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Meet the team who keeps refining this Broadway hit, months after opening
In the late 1980s, tweens and adults alike were dancing along to Gloria Estefan's high-energy music videos. Hits like "Get On Your Feet," "Conga," and "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" proved undeniably infectious, and as audiences watched the singer and her band shimmy across MTV, they were exposed to Latin dance styles they may never have encountered before. Feet were moving, hips were swaying, and everyone was embracing a crossover star who had bridged the gap between the Latin scene and mainstream pop.
It's fitting, then, that dance plays a major role in Broadway's On Your Feet!, the tale of Estefan's rise to fame. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo crafts movement that covers the various styles of Latin dance, as well as the social dance of the time (think lots of shoulder hits, cheerful claps, and perky jumps), catapulting his ensemble into a range of showstopping routines. In "Conga," for instance, the gold-and-black-clad women fly from a lift above their partners' shoulders, cartwheeling down the sides of the men's bodies into a split on the floor. In perfect unison.
For Trujillo, this work springs from a lifetime of connection to the source material. "I grew up in Colombia dancing salsa, so the authenticity of it – I was born with it," he says. "And also listening and dancing to Gloria Estefan's music! All of that – meshed with my memories of the Miami Sound Machine – makes this musical so close to my heart, and close to cast's as well."
When Trujillo began work on the show, he also visited Cuba, Estefan's birthplace, to catch the nuances that might separate Cuban style from other Latin forms. "Cubans are very grounded, and the movement is both fluid and rooted, whereas Colombian dancers move with very quick footwork," he explains. "And while there is a discussion about the different styles, much of it has blended and people do what they want; I reached into a variety of styles. On the concert front, having done Jersey Boys , I was able to explore and extrapolate what Gloria's concerts were like since I had seen a lot of her videos and concerts on TV: I didn't need to go crazy with research outside of my experience."
Yet while his research was instinctual, his process in the rehearsal studio was methodical. "His reputation as someone who pushes his dancers and sets the bar high precedes him, and I remember so clearly how incredible it was to experience," says dance captain Natalie Caruncho. "He wants you to fly, and you do it."
Because of the variety of styles and technical demands in On Your Feet!, rehearsals were focused and painstaking, with much time devoted to "cleaning." (In dancer parlance, that means ensuring all performers are aligned on shapes, timing, quality, and energy dynamics.)
Now, even though the show has been open for months, Trujillo and Caruncho still keep eyes on the numbers, from a flashback in Cuba to the dream ballet dramatizing Estefan's experience after her traumatic automobile accident.
"Hector, the assistant dance captain, and I watch the show religiously," Caruncho says. "Then we have tons of rehearsals. Just today we rehearsed in a studio again, in front of a mirror, to find out where we aren't exactly together. For example, in 'Conga,' the music is very fast. There's partnering and a lot of arms, quick feet, and turns. So we make sure everyone has the exact same information for each count. The dancers take notes, plug them in, and if they don't get them immediately, they call themselves on it and continue to fix."
Partnering takes most of the rehearsal time. "It's something we work on every single day," Caruncho says. "Backstage, couples are going over and over lifts, and if a swing, like myself, goes on, we call people in before the show to drill these aspects. Because each body is different, if a partner changes, it can change everything. It's about trust, and that's built with practice."
Discussing the partnering sequence in "Conga" – that explosive moment when the women cartwheel down the men – Trujillo says, "That's one of the trickiest [elements]. We essentially made that lift sequence up in the rehearsal room, and we work on it constantly, though I don't think there are all eight shows a week where everyone is perfect: It's that challenging. Each couple requires their own tweaks and adjustments, and that demands constant communication. As a choreographer, that's also challenging because I always give my dancers moments to live within the choreography, but there are also times when they have to be exactly together. Keeping both sides in mind maintains the quality of the show."
Lauren Kay frequently writes about dance for TDF Stages.
Photos by Matthew Murphy. Top photo: The case of On Your Feet!