Carina del 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.
In this essay, Carina del Valle Schorske uses a lineage of Puerto Rican female “stars”, four case studies of former backup dancers in the US, to examine how the cultural industries sell aspects of Puerto Rican expression (for instance, the “sabor”, sensuality and urban poise of Boricua dancers) but for the most part, are not willing to give full artistic platforms to Puerto Ricans. She reads this long practice of cultural erasure and backup service as a symptom of the U.S. colonial oppression against Puerto Rico.
An analysis of the backup dancer (colonial subjects)
“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.”
“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… 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… 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.”
One Sentence Individual Discussion
Thinking of Omarion’s video as an analogy of Boricua women in the US, discuss in the chat the irony of Danielle Polanco as an object of desire and attention but only in the service of the singer’s interests.
“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.”
“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… She’s on her heels, grabbing hold wherever her body touches the 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”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”