Dirty Dancing, the original film and not the laughably abominable ABC remake, is about as classic as classic films get. Sure, it's got a weird relationship between a young woman and an older dance instructor who's more like a traveling gypsy than a "bonafide" boyfriend material dude, but let's not concern ourselves with that.
The movie, despite its title, wasn't about dancing, it was more about abortion, and that has everything to do with what happened to Penny.
The film, if you recall, was set in 1963, which is far from a coincidence. According to the Chicago Tribune, that's the same year that the Society for Human Abortion was established in San Francisco. They caused an uproar all around the country when they challenged National law by freely offering up information on safe contraception and abortion for American women. Stopping yourself from carrying a baby to full term was pretty much a no-no back then.
Anyone who wanted to get a procedure done had to rely on the kindness of skilled doctors, and that was only in more "forgiving" parts of the country. If you weren't in those areas, more often than not you were getting backroom operations conducted by less-than-scrupulous and less-than-skilled practitioners. To paint a picture of how dodgy it was: In the '40s some 1,000 women every day died from abortions that were performed incorrectly.
Although Dirty Dancing was set in 1963, it came out in 1987, when the abortion debate was at an all-time high thanks to President Ronald Reagan who was vocally very, very pro-life. In fact, it was one of his biggest campaign platforms and he advocated a constitutional amendment that would've made all abortions illegal, unless it was conducted to save a mother's life. How serious he was about seeing that goal come to fruition, however, was called into question by pro-life advocates.
Many believe Reagan spewed anti-abortion rhetoric to appeal to certain voter demographics and it worked like a charm, but it nonetheless re-kindled the long standing social debate. Penny's character in Dirty Dancing was at the center of it. When she discovers she's pregnant with Robbie the Creep's child, she goes to a doctor in a nearby town to have an abortion. Problem is, Penny doesn't have enough for the procedure. That's where Baby comes in.
The child of well-to-do conservative Jewish parents, Baby lies to her father to get the $250 needed for the operation as a means of ingratiating herself with "the cool crowd." Penny's abortion goes horribly wrong as it was conducted by a dude who used a "dirty knife and a folding table." Penny's left bleeding and in unspeakable pain, which forces Baby to enlist the help of her father yet again, because he's an actual doctor.
When he discovers the truth, he calmly, and with dignity, helps Penny out and cares for her, and then scolds Baby accordingly. But why he scolds her is where the movie really makes a bold statement: he says nothing about Penny's decision to have an abortion, but is angrier because his daughter lied to him and is hanging around a bunch of people who don't have their proverbial crap together. That's nuts for a time period when less than 40 percent of Americans thought abortion under any circumstance was OK.
Penny's subplot was such a sore spot for producers that screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein had to fight to include it in the final cut.
What happened to Penny from Dirty Dancing?
The character in the film was eventually replaced by Baby for the big summer dance, and she and Swayze (I know his name is Johnny Castle but he's Swayze, all right?) live/frolic happily ever after.
But what about the actress who portrayed Penny Johnson, Cynthia Rhodes. What did she go on to do?
Being a dancer on-screen opened up other opportunities of similar roles for the performer. She was in Xanadu and Flashdance, other cult classics, and played the apple of John Travolta's eye in the maligned sequel to Saturday Night Fever, the Frank Stallone directed bomb, Staying Alive. Her last on-screen role was in the 1991 Curse of Crystal Eve. After marrying songwriter Richard Marx, however, she left Hollywood and acting behind.
Cynthia, instead, focused on raising their three children, and was with Richard Marx until 2014, when the couple divorced. She had nothing but good things to say about her Dirty Dancing co-stars Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey: "First of all, Patrick is a trained dancer, and I think, for a long time because he’s such a fabulous actor I don’t know if people ever really took him seriously… He floored me. And Jennifer… she’s such a natural. And such a hard worker."