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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

How the In the Heights Choreographers Got New York Latine Immigrant History in Every Dance Step

When you watch the dancing in this film you're "witnessing something ancestral"
Screenshot: Warner Bros./HBO Max
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One of the standout features of In the Heights is the amazing choreography. In many musicals, dance numbers can feel like a way to just progress through time faster, yadda yadda-ing through smaller parts of a story. But the dancing for In the Heights was created specifically to honor the art of dance itself and the cultures that made modern Latin dance what it is today. The people in charge of that Everest-sized task were lead choreographer Chris Scott and associate Latin choreographers Eddie Torres Jr. and Princess Serrano. The latter, it turns out, is also my cousin—which I did not know until my mother and I watched the film and she screamed, “That’s your cousin, Princess!”

Scott has been working as a choreographer for years, his best-known work being Step Up 2: Step Up to the Streets. “Jon Chu kind of started my career,” Scott said on a call with Jezebel, discussing the collaborative nature of his work with the Heights director. Torres Jr. and Serrano are first-time film choreographers selected by Scott, who had heard of them through word of mouth. “Christopher Scott sent me a text, and it was super sus. I thought it was a scam actually [because we’d never met before],” Torres Jr. said of his first interaction with Scott. “Originally, he wanted us just as dancers, but we hit it off so well in that first meeting just talking about the history of dance, he hired us to choreograph.” Though most of their work was done behind the scenes, both Serrano and Torres Jr. dance in the film.

It’s obvious after speaking to him for a few minutes that Torres Jr. is first and foremost a dance historian, which comes as no surprise, considering his pedigree. Torres Jr. is the son of Eddie Torres, known around New York as the Mambo King. The elder Torres worked closely with the legendary Tito Puente in the ’80s and ’90s and developed the New York style of salsa dance, which is known as “on 2” and is the style predominantly featured throughout the film. When I asked specific questions about salsa as a style, Torres Jr. quickly corrected me and explained that what the average person describes as salsa really isn’t salsa at all. “Salsa is not a rhythm, and it’s not a dance. Salsa was made up in the 1970s by Fania to help market music. The general public lost a lot of knowledge when suddenly all Spanish music was just labeled ‘salsa.’” Torres Jr. went on to explain that salsa was merely a catch-all term for traditional African and Afro-Caribbean musical styles such as mambo, cha-cha, són, Guajira, etc.

In our conversation, I asked the choreographers about two specific scenes from the film—Carnaval del Barrio and Abuela Claudia’s big solo, “Paciencia y Fe.” Not only were they my favorite dance numbers from the film, but they also contained the most historically and culturally accurate representations of Latin dance and highlighted the contributions of the Caribbean and South American diaspora, which made New York-style dance possible. Scott said getting these aspects of dance right was a primary focus for himself and Chu when conceptualizing the numbers. “It was a constant conversation,” Scott said of the cultural representation infused into every second of dancing. “The most important thing was making sure we represented authentically.”

One pivotal dance number comes after the film’s emotional climax, when the main characters gather, begrudgingly, for an impromptu Carnaval Del Barrio. This number, in particular, features vignettes of traditional dances from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico interspersed with New York-style dancing. “That was honestly a collaboration between everyone and everyone just wanting to really represent their culture,” Serrano said, referring to all of the dancers present on the day of filming. “Everyone worked to come up with the choreography together. It was so beautiful because honestly, everyone was freestyling and just working within what felt the most natural.”

Scott also remembers the hectic day fondly. “We wanted it to feel like a raw organic moment.” But more than that, the team wanted that moment to show respect for all of the flags dancers were vigorously waving through the air.

“You cannot make a movie like this and offend people,” Scott explained. “There’s a ton of culture throughout this movie. It’s not just Dominican culture or Cuban or Puerto Rican, it’s everything, and there’s so many other things within dance that have their own culture as well. We’ve got the street dances, you know we want to represent breaking, and you have to represent that style authentically, or that community is going to be upset. If you’re going to represent Flexing, which is a New York-style from Brooklyn, you better represent it properly, and you better get the right people to represent it.

“Otherwise, you’re offending a community,” Scott said. “And we just didn’t want to do that, no matter how big or small the community is. This is why we made this movie—for community.”

“When it comes to dance, it’s like dialects,” Torres Jr. said, recalling the single grueling day that the crew had to film Carnaval. “We’re telling a story through movement as opposed to a few professionals learning a few steps. That’s what sets In the Heights apart. When you’re watching what everyone is doing in the Carnaval scene, you’re witnessing something ancestral.”

The dancing is dramatically different during the film’s emotional climax when Abuela Claudia sings “Paciencia y Fe,” in which she tells the story of her life from her childhood in Cuba to immigrating to New York with her mother. Claudia walks through the subway during the number, and as she progresses through the narrative, the scenery progresses with her, from dancers wearing traditional Cuban garments to the more modern dress as she comes to New York for the first time. As Claudia sings about her arrival, the audience sees dancers crammed into suitcases on a train platform. The effect is spine-tingling and one of the clearest moments in the film meant to honor the contributions of immigrants.

“[Jon and I] talked through that song a ton of times in his house,” Scott says. “Originally, we were going to put people into telephone booths.” But the film’s production designer couldn’t get approval from the city to bring them underground due to fireproofing restrictions. Scott doesn’t recall who came up with the idea for the suitcases but says it was a collaboration designed to provide “that imagery of crowded New York can be. It’s this huge city, but everyone feels tights and confined in a way.”

What is most striking about this scene is the movement of the dancers, which pays homage to Cuba’s diverse culture, which was drastically changed by the forced arrival of enslaved Africans brought by the Spanish settlers in the 1500s. The costuming, the lighting, and the dancing of that scene are all a nod to the various Orishas—African deities—who were brought to Cuba by enslaved Yorubans and nearly erased when early Cubans adapted Santeria as a way to hide their faith within the confines of the Catholic Church. Torres Jr. and Serrano emphasized the importance of this film bringing lost history to the forefront: “It’s in our bloodline, and it’s all over New York and in the places where we filmed.”

It is this incredible attention to detail and this devotion to showing New York style and hiring New York dancers that truly sets In the Heights apart from the many musical film adaptations that simply recreate a stage production. Although it’s building off existing material, the collaborative efforts of the choreography team and Jon Chu’s over-the-top vision for this world within a world make this movie about a decade-old play feel brand new. And if there’s anything the movie-loving audience needs in this particular moment, it’s something that makes you want to get up and dance. But on 2, of course.