Community Dance Emerges as the Star of In the Heights

June 13, 2021

In Washington Heights, if Usnavi is to be believed, the streets are made of music. In the opening moments of the film version of In the Heights, the lead character, played by Anthony Ramos, lightly drums a clave beat. The rhythm is taken over by a pair of keys, a gate, a hose, before scratch—Usnavi steps in gum. A temporary setback, but he spins the manhole like a turntable and we are on our way.

In the Heights
tells a resonant story about gentrification and displacement at a time when real housing costs have steadily skyrocketed for decades. It does its part to alleviate the dearth of Latino representation in television and film. With its joyful and visually stunning scenes, the film goes down like salve for a grieving nation. And it does all of these things while moving along steadily to that clave—a beating heart of sorts that sets the stage for the film’s real star: dance.

Throughout the film, dance does not just complement the story, it actively moves the plot along. From choreographed numbers to everyday moments—a game of dominoes, a walk through the park, a flashback scene—movement is the thread that keeps the story barreling along. And while there is plenty of Broadway-esque pageantry in the big musical dance numbers, the real magic of the film is that it foregrounds dance styles that were created and nurtured in New York’s Black and Latino working-class communities, and uses those movement traditions to showcase community members occupying physical space. In a show about displacement—poor people’s removal from neighborhoods to make room for wealthier residents—taking up space becomes a form of resistance. Filling that space with joyful movement becomes revelatory.

The film’s pulsating opening dance number reads like an homage to New York’s illustrious community dance history. Breakng freezes and fundamentals like the six-step and toprock fuse seamlessly with Latin dance classics like a salsa Suzie Q. The Harlem shake—the original, not the 2010s internet fad—makes an appearance. Jazz and funk moves weave through the energetic and celebratory routine.

In “96,000,” the film stuns with underwater shots of ballet dancers doing changements alongside fully submerged break-dancers at Highbridge Pool. Later, while the cast sings “Carnaval del Barrio,” small groups of dancers hold up flags from different Latin American countries. Each group in turn performs a mini tribute to the dance traditions of their given country: a nod to bomba y plena for Puerto Rico, Afro-Cuban for Cuba, folkórico for Mexico, even some Cali-style quick-steps for Colombia.

Hip hop famously emerged in the context of the burning of large swaths of the south Bronx, which was itself rooted in New York City policies of disinvestment and “benign neglect” directed toward communities of color amidst the city’s late-1970s fiscal crisis. Black and brown young people asserted their voices through hip hop and birthed the most impactful cultural innovation of the 20th century. While DJs and MCs created a new way of relating to music, graffiti artists and breakers made their marks on the city’s physical spaces, turning subway façades into canvases and sidewalks into stages. When In the Heights showcases dancers taking over the streets, the sidewalks, the parks and the pool, it echoes this history.

And then there is the club scene. After some growing pains in the film’s audition process (at first, the casting associates seemed unsure how to go about casting salsa dancers), In the Heights producers cast local practitioners of a style alternatively called “on2,” “New York–style salsa” or just “mambo” and hired Eddie Torres Jr., the son of New York salsa’s most famous innovator, as its Latin choreographer. The result is possibly the most dynamic salsa dance routine captured on film or television in recent history. The complexity of the choreography and obvious technical skill of the featured dancers should put an end forever to the notion that salsa can be reduced to hip rolls and shimmies.

And the film notably does not limit Latin dance to the club. Multiple scenes feature community members dancing street salsa at home or in the park. Even Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wrote the original musical’s music and lyrics) hits a few steps in his role as El Piragüero.

The film’s choreography also makes explicit the links between hip-hop and Latin dance styles. Doing so acknowledges and celebrates the fact that each of these styles developed through significant cultural exchange, with Caribbean immigrant communities playing a central role in hip hop’s genesis and Black Americans influencing the development of everything from Latin jazz to mambo, boogaloo (music) and the pachanga (dance style).

Cultural exchange and creative innovation in working-class communities of color amidst the massive social changes of the late 1960s and ’70s birthed hip hop and salsa. In the Heights puts these exchanges at its center. The fact that the film’s themes feel timely and its choreography fresh demonstrates the influence that these community-based, working-class rooted styles continue to have on pop culture.

Still, while the filmmakers made considerable efforts to update the storyline and politics of the show, some tension arises out of the score’s pan-Latino approach and primary musical grounding in a salsa clave. This makes for beautiful scenes like “Carnaval del Barrio” but can deny Dominican music its spotlight in a show that has a Dominican lead character and is situated in New York City’s quintessential Dominican enclave. After all, it is hard to imagine the Heights without bachata music floating down from at least one window. A few bars of merengue play in one or two scenes of the movie, but other than that, the Dominican Republic’s national music and dance is largely absent.

Nonetheless, the film is a celebration of Latino community dance practices. Drawing on a rich history of grassroots movement styles, the movie shows neighborhood residents dominating the streets, in a city that celebrates the culture that is created in working-class communities but is increasingly unlivable due to gentrification. What is lost when a community is displaced? The show gives its resounding answer as its cast performs the cultural exchanges and shared bonds of one of Latino New York’s singular neighborhoods.

People all over the world who find joy or sanctuary in hip hop, salsa and other social dance practices already know their enormous value and power. As the film reminds us, it is incumbent upon us to name that power, savor it, honor it, and “say it, so it doesn’t disappear.”