Steven Spielberg's West Side Story Image of women dancing in the street

Hispanic Dancers and Choreographers who Changed the Game

What is Hispanic Heritage Month?

Hispanic Heritage Month was initially a week-long celebration when it was passed into law in 1968. Twenty years later, a bill was introduced that extended the week to a month-long celebration. September 15th is also the Independence Day for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico follows, celebrating their Independence Day on the 16th, and Chile celebrates theirs on the 18th—this is why Hispanic Heritage month actually spans two calendar months instead of one.

Hispanic Heritage month celebrates U.S. Hispanic and Latinx communities and individuals. It actually spans two months, beginning September 15 and ending October 15. 

To celebrate, we’re taking a look at the Hispanic and Latinx dancers, choreographers, and movement artists that have influenced the world of dance we know today by sharing and transforming their traditional movement styles and rhythms.

Hispanic and Latinx Storytellers

The Broadway stage is home to many well known Hispanic Americans, including Puerto Rican dancers and art-makers Luis Salgado, Chita Rivera, and Rita Moreno, and Argentinian-American dancer Graciela Daniele.

Graciela Daniele

Born in 1939 in Buenos Aires, Daniele is a notable Argentinian-American dancer, choreographer and director. She was inspired to tell stories through theatrical dance after she attended a production of West Side Story in Paris, where she was studying ballet. Daniele promptly moved to New York City and studied with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and began working with iconic artists  Bob Fosse, Agnes De Mille, and Michael Bennett. Daniele has since directed and choreographed for film, developed works for Ballet Hispanico and several Broadway shows including choreography for Ragtime, Once on This Island, and Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, which she also directed.

Luis Salgado dancer headshot captured by Jason Rivers

Luis Salgado

Salgado, a prolific Puerto Rican choreographer and director, draws inspiration from visual art forms, theatre, and the rhythms he grew up around. Born in 1980 in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, he trained first in dance, and then in theatre at the University of Puerto Rico. He has since expanded his career to include direction, choreography, production, and the development of latin stories, specifically ones that  highlight latinx actors and dancers. He was the assistant Latin choreographer for the hit musical In The Heights, won two Helen Hayes awards for his 2019 production of FAME, and most recently, directed and choreographed the ‘VIVA Broadway! When We See Ourselves’ concert that was a part of the Curtain Up festival this past September where he showcased many latinx Broadway dancers for the public to see.

Chita Rivera

Rivera’s long Broadway career is highlighted by the roles that she famously originated: Anita in West Side Story, Velma Kelly in Chicago, and Rose in Bye Bye Birdie, and the titular role in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Rivera is of Puerto Rican and Scottish descent, but was born in Washington D.C. in 1933. At 15 years old, she was training at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. Today, Rivera is so prolific that The Fred and Adele Astaire Awards were renamed the Chita Rivera Awards for Dance and Choreography as a way to honor the talented performer.

Rita Moreno behind the scenes of West Side Story

Rita Moreno

Ms. Moreno put Hispanic-American dancers front and center. The EGOT winner was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico in 1931, and later moved to Long Island, New York with her mother. Performing as early as 9 years old, Moreno made her Broadway debut in Skydrift just before turning 14. Moreno is known for her work on the children’s show The Electric Company, and for her performance as Anita in the film version of West Side Story.

Fun Fact: West Side Story, having been mentioned no less than three times in this blog post already, is a work of art that remains pivotal to the history of Hispanic and Latinx dancers. Even though the original musical has been criticized for its lack of accurate representation as far as the storyline and cast, the musical continues to be an important piece of American musical history and Hispanic cultural representation due to its outstanding score, choreography, and the themes it puts front and center.

The Meeting of Technique and Hispanic Tradition

Ballet Hispanico dance in a colorful group stage performance

Ballet Hispánico & Ballet Folklorico

An American dance company and educational organization founded in New York in 1970 by Tina Ramirez, Ballet Hispánico is now the biggest Latinx cultural organization in the country. Most known for their virtuosic and culturally important dance pieces, the organization also produces community arts partnerships and hosts events and dialogues meant to empower and give agency to the latinx community in New York and across the world. Many famous Hispanic and Hispanic-American dancers have either danced or choreographed for the company.

Ramirez, a Puerto Rican/Mexican-American founded the company to increase accessibility to dance and art for the marginalized latinx community. In 2009, Eduardo Vilaro, a Cuban-American dancer, became the Artistic Director of the company. Vilaro actually started his career with Ballet Hispánico as a dancer, performing works created by a long list of choreographers, including the aforementioned Argentine choreographer, Graciela Daniele. 

Ballet Hispánico may be the biggest dance organization of its kind, but it is not the only one. Ballet Folklórico is a dance company in Mexico that has performed traditional Latin folk dances in over 80 countries, and is said to have weekly performances in Mexico City. Founder Amalia Hernández is a great example of a dancer who combined her technical prowess with her love for traditional Latin folk dance and storytelling,

Hernández, born in Mexico City in 1917, grew up dancing in Mexico, training in both western styles as well as in traditional Mexican folk dances. Ultimately, her pride and interest in Mexican folkloric dances and how they represented Mesoamerican cultures led her to create the Ballet Folklórico de Mexico in 1952.

Ballet Folklorico Dancers perform

Ballet Folklórico celebrates the dance, music, and costumes of Mexican culture all the way from pre-Columbian civilizations to modern day dance forms. Hernandez used mestizo and indigenous dance styles, filtering them through the modern techniques she learned throughout her career to create theatrical dance pieces with up to 50 dancers. 

La Argentina dances in black and white photo circa 1920s
La Argentina ref: Britannica Encyclopedia

La Argentina (1890-1936) 

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as Antonia Mercé y Luque, Argentina was a very talented young dancer, performing ballet at the Madrid opera at 11 years old. When her father died three years later, she stopped training in ballet and began studying native Spanish dances. 

Her stage name was coined after her performance of the titular role in the ballet Carmen. Her stage presence, passion, and unique gypsy-inspired dance movements were so memorable that from that day on, she was known only as “La Argentina.”

La Argentina was a creative, generous, and influential artist. She created musical notation for castanets, enhanced their design and introduced them to the concert stage. She also gave solo performances for inexpensive prices, selling out thousand-seat theatres night after night, and making dance more accessible to those who wouldn’t have been able to afford her shows otherwise. And, even though she was a Latin American ballet and folk dancer, La Argentina majorly influenced the famous Japanese Butoh dancer Kazuo Uno with her unique style of dancing.

Dance as Activism and Agency in Everyday Life

Dancing is an almost everyday part of many hispanic cultures across the globe. Because of that, Hispanic dance forms have also turned into vehicles for protest, social change, and widespread communication of cultural ideas. While the individuals and institutions we highlighted above have had a huge impact on Hispanic and Latinx dance in the United States, we would be remiss if we neglected the importance of everyday community in the history of Latinx dance.

Whether in protest or in celebration, in a Broadway show or hidden in the petit allegro of new works for Ballet Hispánico, Hispanic and Latinx dance forms are a part of both the American and global understanding of dance. All the dancers and choreographers listed above had a hand in the sharing and transforming of traditional Hispanic and latinx dance styles, and that is why we chose to recognize them this month.

For the rest of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, find new ways to connect with these dance forms. A great place to start would be taking some of our Latin dance style classes on CLI Studios!

(P.S. For the fifth mention of West Side Story in this post, just a reminder: the movie musical adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck is out on December 10th of this year! Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the original movie adaptation, and Maddie Ziegler, of Dance Moms fame and often found dancing with choreographer and CLI Studios friend Brian Friedman, both make appearances in the movie.)

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