- From Mu-Cha-Cha to Ay-Ay-Ay!A Critical Explication of the Use of "Latin" Dance Styles and the Absence of Latinx Creatives in the Broadway Musical
Choreography during the Golden Age of musical theatre (1943–65) generated immense intrigue in the habanera and tango dance styles (Naden 3). Those credited for appropriating the polyrhythmic movements of these dances often did so without mention as to their sources of inspiration, and many were often lauded with Broadway's top honor, the Tony Award for Best Choreography. Unlike realistic exoticism that "attempts to portray another music tradition as accurately as possible" by providing historical context and cultural accuracy, the commercial theatre industry's penchant for the surface appeal of romantic exoticism highlights the lack of diversity of those creating dances for the Broadway stage (Balme 5). More recently, revivals of Latinx-themed musicals such as Evita, The Man of La Mancha, and the many incarnations of West Side Story have featured samba, salsa, rhumba, mambo, and the chachachá dance styles, yet the frequent recurrence of these appropriated dances continues to highlight the systemic racism in commercial theatre and its appetite for creatives who are white and almost always male. It was not until after the Golden Age of musical theatre that choreographers of Latinx descent gained access to choreograph with a deeper understanding of cultural and historical context. Those who did crack the glass ceiling of the Great White Way succeeded due to their versatility more than their adherence to Latin traditions. Two such choreographers include Julie Arenal's contemporary improvisational dance direction in the 1968 hit musical Hair and Kenny Ortega's short-lived Broadway venture Marilyn (1983).
Yet despite the industry's need to exclude choreographers of Latinx descent from the developmental process, what is also underscored is the effort to center whiteness when these diverse voices in movement do not conform to expectations of the white gaze. In referencing the multifarious work of Tony-winning choreographer Sergio Trujillo, New York Times journalist Rebecca Milzoff claimed that "Sergio Trujillo has choreographed seven Broadway shows, yet he hasn't quite established a signature." Her assumption is regrettable given that the claim is not often ascribed to Trujillo's Caucasian contemporaries. Jerome Robbins, for example, has been described as an American classicist known for "capturing the essence of an age," but could this not also be ascribed to Trujillo? Trujillo's choreographic works include such contrasting dance styles as those of jukebox musicals with tight, unison movement (Jersey Boys); Latinx-themed productions where lively footwork and not-so-subtle pelvic isolations reign supreme (On Your Feet!); period movement evocative of a specific time in history (Ain't Too Proud); and traditional musical theatre styles where clear adherence to the language of jazz is highlighted (Addams Family). Additionally, given his relatively young age, it can be expected that he will continue to eclipse expectations and transcend the artificial boundaries placed upon his work. Yet despite the increase in musicals with Latinx storylines appearing on Broadway, Trujillo is but one of five choreographers of Latinx ethnicity to have cracked the glass ceiling of Broadway choreography.1 [End Page 43]
Fortunately, the slow yet steady rise in the number of working choreographers of Latinx descent in some of today's regional theatres provides a vision of inclusion that is much overdue. Although Broadway resists this, artistic directors recognize the urgency in recruiting choreographers who have a deeper aptitude for cultural context within a specified style of movement than previously sought. It is critically important to make restorative corrections and challenge the commercial musical theatre industry by highlighting the work of such prominent contemporary choreographers of Latinx descent as Trujillo, Luis Perez, and of course, Graciela Daniele, as well as to call out the Broadway community for its perpetuation of systemic racism in musical theatre choreography.
This essay serves two purposes. First, to highlight the contributions of Latinx choreographers to the Broadway musical. Second, to consider how Broadway continues to engage in systemic practices that center whiteness even as the number of Latinx and Latin American inspired musicals proliferates. I draw from theatre histories of Latinx music and dance on...