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Vika Teicher. c/o Vika Teicher.

Dance Cast S02 E15: West Side Story

Sima Belmar

Listen to the episode here and check out our latest episode below👇

Sima Belmar:

At some level, who cares that they remade West Side Story. And yet I care. I care.

Welcome to Dance Cast. I’m your host, Sima Belmar. Today, I’m talking with Vika Teicher. Vika and I went to the University of Wisconsin together in the late ’80s into the early ’90s, so we’ve known each other a very long time. We’ve talked about lots of things, including in the case of this episode, West Side Story, 1961 version, 2021 version. Both of those are the film versions. She even talks about a Broadway version from 1981, I believe. Ooh, if it’s 81, then we’re all on the ones. That’s cool.

Vika is a native New Yorker living in Berkeley with her two boys, her spouse, and a labradoodle named Lupa. Lupa is massive and massively cute. She is currently working as a certified nutrition consultant and educator. Vika is also a dancer. She spends many nights and weekends in Afro-Brazilian dance classes. Before she became a mom, she was a Thai yoga therapist–the best, very upset when she gave that up–a workshop facilitator, and a co-producer and performer in Herstories, a multicultural women’s oral history and theater project.

Vika is a first generation American and the only child of Luz and Israel Teicher, a couple who’s unlikely love story brings her on Dance Cast today. I mean, that’s why we’re talking. Luz and Israel both died of COVID at the end of 2020, and Vika would love to dedicate this episode to them. Okay. I didn’t read that before I recorded it and now I’m getting very emotional. You will hear Vika’s story and how West Side Story intersects with it. Spoiler alert, basically, she is the child of Tony and Maria. Okay, here we go.

I have a few things I want to say out of the gate. I’m going to complain first. Okay. I have complaints about the 1961 version. I have complaints about the 2021 version. Maria is boring in both versions. That’s the first thing I want to say. Tony is boring in both versions. I find that interesting and maybe we’ll talk about it–why are the most important people in the film the least interesting people in the film, both times? Was it like Spielberg and friends were like, “Well, we are trying to be respectful to the original, so we’ll also make them boring.” Do you feel like they’re boring characters?

Vika Teicher:

I do. I actually had to fast forward through a couple of Maria’s songs.

Sima Belmar:

Okay, great. We’re in agreement there. Yes, we know that the original and this one are both based loosely-ish on Romeo and Juliet. I don’t recall, granted, when was the last time I read Romeo and Juliet? High school? I saw Lucia, my now 16-year-old, in a version of Romeo and Juliet. I don’t remember if Romeo and Juliet are also the most boring characters in Romeo and Juliet. Maybe they are. Maybe it’s all about Mercutio and the nurse. I don’t know.

Vika Teicher:

I can’t comment. It’s been a very long time.

Sima Belmar:

Right. We will not be talking about Shakespeare here. Anita is everything in both films.

Vika Teicher:

Yeah.

Sima Belmar:

I’m excited for us to get to your family and the connections you have, the ways you think about the film as someone who identifies, at least in part, as Puerto Rican, and comes from a big Puerto Rican family. I think that’s what I want to get to, but to get there, I want to just keep complaining.

This is a dance podcast. West Side Story is an important dance movie, ’61 and ’21. Some of the dancing is amazing. Some of it’s better in the first one. Some of it’s better in the second one. Choreography–I won’t say the dancing’s better in either one. They’re both amazing dance things. I mean, people are tweeting. They were tweeting like crazy. Guillermo del Toro, that director, he’s done a lot of films. Didn’t he do the one with the woman who falls in love with a weird sea creature who’s in like a tube?

Vika Teicher:

I have no idea.

Sima Belmar:

What’s that one? He’s like a trapped creature and they fall in love. What is it called? The shape of things. I don’t even know. Doesn’t matter. I’ll look it up and then I’ll link it, but he did this huge tweet about the cinematography and how much he loved it in the 2021 West Side Story. He just went on and on. I don’t notice cinematography. If I’m watching a dance movie, I’m just waiting for the dance sequences. It’s all I care about.

I’m not concerned about Hollywood films being authentic representations of anything because that’s not the point, especially a musical–fantasy land. I don’t like it when it’s offensive, like when the original had a bunch of brownface and fake accents and stuff, but otherwise, when people are like, what kind of gang member would like chassé, it’s stupid, right?

Vika Teicher:

Yeah.

Sima Belmar:

Agree? As soon as you disagree, you’ll tell me. I don’t have a problem with remakes. I mean, A Star is Born, I think has five remakes or four remakes. That’s fine. But my big issue and it’s just, I just need to say it and then I don’t think there’s more to say about unless you want to say more about it, is that in this effort to, be more historically accurate, to have representation that matters, to have all the Sharks actually be Latinx actors and stuff, after all of that ostensible labor, it’s still a bunch of white Jewish men making the same movie. And I can’t, I kind of…

Vika Teicher:

Yeah.

Sima Belmar:

… can’t get past it. The producer, the director, the choreographer, the screenwriter, Tony Kushner.

Vika Teicher:

Yeah, behind the scenes, not the people we see, but yeah.

Sima Belmar:

Yeah.

Vika Teicher:

The money and the power.

Sima Belmar:

The money.

Vika Teicher:

To me, you could ask the question, why is the money in power still with them?

Sima Belmar:

Right. Why didn’t Spielberg say, “You know what? I think there needs to be, what anniversary, 60th? I can’t do math. Yeah, 60th anniversary West Side Story. Let’s get Guillermo del Toro and let’s find a choreographer who’s also, and a screenwriter. And the movie might have been worse. It might have completely sucked. That’s not to say that only certain people can make certain movies good or bad, but if you’re really trying to intervene in historical injustices around money and power, then how do you just repeat the exact same structure at the top? Weird.

Vika Teicher:

But it’s still Spielberg even if he engages these people. It’s still Spielberg who gets to make the decision. Oh, it’d be interesting to have these people, it’s still someone at the top.

Sima Belmar:

You’re right.

Vika Teicher:

So there’s a bigger question there.

Sima Belmar:

Maybe that shows that maybe there is not a Latinx person in sight who is interested in remaking West Side Story.

Vika Teicher:

Well, that’s a good question. I mean, I think, it’s always going to go back to my mom.

Sima Belmar:

Good. Let’s talk about your mom.

Vika Teicher:

B she would be like, ah, that happened in the past. She would just, no looking back. So maybe there’s something about that, a community that wants to be more forward focused.

Sima Belmar:

That’s really interesting.

Vika Teicher:

I mean, if I were looking at the Puerto Rican community through the lens of my mom, that would be the answer. Obviously, she’s not representative. But if I look beyond my mom and just her sisters and brothers, my cousins, everybody’s forward thinking. The stories of reference of past are always funny stories about the family. It’s rarely a nostalgia for the culture, the Puerto Rican culture, or for the moment that they landed in New York City or anything like that.

Sima Belmar:

You mean when your family gathers, you don’t get together and half the room is like, “I want to be in America,” the other half is like, “I want to go back to Puerto Rico!”

Vika Teicher:

That would be so cool. If every time we got together, it was just a musical…

Sima Belmar:

Yes.

Vika Teicher:

… and the choreography was fresh. It was musical.

Sima Belmar:

It kind of was a musical, I was just going to say.

Vika Teicher:

That’s true. But it was the old songs from San Juan and there was dancing. So in a way, yeah, the gatherings were musical-like. I think they’re mostly just excited to have any positive-ish attention, that there’s a celebration of Puerto Rican culture and that they’re not like the criminals in the movie, but they’re also–

Sima Belmar:

They’re equally criminal.

Vika Teicher:

Yes. And also, celebrated and beautiful. I asked my uncle, Uncle Sammy, who you know, “What did you think by the way?” He was like, “I loved it. It was fun. It was fun. And it was well made.” Probably a sense of pride that Spielberg was behind. Probably, you know, they’re assimilationist. They want to align with the dominant culture. So there’s a dominant culture, someone with money and power, a white man wants to celebrate. They’re not asking that extra layer that you’re asking.

Sima Belmar:

And maybe I’m asking it just because I’m yet again, another annoying, white cultural critic.

Vika Teicher:

Or maybe they’re more in a survival still mode of just trying to not be hated here.

Sima Belmar:

I’m sharing a screen because this gets us to the main event of this conversation. This amazing article, it’s 22 years old already, this article, it’s called “Feeling Pretty: West Side Story and Puerto Rican Identity Discourses.” It’s by Frances Negron-Muntaner. It was published originally in Social Text in 2000. And I just want to read this opening. Bear with me, it’s a little bit of a long quote.

“There is no single American cultural product that haunts Puerto Rican identity discourses in the United States more intensely than the 1961 film, West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Although neither the first nor the last American movie to portray Puerto Ricans as gang members (men) or as sassy and virginal (women), hardly any Puerto Rican cultural critic or screen actor can refrain from stating their very special relationship to West Side Story. Jennifer López, the highest paid Latina actress in Hollywood today,” 22 years ago, maybe that’s changed, “recalls that her favorite movie was West Side Story. ‘I saw it over and over. I never noticed that Natalie Wood wasn’t really a Puerto Rican girl. I grew up always wanting to play Anita [Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning role], but as I got older, I wanted to be Maria. I went to dance classes every week.’”

I’m pausing to say, I don’t believe you. I think you always wanted to be Anita. Who wants to be Maria? I don’t get it. Okay. Moving on.

“Journalist Blanca Vázquez, whose editorial work in the publication Centro was crucial in creating a space for critical discourse on Latinos and media, comments: ‘And what did the “real” Puerto Rican, Anita, do in the film? She not only was another Latina “spitfire,” she also sang a song denigrating Puerto Rico and by implication being Puerto Rican…I remember seeing it and being ashamed.’”

Then, finally she [Negron-Muntaner] writes, “For Island-born cultural critic Alberto Sandoval, the film became pivotal in his own identity formation: ‘“Alberto, I’ve just met a guy named Alberto,” that’s Alberto singing about himself. Anyway, okay. “’And how can I forget those who upon my arrival would start tapping flamenco steps and squealing, “I like to be in America?” As the years passed by I grew accustomed to their actions and reactions to my presence. I would smile and ignore the stereotype of Puerto Ricans that Hollywood promotes.’”

So we’ve got Jennifer López loving West Side Story and totally identifying with it and not worrying about any of the problematic aspects, at least when she was a girl. We have Blanca Vázquez being ashamed of the representation. And then we have Alberto Sandoval suffering. Sandoval is remembering people, after the movie came out, coming up and singing to him in his name and joking around and pretending to be the faux Puerto Ricans and how he just didn’t worry about it. He was like, whatever. That’s a stereotype who cares.

Negron-Muntaner in the next paragraph says, “One of the ironies of the film’s centrality in Puerto Rican identity discourses, however, is the universal consensus by both critics and creators of West Side Story that the film is not, in any way, ‘about’ Puerto Rican culture, migration, or community life.” Then she just goes on to basically say it was made by a bunch of Jews. They were going to make it about Jews and Catholics. They changed their mind. Someone, Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein, I don’t know, read an article about Puerto Rican gangs. They went to one Puerto Rican dance or something and they were like, “We got it.” They made the movie as they are.

Then, her whole article just tries to parse where the identifications happen, how West Side Story fits in Puerto Rican identity discourses, conversations around what it means to be Puerto Rican at the time and up to the moment. Sixty years later, we have an article by Dr. Frances Negron-Muntaner. It’s called West Side Story: 60 Years Later-The Time For Us is Now.” It is published on the website Women’s Media Center and the first thing you see is Steven Spielberg’s smiling face.

Vika Teicher:

The time for us is now.

Sima Belmar:

And he’s like, “Hey, now. Here I am.” I’m not going to read a lot of this, but I love her opening line, which is, “Like a zombie that repeatedly eludes death, West Side Story is coming back to a theater near you, this time as a new film.” So she talks about the fact that there would be no brownface and that Spielberg “hired ‘real’ Latino actors and voice coaches to ensure accurate accents, even from Puerto Ricans, who in Spielberg’s words, “have lived in New York too long to remember where they came from.”

Vika Teicher:

Even to say “lived in New York for too long to remember where they came from,” they were probably born in New York. It’s just assuming that all Puerto Ricans have to have been born in Puerto Rico. I don’t know, how old is Ariana DeBose?

Sima Belmar:

This is the woman who plays…

Vika Teicher:

Anita.

Sima Belmar:

… Anita in the remake. She was born in 1991. So she’s 10 years old. She was born in Wilmington, North Carolina. She’s 31.

Vika Teicher:

I bet you, if you looked at, a huge percentage of the cast is not from Puerto Rico to remember where they came from. They’re from North Carolina. They’re assimilated. They’re here. What does that mean to remember where they came from?

Sima Belmar:

What can we expect from, how old is Spielberg? Is he in his 70s? It’s like my 70s Jewish uncles would not really have anything great to say here. Granted Spielberg’s a little more educated I’m sure. Negron-Muntaner is talking about how Spielberg thinks the movie can help with anti-immigration sentiment, but she’s got a big yet, “the critical issue for Puerto Ricans may no longer be about the movie as a text but what its resurrection tells us about power,” which is what we were just talking about.

She’s coming around to say that there are all these perspectives on West Side Story coming from Latinx artists, but that these perspectives “remain largely absent from the public sphere. In this conversation, there is still no place for us.” And she’s quoting “Somewhere,” the song from the movie. That’s so funny. The “America” musical parody. Okay. Anyway, folks, I’ll link it in the show notes that there is a YouTube video called “America: A Musical Parody” that is funny.

So Vika, talk a little bit about your family. Talk a little bit about your upbringing and the reactions that you had to this film, thinking about it in relation to your family’s history.

Vika Teicher:

I imagine my father’s family. They were Jewish immigrants, Holocaust survivors, five kids and my grandparents living in New York. Got there first, I believe. I imagine them as like The Jets. They’re white and they learned English and they were educated already and they figured it out.

Sima Belmar:

I’m obsessed with that. I’m obsessed with thinking about your father’s family as The Jets.

Vika Teicher:

I know. It’s like, what can I say, they’re The Jets! They took the bait of whiteness, like so many white immigrants. Then what came with that, and maybe this was an expression of the trauma of the Holocaust, was to find the brown people and jump on the board of like, not them. Those are the bad guys, the black, the brown, the Puerto Rican, not them.

So as 1961 and Rita Moreno’s rocking it as her Anita, my father’s getting kicked out of the house because he’s supposed to be going to rabbinical school, but he’s sneaking a secular education at night and going dancing. He meets my mom who just came over from Puerto Rico, and I imagine my mom and the Colóns as the sharks. They meet in a speech and debate class at City College and then they go out dancing.

Sima Belmar:

Your dad is Tony and your mom’s Maria? I’m like, what? I mean, it is eerily West Side Story-ish when you put it this way.

Vika Teicher:

Anyway, to make a long story short, he gets kicked out. He gets busted. He gets kicked out of the house for not being a good Orthodox Jew. They find out that he’s dating my mother and not only is she not Jewish, but she’s a Puerto Rican. They adopted the racism or maybe that was a trauma response from the Holocaust. I don’t know.

The Teichers were from Galicia. They were like Poland and what’s now Ukraine. They just more easily assimilated into white culture and figured out how to make a living for themselves faster. There was an absolute threat that my father fell in love with a Puerto Rican. It was beyond just the religious, losing their religious, although they were fanatical about their orthodoxy and that was the main thing. They were so serious about it, they cut my dad off. After surviving the whole Holocaust, they cut my dad off. They sat Shiva for him. It was as bad as death after all that survival, which was miraculous that they came out of Berlin, Germany. My dad was born in Berlin in 1935 and three years later, they left and they were hiding in Belgium, in France. They escaped a concentration camp in France and he grew up in foster care in Switzerland. And they all came out in one piece alive. To keep these five kids and two adults alive, and then to cut them off.

Sima Belmar:

Like you said, more than cut them off, to literally perform a ritual of mourning.

Vika Teicher:

That was the death that happened to my dad. That was the tragic romantic death, the consequence. So he ended up with his Maria, but he lost his family. There’s a little bit of a difference, but that’s where the knife went.

Sima Belmar:

Then, the Colón family was incredibly embracing…

Vika Teicher:

Yes.

Sima Belmar:

… of your dad.

Vika Teicher:

There’s a major difference that they welcomed him with wide open arms. They honored the Jews. There was never talk of trying to convert him. They accepted that my mother converted to marry him. It was just never a problem. And he was white and he was lighter skinned than anyone in the Colón… Let’s not forget that. I can’t say that any of my aunts who brought home darker skin like Afro-Latino men, got the same kind of open arms. Let’s be honest.

But you know, they’re The Sharks. They’re living in the South Bronx. They came over to escape poverty. My mom is the oldest of 12 kids. They were living in a dirt poor street in Puerto Rico, five of them. I may get the count wrong. Six of them born in Puerto Rico and then the rest, the new generation, the segunda tanda born in New York.

Sima Belmar:

What year did your mom come? Do you remember?

Vika Teicher:

Mid-’50s. She had dreams. She came to the US because she wanted to go to medical school. She wanted to be a doctor. She had her eye on the education prize. She was an assimilationist in the sense that she didn’t have the space, the time, the energy to hold onto her culture, to have a lot of nostalgia. I mean, she loved the gatherings. We would get together and have these big feasts and lots of music and dancing. She loved all that part of it, but there was very little talk about Puerto Rican culture outside of family gatherings. There was very little effort to instill some kind of cultural pride, to make sure I understood where I came from. She didn’t have a space for the consciousness of I’m Puerto Rican. I think for her, it got in her way. Her accent got in her way. Her gender got in her way. She was trying to be a scientist. I think she just had lots of negative experiences that she didn’t want to look back on.

My dad and family came over in 1950 and then meanwhile, my mom came over around 1952, ’53. Nobody spoke English when they landed.

Sima Belmar:

She could have been the accent coach.

Vika Teicher:

I thought a lot about the “America” song. We could almost have the whole talk about the “America” song, the Anitas and the “America” song.

Sima Belmar:

It’s the best scene in both movies from my point of view. It’s the most extraordinary, fun choreography, even when it’s weird faux flamenco that has nothing to do with Puerto Rican bomba or salsa or anything. It’s still fantastic. Then the street scene is so exuberant and bright. I mean, you can’t not get swept up in it. Then everything else just pales.

Vika Teicher:

I saw the movie, the 1961 at some point, I can’t remember when, but I went to the Broadway adaptation of 1981. So my first real exposure was a field trip in fourth or fifth grade from New Rochelle. From Westchester County, we got on a school bus and we all went to Broadway and we saw West Side Story. I saw Debbie Allen playing Anita.

By the way, I’ll just say one thing about it. Rita Moreno changed the line, the most controversial line is like, “the island of diseases” and tropical diseases. She, I believe, did not say that line. That was supposed to be in the line and she didn’t. She felt like that was too harsh and didn’t ring true, but Debbie Allen, who was from Texas or something, not at all Puerto Rican, as far as I know, said that line proudly. Proudly, maybe that’s not the word, had no problems with the line, but because of that, because there was no need to protect culture or anything like that, her choreography and when she said that, she really expressed it, she really articulated that disgust in a way that was different from either of the Puerto Rican actresses. I thought that was interesting.

Sima Belmar:

Moreno’s negativity just feels coded in a love too.

Vika Teicher:

If my mom were playing it, she would’ve added the tropical diseases.

Sima Belmar:

Of course, because she was like…

Vika Teicher:

Authentically saying it. I moved to New Rochelle from Upstate New York where I was the only Puerto Rican and the only Jewish girl for hundreds of miles. Then, we moved to New Rochelle and suddenly it was like such an incredible mix of kids. It was the first time I was going to school with Black kids.

When we came home, back on that bus, I remember, kids said to me, “How was that for you? You’re Puerto Rican. How was that for you?” And I remember it was the first time I felt almost like a kinship. Like I got included somehow. Like I was part of the people of color for the first time. There was a connection made from seeing the Broadway play as a class that connected me to the kids of color that was interesting. When I think about what I remember from West Side Story, I remember that comment.

Sima Belmar:

Like Negron-Muntaner could have interviewed you for her articles because of that. The way a cultural artifact that was absolutely not grounded in any kind of real Puerto Rican-ness, although she does talk about, there are some historical references in the original, in 1961 film. There are some reality moments, but that’s something like that just by dint of the fact that it is being a representation, no matter how flawed, can lead to this kind of connection. I love that.

Vika Teicher:

Right. You also had, I mean, they were watching Debbie Allen play it. They were figuring out what Puerto Rican was at the same time I was. I was like, “I don’t know.” I should have known. I should have had more of a response to seeing that show on Broadway. My parents were just like, Let’s just be white people. It was the assimilationist way of survival.

I saw the new one. What I remember, now were like months later is the yellow dress, Ariana DeBose rocking the dress. I have to say the cinematography also lands. I see the whole thing the way she used the space. It was so sunny and colorful and integrating with the people. She was fantastic in it. I could watch it over and over again. Then I went back to see the 1961 and I thought she’s also fantastic in it. It’s just at nighttime and she’s in a purple dress and it’s more subdued and it’s a different mood.

I have to say one more thing about Debbie Allen, Broadway rendition is that they didn’t have the men and the women. “America” was just the women. Some of them hated America and some of them hated Puerto Rico. There was like, they were rougher on each other in a sense. It didn’t have the gender piece. But Debbie Allen, when she did the chicken, she had these articulations that I was really struck by. She’s making fun of the chickens on the bus or whatever and she embodies a chicken for a moment. She had to make it much more dynamic. Can’t have this cinematography. She just has the stage.

Sima Belmar:

I’ve never seen West Side Story live. When I was watching the footage of Debbie Allen, my reaction was just like, Oh my gosh, it’s so hammy.

Vika Teicher:

Yeah. It’s hammy and it’s entertaining and in many ways it’s almost more realistic.

Sima Belmar:

Huh.

Vika Teicher:

That it was all women. That’s where that kind of conversation would’ve happened.

Sima Belmar:

So if we think about the physicality in the films, when I was re-watching the dance sequences of the ’61 version, and then I was watching the ’21 version, The Jets in the ’61 version, the choreography is just fantastic. The metaphors are very clear about scanning territory. To me, like a chassé and a jazz leg makes perfect sense in the street because it’s like, this is our area in the way that they moved through spaces with each other. And the reason why it is powerful as a representation, not of Puerto Rican-ness, per se, but of power, let’s put it that way, to me, the Anita character in both roles, particularly when dancing is an expression of power…

Vika Teicher:

Yes.

Sima Belmar:

… in every way, both in the context of the scene and in the effect on the viewer. If the actor is actually Latinx or even coded as Latinx, then that power gets transferred there. It gets connected. There is power. I feel one can’t underestimate that and that because of the embodiment of it.

Vika Teicher:

Right.

Sima Belmar:

It’s embodied power. It is scene stealing. It is movie stealing. So no matter who actually has the power, whoever the puppeteers are and their money, what remains in the cultural consciousness, is those two powerful Latinx women.

Vika Teicher:

Yes. I remember some similarities with the use of the skirts in Saturday Night Fever and in Grease, even though it wasn’t a Latina, but it seemed like it. It was like an Italian in Grease, but the Latino couple in Saturday Night Fever, it was just this use of the skirt, of the frilly skirt. I thought I saw some connection there.

Sima Belmar:

Yes. It’s what Negron-Muntaner calls the spitfire representation. In Saturday Night Fever, which comes first in this lineage, there’s the Puerto Rican, they are actually Puerto Rican. They’re called the Puerto Ricans over and over again and the DJ is Puerto Rican in real life and speaks in Spanish and does little stuff. It’s my favorite movie. I can go down the rabbit hole. But right, the woman is wearing red and she’s arching. It’s always about like these big back arches.

Vika Teicher:

Right.

Sima Belmar:

Ooh, which we could be really like throwing the head back and whipping the skirt around. We’re in an audio medium, but I’m moving my ribs around and the pelvis and all that stuff. Then, in Grease, Cha-Cha DiGregorio, who is the absolute spitfire, is supposed to be Italian-American, but she is fully coded as Puerto Rican or as Latina.

Vika Teicher:

Absolutely.

Sima Belmar:

Absolutely.

Vika Teicher:

Absolutely. Right.

Sima Belmar:

Same skirt thing.

Vika Teicher:

She’s the bad guy, the bad girl, whatever.

Sima Belmar:

She’s the bad girl. And man does she thrust that chest out. And she’s also the one when they’re going to drag race and she holds up her scarf and throws it back. Oh my God, I love her.

Vika Teicher:

Yeah. The tough as nails, yes.

Sima Belmar:

You see this through line in the dancing itself from the couple in Saturday Night Fever to Cha-Cha, which of course is Latino dance. Wait, I’m going the wrong way, from Anita in West Side Story, Saturday Night Fever to Grease back to West Side Story.

Vika Teicher:

Right. Right.

Sima Belmar:

There’s probably stuff in between we’re not thinking of.

Vika Teicher:

Yeah. And I was like, what is this with the skirt? I was thinking, well, like bomba, that’s one of the many Puerto Rican folk dances that have African roots and traditions with the skirt that go back to slavery times. But it seemed like in these movies it’s portrayed as the Other. This shows you the Other and that this is what they do. This is the person to beat in the context. I mean, in the contest.

Sima Belmar:

Yes.

Vika Teicher:

It’s very dramatic and it’s very emotional and it’s passionate and strong, but it’s still made to be like the Other, the thing, the challenge to beat.

Sima Belmar:

Yes, but what you just said, yes. Oh my gosh, this totally freaks me out right now because in the Saturday Night Fever and well, in Saturday Night Fever, it’s explicitly a contest and they are the clear winners, the Puerto Ricans, but they give the prize to Tony and Stephanie because Tony and Stephanie are from the neighborhood. Then Tony’s like off pissed, F that stuff. They deserve to win. He gives them the trophy and the money.

Of course, in Saturday Night Fever, they also show a Black couple dance and they’re getting booed and horrible terms, and they don’t place at all, like some random white Italian couple that never dances at all wins third place. It’s so weird. But then in the Cha-Cha Grease scene, it is also, it’s not a competition, well, actually it is a dance competition.

Vika Teicher:

It is. Yeah.

Sima Belmar:

That’s right. They get moved off this Rizzo who is Italian-American is also wearing red and a kind of flamenco-y looking dress but they get too sexualized. They get thrown off the dance floor early because she’s dancing with Cha-Cha’s boyfriend, anyway. It’s very complicated. But what you just said about the Latina spitfire dancer is the one to beat because that’s true. That’s a trope.

Vika Teicher:

I mean, I don’t know why it’s set up that way, but it feels like a love-hate thing. It appeals to the fact that even if they are, well, in the case of Saturday Night Fever, even if they’re as qualified, if not more so, their otherness, their brown skin, their accent, they will not place. They will win second place instead or whatever. Maybe, they’re just playing that reality.

Sima Belmar:

Or they’re playing the anxiety around miscegenation. They’re like, and once again, you have to hate the character or they have to be somehow offensive or they can’t be the lead like Anita. Somehow they have to be demoted because if they’re not, then white audiences panic that we’re going to procreate and screw up white blood. I know it’s crazy, but I think that that’s probably really underneath it.

Vika Teicher:

The other thing about the sort of trope, the spitfire, and again, I’m personalizing this, but vulnerability and weakness and damsel in distress, that archetype of woman, didn’t fly in my family. You had to be strong. You had to stand up to men. Strength was everything and emotions were not valued or dangerous. They did anger and they did laughter, but there wasn’t like, it could only go so far. There had to be this tough, there was a toughness, I would say. Maybe that’s part of the appeal of Anita.

I think it’s a toughness against, what’s the alternative for a Latina woman at that time would be to be sexualized, to be demeaned and weakened and made small because she’s only valuable for her sexuality. This was a way, I don’t know if it’s a bomba skirt, but the frilly skirt is like you’re celebrating a type of femininity in a way that keeps you intact. Although that didn’t quite work in the last scene for Anita. She let her guard down.

So I was thinking, what is this? I was thinking about bomba, but then I was thinking, well, you brought it up that it’s actually Flamenco pounding down and the tapping down is Flamenco. It’s like, I think this whole hodgepodge of choreography that people didn’t even know was a hodgepodge. I didn’t even know that they were blending. I mean, I assumed it was an older, either Puerto Rican folk or some older thing they were doing in the ‘60s.

Sima Belmar:

Jerome Robbins, as a ballet and Broadway choreographer, is coming, as a white ballet and Broadway choreographer, is coming from a lineage of fake “exotic” ethnic dances. From the ballet where Don Quixote, she’s wearing red and she has a fan and she does certain things that look Spanish or sometimes it as exotic as Scottish. There’s some early ballet where it’s like, Scottish is like, whoa.

Vika Teicher:

Right.

Sima Belmar:

Those crazy Scots. Phil Chan again was talking about the way the Chinese dances would show up in Nutcracker or the Arabian dances. He’s just coming from that settler colonialist, taking from whatever an imagined culture and saying, This must be the time signature and this would be what one would do with one’s feet. Only vaguely attached to any kind of reality, but it gets consumed as that thing. It gets coded as Spanish. Flamenco would be the only thing he had access to that had anything to do with Hispanic-ness. So he throws it in there and suddenly that looks somehow like the thing.

Vika Teicher:

It looks like the thing.

Sima Belmar:

Right.

Vika Teicher:

The funny thing about it is that we ended up walking away connecting that with Puerto Rican culture. Then, when I think about it, it isn’t actually that far from Puerto Rican culture period because the whole culture’s about blending.

Sima Belmar:

Yes.

Vika Teicher:

It’s about, there was, that did come over from Spain and then it blended with the Tainos and West African, that was the mix. Then, a lot of these dances are about mixing and clashing and throwing together. So in some ways it is perfectly Puerto Rican to kind of put it together. Then we go back to the musical of, yeah, maybe gangs aren’t chasséing. Maybe Puerto Ricans aren’t doing Flamenco steps in that period of time, but it’s a musical. That’s all to say, I had no problem with that part. I thought it totally worked. I loved it. I don’t care that it wasn’t perfectly authentic.

Sima Belmar:

Well, you don’t want to watch people actually just salsa dancing in it.

Vika Teicher:

Right.

Sima Belmar:

Justin Peck, the choreographer in ’21, is also from the ballet world. So of course it’s still going to be like balletic and Broadway-ish with flavors, but of course in the original and in the remake, only the Latino side gets to be flavor, whereas like the Polish folks, we don’t get to see any Polish flavor. Nobody’s doing a polka.

Vika Teicher:

Not at all. No. Not at all. That’s so interesting.

Sima Belmar:

You can’t even find a marking of the white ethnicity because this is what Saturday Night Fever, why Saturday Night Fever is brilliant. I mean, there’s so many reasons, but Italian-Americans come off as an ethnic group in Saturday Night Fever. They’re not just white people.

Vika Teicher:

Right.

Sima Belmar:

That changes over time. By the time you get to every single hiphop meets ballet movie, like Save the Let’s Dance and Step Up, white people are just white people. They’re like total vanilla.

Vika Teicher:

Yes.

Sima Belmar:

With no, we don’t know if Channing Tatum is Irish or Scottish or whatever.

Vika Teicher:

Yes. Yes.

Sima Belmar:

And nobody seems to care.

Vika Teicher:

We don’t know with The Jets. I mean, it’s not clear what they are really.

Sima Belmar:

Right. They’re supposed to be Polish in the original.

Vika Teicher:

But they never, yeah. They’re just like, they’re poor.

Sima Belmar:

They’re poor. Exactly.

Vika Teicher:

That’s like their ethnicity.

Sima Belmar:

That’s right. You know what’s funny? They did the brownface on the guy who plays Bernardo in the original and some other folks, they did, well, it’s not face, they did blondeface hair on some of The Jets and they overblonded and overredheaded, which I think is really hilarious.

Vika Teicher:

Yeah. We got it. We get the distinction. You don’t have to.

Sima Belmar:

Exactly. So funny. Like had Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Tony Kushner, not Tony Kushner, the other guy [Stephen Sondheim], what is wrong with me, anyway, had they gone and just talked to your parents, they would’ve gotten a clearer picture.

Vika Teicher:

Let me just leave you with this one seed.

Sima Belmar:

Yes.

Vika Teicher:

How awesome would that be if we did the Teicher-Colón, could you imagine all the Orthodox, with the hats and the choreography that we could do with that?

Sima Belmar:

Fiddler on the Roof meets…

Vika Teicher:

Totally.

Sima Belmar:

West Side Story.

Vika Teicher:

Totally.

Sima Belmar:

Is Fiddler Jerome Robbins too? I think Fiddler is Jerome Robbins too. Folks have written about Fiddler on the Roof in the same way that folks have written about West Side Story, which is that, there’s some quotes somebody said about it’s like the nostalgia for the shtetl that never was or something like that. I completely identified with Fiddler on the Roof.

And there’s all kinds of fake nonsense going on in there about what shtetl life was like, but it didn’t matter because like you said, when there’s such limited amounts of representation, you cling toward it, or you jump toward it, even though again, some people feel shame and some people feel angry, but-

Vika Teicher:

Oh we didn’t. That movie was so celebrated for me growing up.

Sima Belmar:

Fiddler?

Vika Teicher:

Oh yeah. My dad he loved it, the songs. We all, I mean, that’s just celebrated.

Sima Belmar:

Bottle dance? The greatest thing about that dance, I don’t know why now I’m talking about this, but whatever, is, they put the bottles on their heads. It’s during the wedding scene before the Cossacks come and ruin everything, and then they lower down and then that music goes in this slow groove, like dun, dun, dun, darara.

Vika Teicher:

It’s so good.

Sima Belmar:

Stick out a leg and they drag the leg and they stick out the, and the dust is going up.

Vika Teicher:

Yes.

Sima Belmar:

This is the thing about dance in movies, despite the fact that you’re not live, and you’re not in person, and you can’t actually smell any of it or whatever, or see the dust get in your nostrils, it is so visceral. It is so like, I feel like I could chew it. The textures of dancing in movies like that, that’s where all, for me, all the power lies, all the meaning seems to exist in that. It’s not narrative or intellectual meaning. It’s just aliveness.

Vika Teicher:

Your whole body gets to, it’s like a language. Your whole body is, you’re seeing another body in full movement and expression. The rest of your body gets to kind of connect to that.

Sima Belmar:

Yes.

Vika Teicher:

I’m just like, shout out if anyone wants to make a musical about my family and you could, I’ll give you my parents’ story, true story. There’s tragedy and death.

Sima Belmar:

Big time.

Vika Teicher:

That tragedy and death came from the mixing of two cultures that were not supposed to. In that sense, it is the West Side Story.

Sima Belmar:

Dance Cast as an ODC Theater Production, curated, written, and edited by Sima Belmar, that’s me. With creative consulting from Chloë Zimberg and Sophie Leininger and additional support from Matt Shrimplin and Garth Grimball. Please subscribe and rate our podcast wherever you get your podcasts and tell your friends. You can find a transcript of this episode in all Dance Cast episodes, replete with hyperlinks to related content at odc.dance/stories. Until next time, dance on.

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Dance dispatches from the most active center for contemporary dance on the West Coast.