Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
How the soon-to-close 'On Your Feet!' has kept star Ana Villafañe on her toes
After almost two years of encouraging audiences to literally dance in the aisles, the bio-musical On Your Feet!, about multi Grammy Award-winning music makers Emilio and Gloria Estefan, is set to close on August 20. While all of the original leads have come and gone, one has remained the same throughout: Ana Villafañe. The 28-year-old has been with the production since the very beginning, originating the role of Gloria in its Chicago tryout, and then moving with the show to New York, which marked her Broadway debut. A longtime fan of the pop superstar, Villafañe has a lot in common with Gloria, too: they're both of Cuban descent and attended the same Miami high school. However, while Villafañe has been honored to portray Gloria, she admits it hasn't been easy.
Although adrenaline initially carried her through, Villafañe says the demanding choreography and nonstop singing in Gloria's unique style took a lot out of her. "It's one thing to create something, but it's another thing to sustain it," she explains. "It's been a learning process. I had to make clear decisions to take care of myself. I never knew the importance of that before this production."
Prioritizing self-care became imperative when Villafañe lost her voice a year ago. "It was painful -- not only physically, but also because that's my identity," she says. So Villafañe made immediate and necessary changes including working with a team of medical and vocal professionals to help her stay healthy.
"I see my acupuncturist on two-show days," she says. "I use it on my shoulders and jaw to keep my singing mechanism more open." And, since Villafañe has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she also sees a physical therapist once a week. "When there's a physical disability in the picture, it adds a spike to the intensity of the work," she explains. "My PT and I do a lot of hands-on work for targeted pressure points." Her regimen also includes three voice teachers and avoiding acidic foods to mitigate acid reflux.
Since these life changes have stabilized her instrument, Villafañe has been able to shift her energy back to keeping up with an ever-evolving musical. "A show changes when it's a long-running production," she says. "You find your groove and rhythm, but within that you have to make sure it doesn't go stale. That requires a heightened level of focus and love."
Villafañe admits cast changes have been particularly challenging. "I had to remain the constant and remain grounded," she says. "But there were a lot of crazy phone calls to my manager to help handle it! I had to find the strength to be a consistent force on stage -- especially when there is a new Emilio. I have to adjust but stay true to what the show and intentions originally were. The interesting part is, I know the show inside out; it's my baby. But Gloria has to be two steps behind the Emilio character. So with a new Emilio, how do I get comfortable in the passenger seat? I've explained to new Emilios: 'I'm following your lead. It has to be team work.'"
As a performer and a person, Villafañe says she has blossomed during On Your Feet!'s run, and she's dancing out on a high note. "I'm like a caterpillar who has turned into a butterfly," she says laughing. "I can relate to Gloria at such a different level. Before, I had to imagine her life. Now, I've performed at the White House and Times Square. I've learned what I'm truly capable of. At the beginning of the show, I think I was only pretending to know."
Lauren Kay regularly contributes to TDF Stages..
Top image: Ana Villafañe in On Your Feet!. Photos by Matthew Murphy.