Elevate Difference

El Espiritu De La Salsa (The Spirit of Salsa)

I love to dance, but I am not gifted with quick feet. As a teen, this made me a hesitant and awkward dance student. Thankfully, when I discovered African dance, it changed my outlook in many positive ways. In the first year, my intimate class included a grandmother in her seventies and her teenage granddaughter. By creating art through movement together, we also created community and bonds similar to an extended family. It was empowering to know the class would be about feeling the music and loving the movement, about celebrating the pure power of music to move and connect humans, not about self-criticism. Sure enough, under the guidance of a gifted teacher, my feet eventually found the rhythm.

In many ways, El Espiritu De La Salsa embodies the spirit of what I experienced in African dance. This HBO documentary shows salsa dance as an art form with tremendous power to transform lives. In this film, ten amateur dancers train for their first performance, under the guidance of Tomas Guerrero of the Santo Rico Dance Company, founded in 1995. These dancers come from all walks of life to a dance studio in New York’s Spanish Harlem, to study, sweat, and sow seeds of positive change in their lives.

During the film viewers see glimpses of six salsa classes, the conflicts that arise, and the advice dancers receive from Guerrero. In between, there are shots of dancers practicing—while waiting for the light to change, on a park stage, in their apartments. Very brief biographical scenes of the dancers are interspersed. They are enough for the viewer to see the diversity of the dancers: a multiracial group including an emergency room doctor, bodega owner, NYPD lieutenant, commodities trader, retired teachers, single parent, man with chronic fatigue, building contractor, caterer. However, with less than an hour of film and so many individuals to include, we do not get to know any of the dancers beyond a glimpse.

Each dancer shares their reasons for studying salsa. Several people hope to meet friends or find romance, while for others, stress release is the biggest draw. Watching Dr. Michelle Quash race from the emergency room in Brooklyn uptown to East Harlem for class, the importance of salsa in her life becomes very clear. In fact, viewers who think they have no time to take classes might find inspiration in her example.

The film notes that Guerrero “is determined to prove that anyone can dance salsa—and they can,” and this theme recurs during several of the dance classes. The viewer gets a taste of Guerrero’s teaching style. In one session in which the students were feeling stressed an uninspired, he asks the dancers to reach inside and recall a time when they overcame a challenge. He offers reminders to smile, but also, as any excellent trainer would, he can be demanding. I was surprised that the film does not provide much background about Guerrero. We get to know him only through his interactions with students, and a very few observations directed at the camera.

The film’s soundtrack features notable salseros including Tito Puente, Eddie Santiago, Ismael Rivera, and Héctor Lavoe, as well as original music by Daniel Freiberg and sounds from contemporary artists. I presume that the film title is Spanish as a way to honor the roots of the salsa music, from Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands where enslaved Africans had contributed their instruments and rhythms.

For me, the film could be credited a success if one viewer, drawn to dance but hesitant, would walk into a dance studio and take the risk. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone, leaving ego at the door, and exploring irresistible Afro-Cuban beats could lead to an adventure on the dance floor.

El Espiritu De La Salsa (The Spirit of Salsa) premieres on HBO tonight

Written by: Lisa Rand, September 20th 2010