‘In the Heights,’ where the streets explode with dance

By Gia Kourlas

“The streets were made of music,” Usnavi, hero of “In the Heights,” says to a group of children near the start of the movie.

His description of Washington Heights may be true, but it tells only a part of the story: In this film, the streets are paved with dance. The most invigorating ingredient in this movie is its ardent, joyful commitment to bodies in perpetual motion. It doesn’t matter if they’re dancing or just moving through those streets. “In the Heights” is a dance film in which movement, as it passes down from one generation to the next, represents the pulse and velocity of a neighborhood.

Whether it’s mambo on 2 — a New York style in which dancers break forward and back on the second beat of the measure — or just a simple walk, how does rhythm radiate out of the body? Where does a step find its bounce?

Immediately, in the film’s nimble opening moments, we are swept into the rhythm of Washington Heights, a neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan, with Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) leading the way. As he stands with his back to the window in his bodega, a flurry of choreography ignites the street behind him. He steps outside and finds himself at the center of ecstatic action — bodies pirouette around him, and just beyond, spread across the street and sidewalks, is a synchronized sea of dancers with swiveling hips, emphatic circling arms and undulating spines flying through a tapestry of movement, including mambo on 2, Afro Cuban and son Cubano. It’s breathtaking.

The last time I felt such a sense of release watching dancers spill onto the streets in a movie was in “Fame.” Like “In the Heights,” which tells the story of immigrants from the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America, “Fame” (1980) was about more than dance. But after all these years, what sticks? Dance, dance and Debbie Allen.

“In the Heights” is both a remarkable recording of different dance genres — mambo on 2, certainly; but also litefeet, a street style born in Harlem known for its rapid-fire, seemingly weightless footwork; as well as contemporary dance and even touches of ballet — and a rich document of New York and East Coast dancers.

The film’s creators have been facing complaints about the casting of its main actors, with a lack of dark-skinned Afro Latino actors in prominent roles. (Lin-Manuel Miranda apologized for falling short in “trying to paint a mosaic of this community.”) The dancers, though, are a more diverse group — both in terms of skin tone and styles. Rennie Harris, Philadelphia hip-hop legend, makes an appearance. So do Jhesus Aponte, celebrated Puerto Rican dancer; Nayara Nuñez, a Cuban dancer featured in the film “Dancing for My Havana”; and Karine Plantadit, a former Alvin Ailey dancer who starred in Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out.” And on and on.

The choreographic mastermind of “In the Heights” is Christopher Scott. (He previously worked with the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, on the web series “The LXD: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers.”) Scott, who comes from the street dance world of Los Angeles and is not Latino, worked with a team of associate choreographers who specialized in a range of styles, including Latin dance, hip-hop, ballet and contemporary dance. He didn’t want to let the dance world down.

“So often in the commercial world, dance is misrepresented,” Scott said in an interview. “It’s like I’m going to get the best flexers New York has to offer, because I want flexers to watch it with pride and look at themselves reflected and represented at the highest level.”

His team of associate choreographers is solid: Eddie Torres Jr. for Latin dance, with Princess Serrano as assistant Latin choreographer; Ebony Williams for ballet, contemporary dance, Afro and dance hall; Emilio Dosal, a popper who is versatile in many styles and brings the hip-hop element to the film; and Dana Wilson, who had a hand in everything — like all of the choreographers — but specifically worked with the actors to help them nail the physicality of their characters.

The choreographers used their personal contacts to find performers. They’re real people.

“Princess and I were reaching out to everyone that we knew in the community — of all ages, because we needed the older with the young,” Torres said. “And I mean, like, everyone.

Casting dancers was so last-minute, honestly. It wasn’t, ‘You have three months.’ This was like, ‘Can you come in tomorrow? I need you.’”

Originally, Scott hoped to hire Torres as a performer. But when they talked, Torres blew Scott away with his knowledge of Latin dance, specifically mambo. Torres said his father created the syllabus and technique of mambo on 2 in the 1970s; his mother, flamenco dancer Nélida Tirado, appears in the film. (Torres uses the word “mambo,” not “salsa,” which to him is something you eat, not something you dance.)

“It became a history lesson every single day,” Scott said. “And it changed my life.”

For Torres, the film was an “opportunity to show the world the real Latin dancing, not the commercialized side of it all,” he said. “To really bring an authentic vibe to the whole film, the film needed roots. It needed a foundation to really grow.”

In the club scene, which focuses on New York mambo, Scott wanted Torres, who choreographed it, to have his moment. On the first day of rehearsals, Scott decided not to tell the dancers who the stars of the film were. “They weren’t pampered,” he said. “The dancers were like, ‘No, it’s not that,’ and, ‘Fix your arm.’ And it was stressful for the actors. But I wanted to make sure that Eddie had the space to not dumb anything down.”

The result is thrilling: The camera, here and elsewhere, creates the sensation of being inside of the dance. (“Fame” was like that, too: messy, visceral, real.)

Whenever the story starts to become ponderous (and it does at times), dance comes to the rescue, rebooting the senses. The numbers feel wholly alive, which has to do with the spontaneity of the dancers, most of whom come from the New York scene. This is not Los Angeles commercial dance, which, while incredibly precise, can tend toward the slick. But at the start, Scott wasn’t sure. After his first New York audition, he was worried.

“They didn’t look great doing the choreography that I brought to the audition,” he said. “I was kind of like, ‘Oh, no.’ So we did an audition in LA, and it was night and day. It was a very clean. Everyone that you would expect at an audition — just killing the combo. But it lacked that personality. It lacked the rawness. It lacked New York.”

Scott realized that he needed to let go of what he was used to in order to get the look and feel he wanted, because, as he said, “We’re trying to create real moments even though they’re dancing in the street.”

There’s nothing worse than a perfect, overrehearsed performance, and this film proves it: The dancing has depth and feeling because the dancers perform as if they don’t know or care that they’re being watched. Toward the end comes “Carnaval del Barrio,” a seven-minute dance set in a courtyard on a blistering day. It’s a display of the kind of sweaty, sticky dancing that fervently sums up the joy of being alive. In this celebration of mingling cultures, generations of bodies spill out of every pocket of the yard.

It was shot in just one day. “People were coming up to me on set with bloody knees saying, ‘I just need to bandage up real quick because I’ve got to get back in,’” Scott said.

Even after the shoot, no one left the set. “We kept dancing,” Torres said. “We were all jumping in a huddle. I can’t explain it, but our spirits were lifted. It was energy that just came through us. It was so authentic. I love ‘on 2’ and I love mambo, but when I say authentic, I mean that it’s a cultural dance. It’s a dance that you grew up with at home. You don’t know what it is to take a class. You’re brought up along with this music. And that is as raw as it gets.”

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