Ortega Fires Up ‘Salsa’s’ Spicy Dancing

Kenny Ortega stops his rehearsal for a dance sequence in the movie “Salsa” and stomps to the middle of a crowded dance floor, grabbing a shirtless and muscled young man by his sweaty neck.

“You’ve got to chase that white boy out of you,” Ortega hollers, gently guiding the dancer’s face to his partner’s cleavage.

“Passion, man, I want passion,” he says. “People go to movies to see a way of being that they’re missing in their lives. So you got to create that magical place.

“Get this in your heads: Dancing is sexual. It’s a metaphor for transcendence, escape and change. You can begin a revolution by shaking your limbs in a way that’s both honest and sexy. But we’re not there yet.”


Ortega should know. As the choreographer of the hit movie “Dirty Dancing,” he used movement to show how a young Jewish girl overcame personal repression.

In his newest film, “Salsa,” he uses dancing as a way for Latino and Anglo teen-agers to overcome cultural prejudices and personal boundaries.

Ortega admits easily enough that his obsession to dance helped him flee his own childhood barrio and even helped him gain access to Hollywood corridors of power.

“I see a lot of myself in these kids,” says Ortega, 38, his shoulder-length black hair drenched with sweat. Half-Cuban and half-Spanish, he grew up in a poor neighborhood in Redwood City, Calif.

“Like me, these young men and women are using dancing to flee the things in their cultures they don’t like. But they also love their families and their culture, too. That great contradiction makes me want . . . fire from my dancers.

“My emphasis, man,” he whispers, “is on (creating) a passionate reality, not alignment and technique.”

Two months later, Ortega is exhausted from a grueling schedule of choreographing, editing and co-producing “Salsa,” but he says he is confident that his dancers finally “grew up” and arrived at “a raw, sensual and wild place as dancers and adults” in the film.

Sipping sparkling water at Hollywood’s Columbia Bar and Grill, he speaks about career ambitions that extend beyond choreography.

“People think of me as a choreographer, a hotshot dancer, an actor in ‘Hair,’ ” he says, “but the truth is I’m a rock ‘n’ roller. I worked with the punk band the Tubes for 10 years, which was more performance arty than anything else.”

In the early ‘80s, Ortega occupied mainstream and alternative art circles, working with Ethel Merman and Kiss, with Gene Kelly and the Tubes, with Cher and Oingo Boingo. But he always relied on the term choreographer to define himself.

“I always felt closest to making dances,” he says, “even though that wasn’t all I could do. You see, when I was a kid I was the gang’s mascot; I arranged the parties, invited the girls--they came to our parties because I could dirty dance.

“Dancing saved me from getting beat up and from being paralyzed at home. I was known as a lover, not a fighter.”

He jokes that the frame around his license plate reads “I’d Rather Be Directing,” and says he became associate producer of “Salsa” to ensure that he had greater creative control over this movie than he had over “Dirty Dancing.” He is also executive producer of the “Salsa” sound track.

“Being involved on the sound track was totally a gas,” he says. “Having an album that has the great Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria, Michael Sembello and Miami Sound Machine, Celia Cruz and Charlie Palmieri--merging the old and the new.”

In June, Ortega will receive an award from the Nosotros organization for creating positive images about Latinos.

“It makes me smile to know that I may be advancing the consciousness about the way people look at Latinos,” he says. “But I’m just a poor kid from the streets and I don’t think in those terms when I’m working.”

Ortega is quick to admit that “the writing in ‘Salsa’ is not its greatest strength,” but he argues that it is a “music and movement docudrama.”

“Dancing has always been a creative catalyst for me,” he says. “So I responded to the kids in ‘Salsa’ as dancers and I think that this movie has something powerful to say about who they are as people.

“I sat down with them and instead of asking them to read lines, heard their life stories. Horrible stuff: killings, loneliness.

“But then I danced with them, and in their bodies I saw the characters in the movie come alive.”