Choosing a Venue, 1: Not-so-Dirty Dancing


The cats joined us. Any man who will pull a rickety wagon piled with three cat carriers and their shrilly questioning inhabitants on a path through the woods is a keeper!

The first wedding venue Steve and I looked at, if somewhat accidentally, was Mountain Lake, a destination resort high in the hills of southwest Virginia. We spent a week there not long after our engagement on a kind of working vacation. I’d been contemplating doing a nature piece about the area, so I wanted to hike some trails and take photos to see what, if anything, might surface as a focal point. Steve used the time we weren’t hiking to make progress on a major project he had underway.

Though my own interest in the area is ecological, Mountain Lake is most famous for being the primary location where the 1987 romantic sleeper hit Dirty Dancing, starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, was filmed. In one scene Swayze’s character Johnny, a dance instructor at “Kellerman’s” resort, is trying to teach Grey’s Baby, who is visiting with her family, a dramatic lift, and they practice the move in the lake. The area looks a bit different these days, as most of the lake has somewhat mysteriously drained away in the past five or six years. Scientists believe that varying rainfall and run-off levels in combination with shifting plates beneath the lake are to blame, and there is evidence that the phenomenon is cyclical, having occurred at least once before in the late 1800s. The resort is still beautiful, and it was fun, too, to visit a place that has been permanently infused with a sense of romance since I first saw and loved Dirty Dancing at age sixteen. I never really had a thing for Swayze (though he certainly showed the world why women love a man who dances). More exciting than finding and falling in love with a man possessed of such mad skills was the fantasy I could learn to dance like that myself. I wanted to be Baby, not just because Johnny loved her (and I did want to be loved), but because I wanted the experience of waking something up in myself I didn’t know was there, of defying and breaking free from conventional expectations I sometimes felt boxed me in. Shedding the role of dutiful good girl to become a passionate artist: that was the film’s real appeal.

Though I must confess, I’ve always thought the moment when Baby shows up to Johnny’s quarters and they dance to “Cry to Me” to be one of the sexiest, most romantic seduction scenes ever. When she drops back into that first long, slow dip, it leaves me breathless.

Spring 2014 392

The lake in spring 2014

I wouldn’t describe myself as a Dirty Dancing “fan,” however, and Steve and I weren’t seriously considering Mountain Lake as a wedding venue. But they were hosting a bridal open house the Friday we were there, and we thought attending would be a good way to get a sense of venue packages and pricing. It was my first official event as a “bride,” and I felt a little like I had standing in the wedding book aisle in the bookstore: it was fun to claim that identity publicly. The onsite event planner greeted us warmly on the lodge porch, and Steve and I sipped complimentary sangria as we perused photo albums of on-site weddings. We sampled some to-die-for shrimp and grits while the chef shared his secret (sourcing from a mill in North Carolina and soaking the grits in milk), then tasted several desserts, including chocolate covered strawberries and a divine strawberry mousse. As we toured different types of lodging, a big cabin with the wrap-around porch and cozy fireplace made us start dreaming. What if we did get married there?

Then, we went back to the main lodge and asked to see the packages. You know that moment in the movie when Baby’s sister Lisa marches up to the aspiring med student Robbie’s place, having decided to sleep with him, then sees another woman emerging from his quarters? How her face shifts from hope to amazement and shock? Yeah.

The night before the open house, Steve and I had been sharing some wine in the lodge bar, eavesdropping on a rather entertaining conversation the youthful-looking bartender was having with two fifty-something women patrons. He was searching for a wedding venue himself; his long-term Venezuelan girlfriend’s visa was about to expire, and they had decided to get married. She wanted a carnival theme, but they couldn’t afford Mountain Lake, he reported, to the delight of the ladies, who apparently owned a B&B themselves where they hosted weddings, among other interesting ventures: after one of their neighbors had come and done laundry at their place, her ghost-hunter brother decided to do some filming there, and they had just hosted 36 people in one month who were searching for Sasquatch. One, or maybe both, of the women (there was wine involved) had gotten married at Mountain Lake some years before, and they were planning an anniversary party at the resort later in the summer. I was thinking their B&B sounded much more intriguing. And assuredly less expensive.

Mountain Lake

The dock extending from the movie’s famous gazebo, May 2014

Don’t get me wrong: Mountain Lake is a spectacular venue, even with the lake level low, and I’m certain the staff would work with us if we wanted to celebrate our wedding there. But aside from an early date when we’d shared our first hike (and first photo) on one of the resort’s trails, Steve and I just didn’t have enough personal connection to the place to make the investment worth it.

Besides, any Dirty Dancing fantasies I had have already come true, or close enough. I still don’t know how to do the mambo like Baby (and probably never will–though dance lessons are on our agenda). But I long ago learned how to seize opportunities to venture beyond my comfort zone, to let go of others’ expectations and focus on discovering new possibilities within myself.

And one afternoon during our stay, after playing a few rounds of ping-pong and pool in the Mountain Lake barn’s loft-area game room, I turned to Steve as we headed down the stairs and asked, “So, just how much do you love me?”

He hesitated, thinking I’d decided Mountain Lake was the place after all, that I was about to ask if we could break our budget to tie the knot there on the property.

“Do you have a dollar for the jukebox?” I said and grinned.

Relief washed over Steve’s face as he pulled a crumpled bill from his wallet. I punched in the Dirty Dancing theme song, “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” and alone in the middle of the empty barn, in the middle of the afternoon, we danced. He did look a little panicked when I backed up and jokingly threatened to run at him for the famous lift. Instead, I slowed as I reached him and folded myself into his arms for a kiss. Making beautiful memories needn’t cost thousands of dollars; more often than not, happiness can be had for less than the cost of a cup of coffee. Steve grasped my hand tightly, spun me out and around, and we kept right on dancing.

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