Mambo and the kids

“That’s where the horses used to run next to the freeway. Remember?” my mom asked. I vaguely recalled the roadside stallions, but I couldn’t place them in our current environment. We were hardly a mile from the Cameron Park house I grew up in, but it could have been any suburb in America. As Joan Didion famously wrote, “All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.”

Those words echoed in my head as my mom piloted her car down the meticulously tree-lined Serrano Parkway, which I remembered only as golden grasslands. We passed uniform beige houses behind uniform gates with uniform signs and street names so generically similar as to be comical: Green View Drive, Village Green Drive, Villagio Drive. The carefully controlled homogeny stretched from my old neighborhood to El Dorado Hills, obliterating the golden landscape the town is named for.

Mom and I were headed to the Regal El Dorado Hills Stadium 14 for the 20th anniversary screening of Dirty Dancing, showing nationwide for two nights only. In a burst of nostalgia for this pre-teen slumber party staple, I’d asked to drive past Marina Village Middle School and Oak Ridge High School, where I spent much of my youth treading the fine line between passably normal and incriminatingly bookish. (I’ll let you infer which side won.)

I could hardly believe it had been 20 years since my 12-year-old friends and I rented Dirty Dancing to sing along with the oldies and to pause the tape at just the right moment when Patrick Swayze jumps out of bed naked so we could get a better look at his pachanga. The passage of time was evident in El Dorado Hills, though. The town has burgeoned with Starbucks, Safeways and tract homes like a Rogaine patient sprouting a new hairline. I didn’t recognize a thing, except the schools themselves. Both look exactly the same: heavy on concrete, light on windows, bordered by portables and parking lots. The sight evoked latent memories, mostly about gym class, mostly awkward.

It was a relief to get to the theater, where some 100 enthusiastic women and six defeated-looking men had gathered to watch the show. Most of the crowd was younger than me; they must have grown up idolizing the film the way I’d eaten up Grease in the ’70s.

The program began with a 20-minute documentary on Dirty Dancing and its new stage adaptation, which is breaking box-office records in London. Writer Eleanor Bergstein expressed a humble surprise at the cult success of her “little independent film” before asserting that “generations of young men were able to access their desire to dance because of this movie.” (I’ve yet to meet one, actually, and still blame Dirty Dancing for instilling the idea in my pre-teen brain that a man who loves you will mambo with you, just as I blame Sixteen Candles for my disappointment that no one ever served me a birthday cake on top of a glass table.)

Soon enough, unmistakably ’80s hot-pink credits rolled over dancers grinding interlocked pelvises to the cymbal-laced beats of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Whistles and hoots erupted throughout the theater. With 20 years of life experience under my (slightly larger) belt since my last viewing, I prepared to find plenty of fault with the film.

By the time Baby carried her watermelon into the staff quarters, I wanted to buy a pair of Keds, cut my jeans off at the knee and fall in love with a dance teacher from the hood. Behind me, women whispered the lines of the film under their breath. When Baby emerged from her bungalow in a baby-blue dress and pink Mary Janes, ladies on both sides of me exclaimed, “Oh my God, I love those shoes!” When Swayze insisted, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” the cheers nearly broke the shrill-o-meter, and I’m not ashamed to say mine were among them.

Outside the theater, nothing looked like the California of my childhood. But on the screen, with Baby having the time of her life, everything was just as I remembered.