The Truth About The Actress Who Plays Penny In Dirty Dancing

For as long as she performed, the world knew Cynthia Rhodes as "the girl from those dance films." The standout in her oeuvre, of course, remains the one in which she played the pink-dress clad, twinkle-toed dance instructor who left audiences both charmed and scandalized. For the 1987 movie classic "Dirty Dancing," starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, Rhodes stepped into the shoes of Penny Johnson, the role in which she's best known.

The film was a defining moment in the careers of all three actors. But it was Rhodes who stood at the epicenter of what emerged as the romantic film's most socially relevant subplot — that of reproductive rights. An unfaithful partner leaves Penny, a dance instructor at a posh resort in New York's Catskill Mountains, pregnant. Alone and strapped for cash, Penny desperately seeks an abortion, ending up with a botched operation by an illegal quack. So, while Rhodes' dancing prowess is on flamboyant display in "Dirty Dancing," her character simultaneously pushes a bold conversation regarding women's rights.

It took Rhodes only seven screen appearances and a handful of music videos to make her mark as a skilled artiste. And, then, when she had her fill of Hollywood, she bowed out as gracefully as she had entered. These days, Rhodes seems to have nearly withdrawn from public life. Though she hasn't performed in decades, Rhodes' legacy will forever continue to sparkle on screen. Here's looking at her life as Penny and beyond.

Cynthia Rhodes began dancing at age 3

Cynthia Rhodes' tryst with dance began quite early on in life. At only 3 years old, the Nashville, Tennessee, native took a keen interest in the art form. And she was inspired by who else but Hollywood's top-billed, best-known child actor: Shirley Temple. 

In an interview she gave to writer Kevin Courrier in 1987, Rhodes said that watching golden-locked Temple during her childhood was her cue to think, "I've got to go to Hollywood and see if I can do something with my life, my career." Fun fact: Temple's career kickstarted at age 3 when she began training for dance (via Britannica), the same age Rhodes began her own training. The two actors, however, were set apart by a two-decade age gap.

Rhodes explained in the interview that she danced her way through her teens before landing a job as a performer at the Opryland theme park, where she worked for five years. Rhodes used the platform to make her mark by appearing in minor roles in television specials, as per the interview – the most notable among them being "Music Hall America," a variety show that ran from 1976 to 1977. She called Opryland her "best training ground," recommending it for anyone looking to break into the entertainment industry.

She moved to LA, where her film career took off

Cynthia Rhodes changed course from countryside Tennessee by making the big move to Los Angeles, where she hoped to pursue her dream of a film career. The blonde beauty earned her first big-screen role as an ensemble dancer in Robert Greenwald's 1980 musical fantasy "Xanadu." Though not a box office success, it proved to be a successful springboard for Rhodes — just a couple of years later, she was picked as a background dancer for a music short directed by Kenny Ortega for the band The Tubes. She later appeared in videos for Toto and the Bee Gees, too, per IMDb.

Rhodes' accomplishments as a dancer positioned her for the dance-musical genre, which formed the bulk of her most notable film credits: 1983's "Flashdance" and "Staying Alive" and, of course, 1987's "Dirty Dancing." Her one non-dance film is the 1984 sci-fi action movie "Runaway," in which she co-starred with Tom Selleck.

In an interview from 1987, Rhodes said that, while she loved doing dance films, she longed for roles that focused only on acting. "It seems like every time I say, 'That's it, I don't want to dance anymore,' I get another film. I'm not going to turn down work!" she said. "I feel very fortunate to be in films that are dancing. But it's like, give me a chance to do some dramatic work without dancing ... Just give me a straight acting part."

Cynthia Rhodes had trained for the Olympics

Though her competence for dance was the quality Hollywood prized the most, Cynthia Rhodes' talents traversed far beyond that of dance. On an episode of the 1989 chat show "Camp Midnite," the former actor casually dropped an impressive, little-known detail about her life. "I was training for the Olympics," she said in response to the interviewer's question about the early days of her dance journey. "I completely did my body in," she said, adding she trained for eight hours a day at the time.

However, life had other plans for Rhodes — "I began working professionally when I was 16," she said in the interview — and she never did go on to compete in the Olympics.

In an interview from 1987, Rhodes reminisced about her life as a gymnast and how that background stood in context of her dance career. "The thing was, I used to never be sore. In fact, I was a gymnast," she explained. "And now it's sort of frustrating ... I never used to stretch. Now I have to stretch before I dance," she said. Contrary to popular belief, dancing wasn't Rhodes' entire life. She added further, "I love to dance, but if I never did it again, I wouldn't be sorry." 

She was the first actor to be cast in Dirty Dancing

Cynthia Rhodes had all of five screen performances prior to appearing in "Dirty Dancing," her magnum opus. She was cast in the classic 1987 film as the warm, but firm, dance instructor, Penny Johnson. Though the spotlight in the film remained on lead actors Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, they were apparently not the first cast members to come on board. Collider reports that Rhodes landed her role first.

In rare footage from a 1987 interview, Rhodes described Penny as having an "edge." "She's from South Philly and she's had a rough life ... She's got a sweetness about her but it's put back because she's had a hard time, and she has sort of put up a wall," she said. "And, in the end, I think she finally realizes that life does go on."

The plot of "Dirty Dancing" is loosely borrowed from the life of Eleanor Bergstein, the film's screenwriter who spent several summers in the Catskills in New York. Penny was consequently based on an actual woman Bergstein knew named Jackie Horner, a legendary dance instructor at the ​​Grossinger's Catskill Resort Hotel. In an interview with the Times Herald-Record, Horner said of the classic, "I knew every single moment of that movie ... Nearly every line I said to Eleanor they put in there."

The former actor was seriously impressed by Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey

That Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey were not on the best of terms during "Dirty Dancing," at first, despite their sizzling on-screen chemistry (via USA Today) is a bit of pop culture trivia well known to the film's fanbase. Cynthia Rhodes, on the other hand, apparently had a good rapport with the late actor from the start.

Opening up about Swayze in an interview, Rhodes said she first saw him in a dance video and "couldn't believe" it when she learned he would share screen space with her. She said, "I knew he was a dancer and he floored me." Swayze, who died of cancer in 2009, was professionally trained in ballet and began his career as a dancer for Disney before making his film debut, as noted by The New York Times in 2009. Rhodes, however, had never met Grey before filming "Dirty Dancing," but, given her parentage (Grey's father is the famous dancer Joel Grey), Rhodes was well convinced of her dancing skills.

Fun fact: Though it's difficult to imagine anyone else as Johnny Castle and France "Baby" Houseman now, neither Swayze nor Grey were the initial choices for "Dirty Dancing." According to People, Sarah Jessica Parker and Winona Ryder were first considered. Similarly, casting directors almost cast Val Kilmer and Billy Zane as the suave dance instructor, a role which ultimately, of course, went to Swayze. And, aren't we all the more grateful for it!

She wanted to give up dance after Dirty Dancing

It seems that Cynthia Rhodes didn't exactly have the time of her life filming "Dirty Dancing." In interviews following the release of the film in 1987, she revealed that, the film's rehearsals were so rigorous, she toyed with giving up dance altogether.

Rhodes swayed with Patrick Swayze in two major (and stunning, might we add) dance routines in the film, for which training could last as long as 10 hours a day — this, despite the pair already excelling in professional dance. Appearing on an episode of talk show "Camp Midnite" in 1989, Rhodes recalled, "We started rehearsals about two weeks before we started the film ... It was really hard, that's why I keep saying I'm never going to dance again. I'm tired of dancing ... My bones are hurting, my back hurts all the time."

But it wasn't as if the "Dirty Dancing" rehearsals were all eyerolls and groans. In 1987, Rhodes said in an interview with writer Kevin Courrier that the long hours of rehearsals — sometimes stretching past midnight — were so the scenes could be perfected. "It wasn't that – 'Oh God, they're making us come in and do this.' We were bringing ourselves in and saying we want this to be a great dance film," she explained.

Cynthia Rhodes refused to do any work involving nudity

Cynthia Rhodes was raised in a traditional Baptist family. Her values were inspired by her parents' belief system so strongly, in fact, that she claims to meet every challenge with a question: "What would my parents want me to do?" Actor and filmmaker Sylvester Stallone, who directed Rhodes in the 1983 film "Staying Alive" alongside John Travolta, famously remarked that she would much "sooner quit the business before doing anything to embarrass her parents" (via Naples Daily News).

This quote is actually a bit of legend that Rhodes was apparently oblivious to until some years ago. It seems she was only introduced to it during an interview with Naples Daily News in 2016, decades after Stallone first said it, though she confirmed it was 100% true. The interviewer, whom Rhodes only permitted to write about the "experience" of meeting her, described her life as being "highly principled and spiritually aligned."

Reports suggest that, during her acting career, Rhodes turned down any role that required her to strip down to nothing — and she's certainly not the only actor to refuse nudity. She allegedly even spurned posing for adult magazine Playboy, which helped launch the careers of many actresses and other public figures. Along that same vein, Rhodes remains fiercely private about her life to date.

She met ex-husband Richard Marx while shooting Staying Alive

In 1983, Cynthia Rhodes split her time shooting "Flashdance" and "Staying Alive." But the year turned out to be important for Rhodes beyond just work, because it was also when she first met her future husband, singer Richard Marx.

At the time, a 19-year-old Marx was working on the soundtrack of "Staying Alive," in which Rhodes was starring alongside John Travolta. Older than Marx by seven years, Rhodes felt he was "cute as a button," as quoted by CNN, but very young. The meeting didn't develop into anything significant. Reportedly, however, only two years later, a romance blossomed when the two reconnected at a party. The couple dated for a bit and got hitched in 1989.

In addition to being partners in life, the couple collaborated for work multiple times. Rhodes appeared in Marx's music video for "Don't Mean Nothing" and co-wrote "Perfect Day" with him for Chris Botti's album. Marx, meanwhile, produced two songs on Animotion's album "Room to Move" when Rhodes was a lead singer for the synth-pop band. That year, Rhodes also appeared on an episode of talk show "Camp Midnite," where she spoke about her admiration for her husband. "I look up to him and I think he's an incredible singer. I think he's one of the best there ever has been," she told the host.

The one-time dancer and actor retired from showbiz after becoming a mother

After delivering a string of memorable hits (her last-known screen appearance was in the 1991 film "Curse of the Crystal Eye," per IMDb), Cynthia Rhodes elegantly exited the stage in the early 1990s to focus on motherhood (something that's changed throughout history). She and then-husband Richard Marx share three sons — Brandon, Lucas, and Jesse (per the Daily Mail) — all of whom are musically gifted, like their parents. 

When Rhodes said she was opting out of celebrity life, she really meant it. She has famously kept the press at bay post-retirement. A one-of-its-kind conversation with Naples Daily News in 2016 revealed that Rhodes had not entertained media interviews in over two decades. Instead, she had been busy with the "unparalleled experience" of motherhood, which, for her, trumped showbiz.

Even so, fans are desperately waiting (with crossed fingers) for word on her return to the big screen with the "Dirty Dancing" reboot in the works. So far, People has confirmed that Jennifer Grey will serve as both the star and as an executive producer. Grey also explained to the magazine that there is no plan to replace the late, great Patrick Swayze, since "you never try to repeat anything that's magic like that."

She and Richard Marx talk regularly even after their divorce

After 25 years of a seemingly picture-perfect marriage, Richard Marx and Cynthia Rhodes parted ways in 2014. Although a reason behind the divorce was never disclosed to the media, Marx's public statements indicate that the two are still on friendly terms. In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Marx said, "I have nothing but tremendous respect for Cynthia ... even though our marriage came to an end, we talk regularly."

For Marx, Rhodes was his first-ever partner. The divorce left him "single for the first time" in his adult life, as he told the newspaper. Marx addressed the split and his then-newly-single life directly during an episode of Katie Couric's talk show, saying, "It's all brand new to me, so I'm just having fun" (via Entertainment Weekly).

Though he admitted the divorce was a "painful time" for him, it didn't stop Marx from gushing about ex-wife Rhodes and how "lucky" he was for having spent time with her, as he told People in 2014. "I had the great fortune and blessing to not only be married to Cynthia for all those years, but to just share her company. There's not a finer human being," he said. A year after his divorce from Rhodes, Marx married former MTV VJ Daisy Fuentes (per People).

Cynthia Rhodes was the muse for Richard Marx's most famous song

"Right Here Waiting" by Richard Marx is widely regarded as one of the most romantic tracks ever composed. Released on his 1989 album "Repeat Offender," the piano ballad catapulted Marx to global fame. And the inspiration behind the classic was none other than Cynthia Rhodes. Marx revealed he wrote the song when Rhodes was away in South Africa. "We were not married then and I wanted to meet her because I had not seen her for a few months. But my visa application was rejected and when I came back I wrote this song which was more of a letter from me to her," Marx told The Indian Express in 2010. The Grammy winner's greatest song was also his fastest written — it took him "barely 20 minutes."

In his memoir, "Stories to Tell" (via Forbes), Marx recalls mailing the song to Rhodes, though he had no plans to include it on his album. In fact, had it not been for friends who pushed him to the recording studio, the song may never have made it to the album (Bless them!).

Even after his divorce from Rhodes, Marx continues to perform his hit number on stage. On what singing "Right Here Waiting" feels like to him now, Marx told the Chicago Tribune, "I embrace that song and what it says and what it meant to both of us and that will never change." We love to hear that!