Rosie Perez Is An Afro-Nuyorican Dance Icon Whether You Like It Or Not, So Bow Down

Once upon a time, a music-dance program called Soul Train, first aired in the early seventies as a cultural response to the political, Black power-infused-1960s; Don Cornelius, the show’s first host and executive producer, prided himself on discovering some of the very best talent to grace the silver screen for the nation’s viewing pleasure. Little did Cornelius know that a 19-year old Nuyorican woman from Bushwick, Brooklyn hired in the early 1980s would not only revive the national syndicate with keen viewership, but altered the very essence of the show with her unapologetically raunchy east coast dance moves, setting a precedent for female dancers in the industry. Rosie Maria Perez, an untrained dancer who once majored in bio chemistry at Los Angeles City College, blossomed into a cultural icon.

Perez wasn’t interested in conveying demure femininity to the audience; her pelvic thrusts, pops of the arms, and magical swaying of her hips communicated the stylistic aggression of New York City. It was the manner in which she gritted her teeth at the camera as a determined lioness prepared to pounce at her prey that captivated us, and pounce she did. Perez’s dance aesthetics were profoundly Afro-Nuyorican in flavor; she wasn’t consumed with executing perfect dance steps. Instead, her moves expressed rough authenticity, a palpable sense of sensual liberation through movement. It was as if prior to Perez’s arrival on the show, other female dancers were stifled and confined by Don Cornelius’s expectation that women’s dancing remained traditional and conservative— an expectation that Perez intended to break.

“Don Cornelius did not want to see how I really danced. I was doing hip-hop,” the 5'1 dancer confessed. “It was foreign to people out in California. Don was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, you’re a girl. I was like, what?” Perez would later be fired for throwing a chicken wing at Cornelius’s head after he “yanked her inappropriately,” making it clear that she was determined to be respected as a Black woman in the entertainment industry. Despite Perez’s dismissal from Soul Train, her profound influence was noted in the style of her female successors in the 1990s, as women displayed a similar, autonomous sexual politic that the Brooklynite pioneered on the show.

Perez’s unmistakable Afro-Nuyorican feminist sensibilities piqued the interest of another up-and-coming director in the late 1980s which would change her life forever. A young Spike Lee was having a “booty contest” in a nightclub onstage to see which Black woman had the biggest ass; a furious Perez jumped on the speakers, challenging the director for his egregious chauvinism. Lee, taken aback by Perez’s direct confrontational style, and intrigued by her feistiness (although, this is attributed to the sexualizing of Afro-Latina women’s anger) asked her to audition for Do The Right Thing.

Here is Perez’s most famous moment in cinematic history: with a dark-red backdrop of New York City buildings and brownstones, she is contrasted against the staggering racial tension of the inner city. She sports boxing gloves in one scene, punching at the camera, as Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasts from the speakers. In this brilliant opening dance intro to Do The Right Thing, Perez is a paramount of feminine anger and power, her movements concerned solely with communicating the need for Black liberation amid police violence, poverty, and powerlessness. Here, she is in her element, personifying the politics of the times. Nothing about the way she moves is subtle. She lacks softness. She isn’t smooth. She isn’t concerned with technical skill or perfection. This was and will always be the crux of Perez’s power as a dancer — her ability to convey the graphic textures of those living and surviving in the hood through feeling.

Perhaps what was so liberating for Black women like myself who aspired to dance was Rosie’s avid disinterest in the male gaze; in her dancing, Perez continually centers her own pleasure. Her bold moves are not for the delight of men, but for herself, as woman aware of her own sexual agency, assertiveness, and power. It’s clear Perez gives no fucks if you can think she can dance or not. A bad bitch is never concerned with the opinions of others — it’s just this kind of ghetto-bred philosophy that makes Perez an unstoppable legend and la Nuyorican del baile.