also need to work on their own, though, and that’s where many of them fail. Before I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, I saw Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-by-shot remake, which was both embarrassing and a mistake (for me and those involved), because the 1998 version is lifeless, especially in comparison to the original.

I am also embarrassed that I have not seen Dirty Dancing, and I refer to both the iconic Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze film and also the poorly received remake.

But I have now watched eight celebrities attempt both scenes and dances from the 1987 film, in Fox’s new reality competition The Real Dirty Dancing (Tuesdays at 9). If scripted IP must be resurrected in reality TV form, this seems like the best possible way to do it.

Dirty Dancing fans may see this as blasphemy or tribute, and I will defer that judgment to them. But as a reality TV show, The Real Dirty Dancing is surprisingly charming, and manages to find new space in well-worn unscripted genres (dance, celebrity, celebrity dance).

Real Dirty Dancing cast members Tyler Cameron, Corbin Bleu, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Antonio Gates, Brie Bella, Cat Cora, Howie Dorough, and Loni Love arrive at the Mountain Lake Lodge in Virginia, where Dirty Dancing filmed
Real Dirty Dancing cast members Tyler Cameron, Corbin Bleu, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Antonio Gates, Brie Bella, Cat Cora, Howie Dorough, and Loni Love arrive at the Mountain Lake Lodge in Virginia, where Dirty Dancing filmed. (Photo by Antony Platt/FOX)

WWE’s Brie Bella, High School Musical‘s Corbin Bleu, The Bachelorette’s Tyler Cameron, Iron Chef Cat Cora, Backstreet Boy Howie Dorough, retired NFL player Antonio Gates, actor Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, and talk show host Loni Love “will be taking part in a series of performances inspired by the film’s most iconic moments,” as host Stephen “tWitch” Boss tells them.

The celebrities rehearse and perform, but The Real Dirty Dancing completely avoids becoming just another Dancing with the Stars. There’s no judging panel, no critiques, and no studio; instead, the show immerses itself in its location.

It’s refreshing and light on its feet, and the opposite of how laborious other celebrity shows can seem.

Howie Borough, Corbin Bleu, Tyler Cameron, and Antonio Gates lift Cat Cora during The Real Dirty Dancing episdoe “This is no Summer Vacation…”
Howie Borough, Corbin Bleu, Tyler Cameron, and Antonio Gates lift Cat Cora during The Real Dirty Dancing episdoe “This is no Summer Vacation…” (Photo by Antony Platt/FOX)

Filmed at the Mountain Lake Hotel in Virginia, which provided exteriors for Kellerman’s Mountain House in Dirty Dancing, The Real Dirty Dancing cuts seamlessly between the film and the show: sometimes splitting the screen, sometimes using the film as establishing shots.

It’s similar to what The Real World Homecoming: New York did, although of course the MTV reality show was showing us the same people 40 years later, not celebrities pretending to be those people.

In the first episode, tWitch explains that “the celebrities are paying tribute to Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey as actors, too,” and then the men attempt to deliver Patrick Swayze’s “You just put your pickle on everybody’s plate, college boy, and leave the hard stuff to me” line to a waiter.

Having some reality TV show celebrities, most of whom are not actors, attempt to recreate scenes does not seem like tribute, it seems like the potential for travesty. But somehow, the good-natured attempt and the support they provide each other makes it work.

The Real Dirty Dancing host Stephen “tWitch” Boss
The Real Dirty Dancing host Stephen “tWitch” Boss (Photo by Antony Platt/FOX)

tWitch is a great host, emceeing while mingling, and doing so in a way that feels organic, not like a host who steps out to read a cue card.

The casting of the celebrities is also strong, and is really the reason The Real Dirty Dancing works as well as it does: whether they’re fans or just respectful of the original Dirty Dancing, they communicate appreciativeness

It’s their own emotional journeys—ugh, that word, sorry—that provides the heart and soft center of the reality show.

They all seem to have something to prove without being too egocentric. Howie wants us to know who he is, besides a forgotten Backstreet Boys. Loni Love says, “I want women of all shapes and sizes to let them know, you may not be the size of Baby, but you can dirty dance. If I can do it, you can do it.”

After dancing to “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” Cat Cora actually breaks down in tears “I have never danced,” she says.

In addition to the emotion, there’s humor, too. “I haven’t danced since 1996,” Loni Love says later, and her partner, The Bachelorette’s Tyler Cameron, adds, helpfully, “I was born in 1993.”

The Real Dirty Dancing does have some odd choices, like showing cell phone footage framed by what appears to be clip art version of a generic smartphone, or animating doodles that surround photos from the celebrities’ lives.

While the first episode was charming, I’ve only seen it, and the show could take off in other directions. The preview shows an elimination in the second episode, which is predictable yet disappointing, because with just four couples and four episodes, it seems like the perfect opportunity to keep everyone around, to keep trying and learning and growing and awkwardly pretending to be actors.

The elimination is there because this “special event series” is working toward a finale where two couples perform the final dance from the film, with one of them winning. The prize, if there is one, isn’t stated, but I’m not sure there needs to be one, or needed to be a contest. There’s plenty of joy in The Real Dirty Dancing just watching (reality TV) celebrities paying homage and challenging themselves.

The Real Dirty Dancing

The Real Dirty Dancing is surprisingly charming, and manages to find new space in well-worn unscripted genres A-

What works for me:

  • The editing, especially cutting between the film and the reality show
  • The locations and cinematography
  • The cast and their charm

What could be better:

  • Some of the editing choices are a bit strange
  • Skipping the elimination and competition part

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

Discussion

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Happy discussing!

Ana

Thursday 3rd of February 2022

What was that about "Howie wants us to know who he is, besides a forgotten Backstreet Boys" OMG this was unbelievable disrespectful! He is an absolutely great performer... forgotten???? Really???? A band who still fills massive stadiums would it be consider FORGOTTEN? WOW!

lucy

Wednesday 2nd of February 2022

The show was horribly painful for me to watch. People who just met grinding all over each other…no.