When people think about the music of New York, opera, symphony or Broadway come to mind.
All are glorious and true examples, but the music of the city, especially in summer, is salsa.
Salsa is the music of the streets. It's the beat that moves through the city as easily as subway trains. Open a window on a hot night in many neighborhoods throughout the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, and what drifts in is a steady drumbeat and a swingy brass. It's the sort of beat that makes you swivel your hips and dance in a sultry way.
"El Espiritu de la Salsa" ("The Spirit of Salsa"), airing Monday, Aug. 9, on HBO, follows a group of New Yorkers who learn to dance salsa. The music and dance can't be beat, and the teacher, Tomas Guerrero, is a true New Yorker who taught himself to dance and swears he can teach anyone.
"There is no question the method of teaching we use caters to everyone," Guerrero says of his studio, Santo Rico. "The overall goal is for everyone to have fun, and within the fun, you respect the dance. And everyone gets hungrier as they start to learn. The steps are not hard, and the music is not hard to follow. It is very universal."
The documentary itself, however, should be far better. It's not just the repeated shots of pigeons but the persistent feeling that this is a failed reality show. Yes, we all know anything is fodder for reality shows, and adults learning to dance could be a show just as easily as people losing weight or looking for love.
But this is supposed to be a documentary and cries out for more of the background of salsa. Instead this tries to tug at viewers' emotions by getting inside the dancers' lives, the way reality shows do.
In the first class, Guerrero asks the novice dancers why they are there, and that gives viewers enough information for them to relate to them.
Li Ouyang, a commodities trader, explains that she's getting over a broken heart, and dancing makes her feel better. Rick Callahan, a building contractor, takes teasing about dancing from his dad and his son.
Larry Spiegel, who has chronic fatigue syndrome, says dancing salsa makes him feel better. Do we need to see Spiegel at a doctor's visit? Or in his Spartan apartment poking through his laundry?
"The people profiled in the movie, the main criticism was there is not more of them dancing," Guerrero says. "And we took a lot of dancing footage. A lot was cut off. Only the editors ... and directors know why. The thing with me that was unexpected was when I was approached about this, I was given a totally different thing about the end product. I was told it would be a history of salsa. We shot a lot of footage about the history. I spoke a lot about how it came to be -- the movements and development of it."
Still, as misguided as the attempts at focusing on the dance students' lives are, luckily it's impossible to kill the spirit of salsa.
When the camera stays inside the East Harlem dance studio, and we hear Tito Puente and Hector Lavoe, the film comes alive. It's terrific to see Dr. Michelle Quash, an emergency room physician, find her way in the dance. All the students improve tremendously after two months.At the end, they perform. The women all wear purple dresses with full skirts, which twirl as they spin with confidence and style.
"Salsa is a dance that is very versatile," Guerrero says. "It is a street dance, not a dance you have to train for 20 years to learn. The level of dancing and creativity and versatility has changed over the years. It is a street dance anyone can do by taking a few classes. The most important thing is understanding the music and what the music has to offer. It has to offer a lot of tradition. Salsa is the condiment you put your chips into. It has a lot of different spice."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times