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Filmmakers Interview

Group dancing Salsa

HBO

What does the title mean?

TIM STERNBERG

It means the "Spirit of Salsa" or in Spanish "El Espiritu de la Salsa." And it's a fond look at a group of salsa students at all levels of ability from all walks of life in New York. 

MATTHEW O'NEIL

These are everyday New Yorkers-our friends and neighbors-who are learning how to salsa dance with Tomas Guerrero, the maestro of salsa dancing in New York City's Spanish Harlem. 

JON ALPERT

And maybe lurking inside you is that, sort of, inner salsero. You always wanted to get out on the dance floor, but you're so busy that you never get a chance to learn how to do it.  These characters got out there and did it.  And we get to see what happens to them.

HBO

What drew you to the subject? 

TIM STERNBERG

(HBO's) Sheila Nevins had this inspired idea to make a documentary about something festive and celebratory based in and around New York. It seemed a real challenge to keep people's interest and keep our own interest as filmmakers without some kind of motivating incident, whether it's in a fiction film or a documentary.  But there's a less known tradition of looking at everyday things with love and engagement and celebration.

FRANCISCO BELLO

And there's also the element of humor. As a filmmaker, even if you're working on the most serious film, you often find yourself striving to find that lighthearted moment that makes the audience laugh - that unexpected surprise.  "El Espiritu de la Salsa" has quite a few chuckles, which is more uncommon with documentaries.  So when you do get them, you cherish them.   

HBO

What surprised you in making the film? 

FRANCISCO BELLO

The film had us shooting all over New York City, and many of these places weren't places we'd spent much time in before. As a native New Yorker, it's always surprising to me how much of this city I don't really know.

TIM STERNBERG

It really introduced us to a whole other New York, socio-economically, culturally. But the nature of the material was such that we were able to visit these people through something festive, like salsa dancing, and the dynamics of a dance class.

They're all searching for another part of their life that, somehow in between work and home and everything else, may not feel entirely fulfilled.

FRANCISCO BELLO

Spending weekends in the south Bronx, shooting off the side of the Triborough Bridge - all these amazing locations and the people that live there. Shooting this film forced us to slow down and really look around.  You suddenly look at where the subway ends up in the Bronx and you go, what's that neighborhood like? So it made us spend time in these places that you either take for granted or don't know altogether.

JON ALPERT

And there's a wealth of beautiful and wonderful things that are happening in these neighborhoods all over New York City, and salsa's one of them. And it's something that they're sharing with the rest of New York, and this film wants to share with the rest of the country.

MATTHEW O'NEIL

Salsa's kind of a mix of cultural styles and dance styles and musical styles, and even the name of the dance troupe - Santo Rico - is a mixture of Puerto Rican and Dominican names. It's all like the mish-mosh that is New York.  And you see that in this group. There is no stereotypical salsa dancer.

HBO

Were there any challenges in making the film? 

FRANCISCO BELLO

Casting was a challenge. Finding our characters, but more importantly, finding an engaging school was an important part of the process. There are many great salsa schools in New York City. And when I say New York City, I'm talking about all five boroughs.  That's how wide our net was initially.  We wanted to find a place that had hot dancing, had a charismatic instructor that had students that clearly came from all walks of life.  And "Santo Rico" met that requirement.

TIM STERNBERG

It took months, but mostly, the lion's share of it was just calling up places, going out there, getting on the subway over time, in the middle of winter. But what was neat about that was being able to just take the subway to the outer parts of Sunset Park in Brooklyn, or other places, and investigate a neighborhood and cast a neighborhood, a school and a teacher, which was harder work than it sounds.  In a way, you're casting it like a fictional picture.

MATTHEW O'NEIL

We met a lot of aspiring salsa dancers. The only thing that links all these people is that they had little or no salsa dancing experience before Tomas put them in a class and guided them through a six-week series of lessons before their premiere performance. 

JON ALPERT

I think perhaps this film is HBO's version of "New Yorkers Have Hidden Talent." It shows that you can go on the streets and go, "You, you, you, you," and make a great salsa dance team out of those people. 

HBO

In making the film, what did you learn about salsa and these characters?

FRANCISCO BELLO

Tomas says that anyone can learn salsa. As you'll see in the film, our characters have various degrees of ability, and Tomas pushes them to the limit. It's a testament to the dancers, their hard work, their wanting to be there, and Tomas's talent as a choreographer and as an instructor. It's not like ballet where you have to physically sculpt your body and spend years and years of training. In a way, salsa is a street dance.  And if you want to learn the New York style, the "On 2" style - which is what they teach at Santo Rico - you can learn it, and maybe even become expressive with it and showcase who you are.  Some of our dancers do that.

TIM STERNBERG

Salsa dancing is a colorful and demonstrative way for a person, like a leopard, to show their spots. It's a mating call; an intimate act that's made very public by virtue that everyone has their clothes on and they're listening to terrific music and it's got built into it all this wonderful pageantry.  

One thing all of our characters have in common is that they have their home lives, they have their work lives, and they're all searching for something.  They're all searching for another part of their life that, somehow in between work and home and everything else, may not feel entirely fulfilled. That's what takes them to these dance schools.  And salsa dancing helps them fill that void, and brings them more in touch with themselves.

JON ALPERT

What I discovered it that a lot of times we don't get a chance to express ourselves and we don't get a chance to just have fun. And sometimes it takes courage to be able to make that leap and to do something about it. And the people in this film did that. They took that leap. And I find that very inspirational. 

El Espiritu De La Salsa

Summer Series 2010