Dancing Backup: Puerto Ricans in the American Muchedumbre

Carina del Valle Schorske traces a lineage of Puerto Rican backup dancers in American entertainment from Rita Moreno to JLo.

Carina del Valle Schorske | Longreads | April 2019 | 28 minutes (7,237 words)

Muchedumbre.
Noun, feminine: An abundance of persons or things; crowd, horde
Noun, biblical: Survivors, the chosen

* * *

When I fell for the video girl in Omarion’s “Touch,” I never thought I’d come to know her name. I loved her for her low-slung baggy jeans and spangled bustier. I loved her for the wave arranged across her forehead, her sly smile, and most of all, of course, for the way she moved. In the video, Omarion spots her with her girls as she’s leaving the club, and soon they involve each other in a pedestrian duet that elaborates the walk home along the lines of a Cuban rumba: frankly sexual, magnetically relational, but rarely, barely touching.

What won my attention was an unusual liberty in her movement — unconfined, it seemed, by a tightly choreographed routine or proper place in the staged urban environment — and a looseness in her waistline I can’t help calling Spanish. In Latin music, lyrics linger less over hips and ass, lavishing attention on la cintura atómica, la cintura sueltecita as the locus of sensual movement, maybe even the primary engine of Latin culture’s successive “explosions.” Marking the waist as specifically Spanish doesn’t check out in a diasporic vocabulary that includes wining, belly dance, even hula. But that’s how I responded to her body — with recognition. I followed the current that ran up and down her torso, briefly electrifying each gesture as if it were a spoken phrase that would resolve into a statement. I wanted to know where the meaning would land.

I didn’t expect to see this dancer again. Maybe I couldn’t see past the way she’d been cast: as a girl who appears, suddenly, in the chaos of the club, then slips back — a moment, an hour, a day later — into the city’s unsyncopated working rhythm. Blink. Touch. This was 2005, before the internet’s full power was at my fingertips, before I could feel confident that “Omarion video girl” would yield a name, a résumé, a world. I didn’t try. For years I’d return to her on YouTube, exhibiting her to friends and lovers, an avatar of erotic freedom, improvisational play, anonymous genius. I wanted her to be noticed beyond the terms the screen had set. And I wanted to be noticed for noticing her.

* * *

Pop culture teaches us that backup dancers are beneath notice. They’re not real artists, and the pleasure we take in them is primitive. They are not suitable emissaries of culture, even if culture wouldn’t be any fun without them. There are no prominent prizes for video girls, no credit roll at the end of the concert naming names. When we pick favorites and mimic their moves, our mothers make sure we know not to aspire. Backup dancing is not aspirational; it’s a no-man’s-land where brown girls are liable to languish, underpaid and overworked. It’s one wrong turn away from sex work. When Cardi B brags, “I don’t dance now / I make money moves,” she’s minimizing the difference between the kind of dancing she used to do on the pole and the kind of dancing done on other stages. Neither one, she seems to say, will pay. These messages have posed a problem for me, because I grew up in a time and place in which every Puerto Rican you’d ever heard of was — or had been — a backup dancer.

The distinction between was and had been didn’t matter that much, because the fact that certain individuals had achieved star status did little to reduce the stigma of salacious amateurism that lingered with them. Especially before Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sonia Sotomayor, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went to Washington, the prototypical Puerto Rican in U.S. consciousness was [Dancing Girl emoji, skin tone tan]. Probably, she still is. Even the nation’s youngest congresswoman is haunted — or rather, refuses to be haunted — by her younger body, bopping across the rooftops of Boston University in 2010. As a dweeby tween, I wasn’t ashamed: I liked being noticed in relation to something “sexy.” But I see now why my mother was. There’s an implied analogy between the backup dancer and Puerto Rico itself, as if the island exists first and foremost for the empire’s entertainment, as if Puerto Ricans can be famous, too, so long as we know our precarious, paradoxical place.


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Official policy refers to Puerto Rico as a commonwealth, but it’s really a shadow colony in plain view, hypervisible especially in relation to the colonies most Americans don’t know or name: Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States government sometimes refers to Puerto Rico as “the shining star of the Caribbean,” a phrase dreamed up for a midcentury publicity campaign designed to attract business investment to the island. But this special status has not protected Puerto Rico — or its diaspora — from myriad forms of colonial extraction. Puerto Rico is both empire’s “shining star” and, in the notorious words of U.S. Senator William B. Bate, “a heterogeneous mass of mongrels,” threatening the nation’s delicate racial and political ecosystem from the shadowy margins. There are too many of us (“mass”), and each one of us already contains too many (“mongrel”). When changes in U.S. economic priorities have displaced Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico itself, we’ve become backup bodies in cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. By the late 20th century, Puerto Ricans made up the largest “immigrant” group in New York City. Life hasn’t been much better stateside, but there is still an important sense in which the Puerto Rican pseudo-citizen moves dique freely in relation to her cousins in the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America. She won’t be deported, exactly. Instead, she’ll spin in a perpetual motion machine.

All of these myths and policies converge on the body of the Puerto Rican backup dancer. The consolation prize for second-class citizenship — really, for lack of sovereignty — has been cultural nationalism. We can shimmy and shake all we like, get loud and proud about how well we do it. But even when the backup dancer gets to be a star, she’s on the blink, appearing and disappearing like the bright spot on the nocturnal satellite map before and after Hurricane Maria.

For years I’d return to her on YouTube, exhibiting her to friends and lovers, an avatar of erotic freedom, improvisational play, anonymous genius. I wanted her to be noticed beyond the terms the screen had set. And I wanted to be noticed for noticing her.

Over the years there are certain stars I’ve come to count on, that seem to have achieved a steady glow: Rita Moreno, for example. Rosie Perez. Jennifer Lopez. Invoking them in sequence, like this, suggests a progressive history, a lineage in which I secretly attempt to situate myself. But the more I read into it, the less it feels like history and the more it feels like a cut-rate carousel. I’m stuck on the constant costume changes these women have hustled through to appear, against the backup dancer’s odds, as names we know. Despite the individuality that stardom confers, they’ve passed through many of the same institutions and come to many of the same professional crossroads. Sometimes they have literally danced in each other’s footsteps or played the same roles. They stand out from and stand in for New York City itself — Nueva York, los niuyores — a few recognizable forms in what the performance scholar Jayna Brown calls “the multijointed body of the female tableaux.” She’s talking about black vaudevillians at the turn of the 20th century, but the image translates: there’s a complex pleasure to getting lost in the crowd. Brown goes on to quote a contemporary of Josephine Baker’s: “She was just a chorus girl, baby, we all was chorus girls.” But it’s hard to hear her tone. Is the chorus girl jaded, disabusing us of the glamour we associate with the star, implying that she can never really rise above her station? Or is taking the star down a peg a way to hold her close, to include her in movement’s “we,” movement’s “all”?

* * *

Growing up, I wanted to be included — even, especially, in the mass of mongrels. I knew Senator Bate didn’t mean to make it seem like so much fun, at least not on the face of it. But by the time we get around to the 1978 Rolling Stones song “Miss You,” Mick Jagger is sure the way to sound American on R & B radio — the way to sound black — is to growl “we’re gonna come around at twelve / with some Puerto Rican girls / that’s just dying to meet you.” I liked singing along — accustomed, like women of all backgrounds, to extracting pleasure and power from pop music’s misogyny. Sometimes I still do.

Maybe I was particularly vulnerable to crude seductions because our family was the opposite of a crowd: me and my mother in California, my grandmother in New York, no siblings, no husbands. Until I left the Bay Area for New York when I was 18, my direct relatives were the only Puerto Ricans I really knew. I was grateful for my Chicanx friends at the private schools we attended on scholarship — we began our political lives together — but culturally speaking they didn’t really know where to place me, and I wasn’t in a position to help them. If Jennifer Lopez implied an urban world teeming with around-the-way girls and spontaneous block parties, I was eager to be implicated.

In Zami, Audre Lorde’s erotic memoir, she articulates her mother’s longing for her natal island of Grenada: “She missed the music you didn’t have to listen to because it was always around.” When my mother danced around the apartment it became populous — with stories of her father’s famous footwork, Motown madness with her college boyfriend, José, the live drums from the New Rican village that seemed to fall in line behind her heels. We’d angle out the closet door with the full-length mirror so she could teach me her teenage moves: the Mashed Potatoes, the Watusi, the Jerk. And then she’d spin out where I couldn’t follow, spurred into a frenzy by the telltale cowbell in “Adoración.” She was multiplied at both ends: by everything that entered her and everything her dancing made me do, the movement she started in the living room. A culture of one. Given our isolation, it would take me years of living in New York to discern which of my mother’s gestures and behaviors were the product of her powerful personality, and which were Puerto Rican cultural commonplaces. It isn’t always easy, or explanatory, to name the difference.

In her self-titled memoir, published in 2011, Rita Moreno remembers moving to Washington Heights and “sitting on the wrought iron grille base beside an open window … while our new radio, shaped like a small cathedral, blared music to me and to any other appreciative Latinos within earshot.” With neighbor girls she “put on costumes and spun through living rooms [and] even ‘entertained’ on the rooftop.” Rosie Perez credits her early dance training to the long summers she spent with her cousin Cookie “in a dilapidated tenement that she kept clean as hell … doing the Hustle in the kitchen while my wet set dried.” I wonder if we’d call it training if we never came to see her dance on TV. Was I training, too, for the pedestrian life I have, in which I’m only famous for my dancing among the friends who follow my Instagram stories? For my gracelessly improvised life as a writer?

‘She was just a chorus girl, baby, we all was chorus girls.’

The New York I live in now is more densely Caribbean than it was when Audre Lorde’s mother suffered the unmusical noise of the north. Despite the city’s constant war on public space, the air at least stays thick, stays wavy. These days the uptown bodegas play bachata, and when I walk by I like to let it inflect the rhythm of my walking — the music I don’t have to listen to because it’s everywhere, the dance I don’t have to do because it’s always in my body. It’s a trope of black diasporic dance to start small, as if walking, as if merely shifting weight, hitching a skirt — the better to dramatize the smooth continuum between everyday life and the high fever of the mess around.

My mother sometimes worries about the way I walk, especially in Washington Heights, where my grandmother lives. She migrated — pregnant with my mother — 15 years after Rita Moreno, in what historian Lorrin Thomas describes as “the postwar boom … that nearly doubled New York City’s Puerto Rican population in two years.” We’ve come to call it “la gran migración,” taking a cue — as we often do — from African American history’s Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North. I still visit my grandmother in the same neighborhood — the same building — where my mother grew up.

And yet it isn’t the same. I was born post-crack and post-Reagan, so our block has always been that kind of hood to me. Now it’s gentrifying. I admit wishing we could keep the ancestral apartment, somehow, so I could live there with rent control. But she doesn’t think I understand the danger. Around here, Latinas are always the ones hit hardest by street violence, she says. I don’t know whether I am, in this case, her daughter or the daughter of my gringo father. So I ask. She thinks the corner boys can tell I’m Latin like them: You can’t do anything about the way you move. In the heat of conflict I feel a pleasurable frisson: the transmission alive in me. I wouldn’t wish that way out of my body, because I wouldn’t wish my body away. It feels safer, somehow, to stay close to my mother even when she says it isn’t.

I know that standing out can pose its own dangers, depending on how and among whom. Cue Zora Neale Hurston: I feel most colored when I am thrown against a stark white background. The image evokes the police precinct’s mugshot as vividly as the museum’s gallery wall. I also know that being singular — or at least, the idea of being singular — has mattered to both my grandmother and my mother because it’s mattered to their survival. Moving — out, away, up from poverty — is often easier alone, dissociated from the trope of the hungry horde. But even loneliness has a lineage, and I find myself feeling for it.

* * *

Rosita Dolores Alverío was not technically an only child; her mother had abandoned her younger child, a boy, when they migrated from Juncos, Puerto Rico in 1936. But in the wake of this desperate choice, Rosita was raised like one, with the intensity of attention I recognize from my mother’s only childhood and my own. Focusing on one child mitigates the economic limitations of working-class life — and of course, raises the stakes for a return on investment. Even by the impossible standards of an immigrant mother, it’s safe to say that Rosita made good as Rita Moreno, the first Puerto Rican to become a bona fide star in the United States. She’s won all four major prizes in American entertainment — the Oscar, the Grammy, the Emmy, and the Tony — and her 1962 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Anita in the musical West Side Story remains the only Oscar ever awarded to a Latina performer.

Over time, this distinction has become a bitter sign of how tightly U.S. culture seeks to control our conditions of appearance. But in her memoir, Rita conveys the animating thrill of matriarchal ambition that first set her spinning onstage as a child dancer. In certain moments, her descriptions of their shared labor sound almost utopic:

A happy home has its own music. The house hummed with Mami’s Singer sewing machine as she worked the foot treadle. This machine was so old; it was not an electric model. All the energy came from Mami, from her foot tapping and rising and falling. It sounded like the roll of a Spanish rrrrr! As if in accompaniment, I danced in time with its pulsing, while Mami was creating headdresses and costumes for me.

I didn’t demonstrate enough talent in ballet class to warrant such a scene, but my mother did make our home into a kind of studio, ready for whatever talent might emerge for cultivation. In the “happy” immigrant home, work and play are closely intertwined by necessity. Work must become play, or play must become work, if play is to survive as a vital practice. Like my grandmother, her sisters, and the majority of Puerto Rican women immigrants to New York City, Rita’s mother first worked as a factory seamstress. At home, she turned these same skills to the fanciful project of imagining new and dramatic ways for her daughter to appear. Rita was the chosen channel for this form of dreaming, but the dream itself was more general: to produce, with the means of production at hand, a range of possible lives and the freedom to move among them.

When the doors of Hollywood opened for Rita Moreno, they didn’t open for all her possibilities. They opened for a Slave Girl, an Indian Princess, a Dusky Maiden. It was one role, really: the temporary romantic interest of the white leading man led astray by her temptations before settling down with a suitable (read: white) wife. Who can blame Rita Moreno, then, for her profound ambivalence about so-called stardom? “Cold feet” kept her from auditioning for the principal role of Maria when West Side Story was on Broadway, and her anxiety persisted even after she secured the supporting role of Anita in the film adaptation. Though Anita animated contemporary anxieties about New York’s “Puerto Rican problem,” the role was also substantial, a rare opportunity she was sure she’d somehow squander: “A shadow followed me like a backup dancer, making me worry that it would only be a matter of time before I would lose everything.”

There she is: the backup dancer, making a cameo here as a sly, flexible metaphor. If Rita’s shadow is the backup dancer, then Rita herself is surely the star. But the metaphor seems to articulate the slippage between the two positions — the backup dancer is the star’s shadow side, the constant reminder of how precarious her visibility really is. She’s on her heels, grabbing hold wherever her body touches ground. Maybe Rita felt shadowed by the roles she’d been forced to play, unable to get out from under the sense of herself as an erotic extra. Or maybe she couldn’t escape the sense that her luck would always come at someone else’s expense: she was keenly aware of replacing another Puerto Rican dancer, Chita Rivera, who’d triumphed as Anita on Broadway. She was convinced she could “never, ever be as good as Chita,” that she’d never deserve the power of her position.

She was multiplied at both ends: by everything that entered her and everything her dancing made me do, the movement she started in the living room. A culture of one.

But if the backup dancer haunts the star, she also keeps her company. “Rita the Cheetah,” as she was known in the press, would never be lonely as Anita: the role activated a rhyme of substitutes, a small crowd of Puerto Rican hopefuls passing in and out of the spotlight. In fact, Rita deliberately “sought out a friend who had played the part of Anita on a coast-to-coast tour,” eager to learn a few steps for her audition. Every dance begins in — as — someone else’s shadow. That’s just how it is. However singular her performance would turn out to be, Rita became Anita in relation to the other women who had been her. A gang of Anitas gave birth to Rita’s Anita, the gang leader.

Ultimately, it is Anita, with her active — if contentious — relationship to group identity who is West Side Story’s brightest star. It is Anita, not Maria, who seems to summon the whole urban world into being with a swirl of her purple skirts and a clap of her hands: “Here,” said the New York Times review, “are the muscle and rhythm that bespeak a collective energy.” When I imagine a world ruled by Anitas, I get a festive feeling, as if I’m climbing the fire escape to the famous rooftop scene. I can almost smell the summer-softened tar, the beer going flat, the perfumed sweat rising as banter becomes music, becomes, suddenly, a dance battle. Maybe there’s a way to wiggle free from our collective confinement without leaving each other behind. Maybe there’s a way to argue over what “America” has made of us in our own language.

From the rooftop, these dreams seem don’t seem so far off. But in her memoir, Rita Moreno asks us to stay with her in closer quarters, to find freedom in a scene where her only company is her own shadow, in a moment that’s not right for shimmying. In one of West Side Story’s most tragic turns, Anita leaves Sharks turf to deliver Maria’s message to Tony, only to be intercepted by the Jets:

When I had to play the attack scene in the candy store, I wept and broke down— right on set. It was that incredible, amazing, magical thing that happens sometimes when you’re acting and you have the opportunity to play a part so close to your heart: You pass through the membrane separating your stage self from your real self. For a time, at least, you are one person.

The “attack scene” has always been understood as an implied gang rape, which heightens the intensity of her language in this passage: why should inhabiting a scene of traumatic violence be “incredible, amazing, magical,” a restorative moment of contact with her “real self”? Trauma is usually narrated using exactly the opposite vocabulary: splitting, sundering, shattering. But for Rita Moreno, to break down is to return to a truth about her experience in the industry that her usual performance of resilience obscures: being singled out for special treatment by Hollywood’s power players had a shadow side.

Rita’s first sexual experience was what she later came to recognize as rape by a man who claimed to want to work as her agent. Immediately after the filming of West Side Story, her long-running, emotionally abusive affair with Marlon Brando would drive her to attempt suicide. Of course, these biographical details do not exactly correspond to the violation implied by the candy shop scene. Rita was never a Puerto Rican gangbanger; her working-class Washington Heights was more like my mother’s than Anita’s. And yet, the projection of these fantasies onto her body — the stereotype of her body as essentially available, disposable, and replaceable — put her in the way of real violence, mostly at the hands of white men. Becoming a star required a dangerous risk: leaving her own turf for the way her turf was rendered in show business. The candy shop wasn’t real to Rita, but the candy shop scene did feel real, with its crowd of white men curtailing her movement with threats and demands. This time, she did not have to hide her fear and anger for the sake of her career; she could dance with them.

There’s a moment in Peter Pan when Peter’s shadow runs away and Wendy intervenes to carefully stitch it to the soles of his feet: a woman’s work. I think of Rita in West Side Story as her own Wendy, mending her relationship with the shadow that would follow her everywhere in the Neverland of American show business. It’s another kind of costura, more painstaking, maybe, than the dreamwork that produced her first costumes. Here, her desire to be “one person” is not the same as a desire to escape alone, to escape intact. Instead, it reflects the difficult knowledge that she is one person only when she can bear to incorporate the parts of herself she’s disavowed.

* * *

In an interview from 1998, Jennifer Lopez refers to Rita Moreno as “the original Fly Girl,” naming her the inadvertent matriarch of the Fly Girls featured on Keenen Wayans’s hip hop driven variety show In Living Color, where Jennifer got her first big break. She shifts the focus from Rita’s moment of semi-stardom as Anita to imagine her in relation to a small collective of dancers, most of whom did not move on to fame and fortune. It’s a complicated gesture, elevating the Fly Girls by saying they have a history while at the same time pluralizing Rita’s individual achievement. She was just a chorus girl, baby. We all was chorus girls. Every genealogy of Puerto Rican performers — including the one I’m moving through in this essay — will be intimate, idiosyncratic, and provisional. But if we’re talking about the Fly Girls, specifically, it’s fair to feel like someone’s missing.

In large part because of the narrative of competition forced upon them as two Puerto Rican stars in generational proximity, Jennifer Lopez has never been very good at publicly acknowledging her debt to Rosie Perez, the In Living Color choreographer who lobbied to make her a Fly Girl in the first place. I think a lot of Latinas who came up with and through hip-hop are just beginning to see what Rosie meant to us — to mend, like Rita with her shadow, the disavowal that has often accompanied our admiration. DJ Laylo, a Bronx Dominicana, put it this way in an interview with Remezcla: “It’s a little bit of a sore spot for me because whenever I’m in predominantly white spaces, I always have people coming up to me saying, ‘Oh my god you sound like Rosie Perez.’ And I know they don’t mean it because they’re paying tribute to all that she is.”

My mother was the first one to introduce me to Rosie — we checked out Do the Right Thing from the library on VHS — but she, too, was plainly unsettled by Rosie’s accent, which she insisted had been exaggerated to make her seem Extra Rican. The theory wasn’t far-fetched; Rita was made to invent an accent she didn’t have for West Side Story. But I wasn’t really listening to my mother’s critiques. I was too mesmerized by the film’s famous opening credits — red lights, then blue — which find Rosie pumping her chest and throwing hooks in front of Brooklyn brownstones to all four minutes of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Whatever she was fighting I felt like I was fighting too, including my own resistance to her performance. Recently I’ve been asking friends how they remember feeling about the scene back in the day. The word “unapologetic” keeps coming up, which makes me wonder what — and who — we’ve grown accustomed to apologizing for. My friend Christina’s take is a little more specific: “She seemed like she wasn’t afraid of men.”

I can almost smell the summer-softened tar, the beer going flat, the perfumed sweat rising as banter becomes music, becomes, suddenly, a dance battle. Maybe there’s a way to wiggle free from our collective confinement without leaving each other behind.

In some ways, history supports Christina’s formative impression. In several interviews, Rosie recounts how she first met Spike Lee at the L.A. nightclub Funky Reggae, where he was hosting a big booty contest to promote School Daze. Rosie wasn’t having it; she’d come to the club to dance: “disgusted…I jumped on the stage — okay, so it was a speaker — and bent over shaking my ass.” It’s a parable of her performance philosophy: the speaker becomes the stage as she insists upon her objection to performance as part of the performance itself. When Spike’s bouncers came through to pull her skinny butt back down, the young director decided he liked that trash-talking Brooklyn Rican. He picked her out from the lineup and gave her an on-screen solo.

It would be a merciless eight-hour shoot that gave Rosie swollen knees and tennis elbow: he solicited the anger she’d once directed at him and worked it to the bone. It’s not an endorsement of his abusive techniques as a director to say that in the final cut her anger seems to exceed its conscription to become the sign and symbol of the borough’s unrest. In a movie that centers on the political struggles between black and white men in the world of work, that cannot imagine a role for anyone else in the battle for representation in the face of racist violence, it is a Puerto Rican woman’s persistent and plotless physical practice that frames the narrative. Who or what is her adversary as she trains for a fight we never see go down onscreen? We can’t call it. The block, the pizza parlor, the movie set itself — the site of struggle is always changing. Rosie is slick with the sweat of staying ready wherever it finds her.

Part of the reason I find myself saying “Rosie” instead of her character’s name, “Tina,” is because the scene unfolds in a liminal space between our world as spectators and the world of the film, where the story has yet to be told. When Do the Right Thing first came out, the conservative critic Stanley Crouch complained in the Village Voice that the scene was “amateurish,” nothing more than a music video. He’s wrong to complain, but right to see it like that. Rosie isn’t really Tina yet, she’s Rosie, recognizable if you know her from Soul Train, and just a Puerto Rican girl dancing if you don’t. Soul Train’s practice of using amateurs to bring the energy of the street to the screen was being developed in new directions by MTV, and Spike Lee was making major contributions to the same culture. He wasn’t the first one to cast Rosie Perez from the club floor; her “realness” had become a hot commodity in the emerging hip-hop economy. Of course, someone like Stanley Crouch was never gonna get Rosie. But his critique magnifies an anxiety about her performance shared by those who thought they did.

Soul Train’s director, Don Cornelius, liked Rosie so much that he had her dance down the line twice on her first night on set. She was out of place — a Puerto Rican in Los Angeles — which made her stand out, trigger a double take. Her light skin and tight little body gave her immediate mainstream market value. But the way she moved and spoke from within that body also seemed to threaten the investment. “Is that your real accent?” Don Cornelius asked the first time he heard her speak, turning an invisible dial down. In her 2015 memoir, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life, Rosie remembers: “Don Cornelius did not want to see how I really danced,” anymore than he wanted to hear how she really spoke.

On Soul Train Rosie was always trying to do the moves she’d learned back in the city: the Pee Wee Herman, the Roger Rabbit. At New York clubs like the Roxy and the Latin Quarter she had her eye on the male dancers “behind Whodini and Big Daddy Kane … all doing James Brown, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, and the fabulous Nicholas Brothers moves, making them their own.” Don’s early objections to Rosie’s dancing took the form of gender management: “Nononono, you’re a girl!” Of course, the (imagined) friction between her conventional femme sexiness and her hip-hop intensity is what gave her performances heat. If her body was disciplined in a satin miniskirt, stockings, and a waist-cinching belt, her face was not: that self-possessed sneer. Louie Carr — “Cutty Mack” — remembers Rosie as “aggressive and sexy and a little street, like a machine gun.” Don Cornelius wanted the rhythm of the weapon without the war.

Don’s struggle for control over Rosie — and here, he’s only an example — reveals the risk inherent in the aesthetics of realness. A musical like West Side Story was exciting, in its time, because it suggested an intimate relationship between the singing and dancing on-screen and the changing demographics of the city itself. Rita Moreno, the only actual factual Puerto Rican with a speaking role, was the linchpin of that seductive suggestion. In the plot, her dancing always starts a debate, a competition, a party. It always demands a reply. The delight we take in her call-and-response virtuosity implicates us in the project of imagining an urban world we can all inhabit. But the industry only let the provocation of Rita Moreno’s performance go so far. It didn’t matter that she mastered the choreography. That she waited her turn for dignified, complicated starring roles that never came. That she wore a white pleated skirt to the March on Washington. The game had rules for a reason: to make sure it never got really real.

But by the time Rosie Perez was born, whatever remained of the American Dream for Puerto Ricans was dead, and she was too black and too busy trying to survive an abusive childhood to play along. Rosie’s New York was post-Civil Rights: the War on Drugs had replaced the War on Poverty, and the collective trauma of ghetto life had already yielded several generations of black-brown collaborations including bugalú, salsa, and the beginnings of hip hop. White institutions were no longer the only gatekeepers crafting and legislating the representation of urban culture. Rosie’s class position and her historical position intersected to make it clear that she wouldn’t, couldn’t, and shouldn’t have to assimilate out of the world that made her.

Don Cornelius, with Soul Train, was a major player in that transformation. Starting in 1971, he opened the door to the creative power of regular-degular city kids, who brought their own bell-bottoms and hustles to set, collectively forming the living, breathing backdrop for some of the most iconic black performances of the ’70s and ’80s. But on Soul Train the backdrop was the real show — not the celebrity guests who mostly lip-synched anyway. The young dancers pulsed behind the permeable membrane of the screen. And on the other side the rest of us joined the party, turning the TV into a magic mirror. A girl who could be your half sister is doing the dance you do in the front yard on Sundays, and she’s making it famous. Next time, it could be your actual half sister. Next time, it could be you. In providing a major cultural platform to kids who rarely received the message come as you are, Don Cornelius modeled the possibility of an equivalent political platform.

In a movie that centers on the political struggles between black and white men in the world of work, that cannot imagine a role for anyone else in the battle for representation in the face of racist violence, it is a Puerto Rican woman’s persistent and plotless physical practice that frames the narrative.

But he also exploited the Soul Train dancers. Rosie remembers: “We didn’t get paid, just a Kentucky Fried Chicken two-piece lunch box — not kidding.” The prestige economy forced the dancers into a frenzy of competition, like “piranhas at feeding time.” Don Cornelius — and the other impresarios who followed in his footsteps — wanted to let in the feel of freedom, but carefully calibrated to align with market protocols and the agenda of their own enrichment. That’s life under racial capitalism, beibi. If he let Rosie move however she wanted to move, she might roll up the next night with her entire hip hop block demanding a living wage. On the other hand, if he didn’t, she might leave. One night, that’s what she did:

I walked back to the head of the line, paused, then strutted down as if I were Naomi Campbell on the runway, continued walking past Don to my seat, grabbed my things, and told him I was out.

It takes a special kind of grace to perform and stop performing in the same seamless gesture. The Soul Train line always pointed beyond the station; Rosie’s secret weapon has been her willingness to leave. In a 2017 interview with Desus and Mero, Rosie states it plainly: “I didn’t wanna be [in show business], so I wasn’t afraid of not getting a job. I was like, fuck this shit, I’m smart, so fuck y’all.” Almost nothing is more threatening to the star system than divestment from it. The star system often functions as an imperial structure of containment, a way to manage the unruly energy of a muchedumbre whose festivities incubate a revolutionary impulse. The Puerto Rican poet Luis Palés Matos warned everybody back in 1937: si … te picara un tambor de danza o guerra / su terrible ponzoña / correrá siempre por tus venas. Translation: if … you’re pricked by the drum of dance or war / that terrible poison / will run forever through your veins. This kind of inheritance doesn’t care who your mother is. This kind of inheritance could go viral.

* * *

Over time I find myself feeling disappointed in Jennifer Lopez, and this might be the moment to ask myself why. It’s a refrain among Puerto Rican women I know to say girls like that are a dime a dozen in my neighborhood. My mother says it, too — that her cousin Carmencita was more beautiful, with her heavy winged eyeliner and languorous way with a pencil skirt. Eyes like black coffee trembling in a cup. I’m not sure if we say so because we’re ashamed that she’s regular — the wrong one to represent our culture’s repressed powers — or if we’re ashamed that we’re regular, too, but without the will to say so what? Jennifer Lopez never claimed to be the most talented girl in the room. In her infamous 1998 interview with Movieline, she said, “I’m not the best … that ever lived, but I know I’m pretty good.” Being humble, for her, has never required being hidden — as we so often assume it must.

But Jennifer’s mediocrity is not the source of my disappointment. I don’t care that she can’t sing, or that she’s just okay at dancing. When I think about the fact that Keenen Wayans refused, at first, to hire her as a Fly Girl — “called her chubby and corny” — I’m grateful to Rosie for fighting for that “big-ass beautiful girl from the Bronx” with the “star smile.” I like the footage from that period, especially a little promotional clip for Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” where Janet introduces her new dancers as “Jennifer, Shawn, and Nicky: three backed-up hoes!” It’s fun to watch Jennifer fire back, “Honey we’re here to wreck shop, what’s your problem?” Taken literally, the idiom suggests the end of buying and selling, the general damage “backed-up hos” intend to do with their dancing.

If these are the moments I love best, then maybe I’m less disappointed in Jennifer Lopez than I am in the nature of stardom itself. She’s achieved what long seemed impossible for a Puerto Rican performer: race-blind roles, multimillion dollar paychecks. But that doesn’t do anything to make me feel like part of an us. Her stardom feels far-off and joyless. When I try focusing on recent interviews with her, my eye always wanders from YouTube’s main screen to the little stack of further possibilities waiting in the wings, and I can’t resist clicking aimlessly. I’m more interested in the algorithm of associations than the record of any single personality.

That’s how I spot her: Omarion’s video girl, in a red crop top, striped shorts, and gold sneakers, dancing with Bruno Mars in the January 2018 video for “Finesse.” It’s a tribute to In Living Color, and Danielle Polanco — this time I can say her name — is the Fly Girl the camera loves best, leaning out from the fire escape with her girls to call down to Bruno and his boys, a Tony-and-Maria moment made plural for our pleasure. The family tree has many branches: later I learn that she danced backup for Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson, and Beyoncé, that she was the dance captain for the Broadway revival of West Side Story. She played Consuela, an even smaller role than Anita — a backup dancer’s backup dancer. Now, the core of her career is teaching boutique classes: “Heels” at Alvin Ailey Extension and Millennium, “Vogue Femme.” Virtuosity is not what determines a dancer’s destiny in the studio as opposed to the spotlight, and I don’t find myself wishing Danielle Polanco were a star just because I could watch her dance all day. Genius has no proper place. Insisting on the absolute distinction between genius and mediocrity drags the party down; it disrupts the circulation of genius itself.

Maybe that’s why Rosie Perez felt weird when she went to the club with her friends from Soul Train and people pointed, stared: “Look, it’s the Soul Train girls!” Just a few years earlier Rosie herself had been the random amateur scouted from the crowd. What had changed, really? The club was still her home haunt, the uncanny valley between amateurism and stardom where her career played out. It’s not hard to imagine all the other Rosies on the dancefloor who’ve remained undiscovered, but still manage to steal the show when the beat drops. Then there’s the rest of us, shoulder to shoulder, an undulating wave of body heat that breaks, now and then, into open conflagration.

Genius has no proper place. Insisting on the absolute distinction between genius and mediocrity drags the party down; it disrupts the circulation of genius itself.

* * *

Three years ago in Brooklyn a new DJ night was born, spinning salsa and reggaetón and trap en español: “A Party Called Rosie Perez.” It’s organized by Christian Martír alongside DJ Suce and DJ Laylo, the same woman who bristled when the wrong people projected a resemblance. It’s gotten hot: when my friend Cassandra went, she spotted Residente from Calle 13. The first time I go, Bobbito Garcia, the legendary hip hop DJ, is at the turntables and I’m dancing with my friend Yohanna while a video projection of Rosie on Soul Train plays on the club wall. Now and then someone bumps the shaky projector and Rosie’s head gets cut off, so she looks like a doomed chicken flapping through her final bravura performance. I can see the bright shadow of her younger body pass over Yohanna’s, Rosie’s rapid pumping playing a polyrhythm over Yohanna’s more relaxed step and slide. Since we’re the party, are we Rosie Perez? Alive and moving inside the space her body’s made? The visual effect allows me to imagine that it’s possible to dance in someone’s footsteps without replacing her. To channel someone’s spirit without making her a ghost.

My reverie is interrupted when a young white boy dancing next to me taps on my shoulder and points to the screen, shouting who is that? In America, I remember, you can immerse yourself in Puerto Rican culture without knowing it. Without ever naming a name. Months later, I think of this moment while reading La raza cómica by the scholar Rubén Ríos Ávila, who offers some counter-questions: What is pleasure worth if it cannot be deciphered? What is the joy of dance good for if we can’t know its point of origin?

I understand the impulse behind the Party as my own: a form of feeling for history. In the absence of something so static or simple as a point of origin, a name is a portal — a way into the crowd as well as a way out of it.

When I leave the club my body’s still buzzing. For a moment I think I see Danielle Polanco, striking a pose on the subway platform. Up close, I see she’s just another cinnamon girl with a high bun and hoops whose skin is dewy from the sweat of a summer night. But I can’t help feeling we’re both backup dancers. Any sudden movement might start a number. We might already be in a number without knowing it, an elaborate social production we didn’t design, roles we didn’t choose, and for which we are probably not being properly compensated. But as backup dancers we’re always ready. Are you?

* * *

Carina de Valle Schorske is a writer and translator living between New York City and San Juan, Puerto Rico. She is currently at work on her first book, a psychogeography of Puerto Rican culture, forthcoming from Riverhead and tentatively titled NO ES NADA: Notes from the Other Island.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Fact checker: Ethan Chiel