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Respect & The Workplace:
-by Manny Siverio

Jimmy Anton, Freddie Rios, Carlos Konig (courtesy of Justsalsa.com)

R-e-s-p-e-c-t! It’s a seven letter word that should apply to all performers weather they be from New York, California, Egypt, Japan, South America, Europe or Africa. Its what a performing artist earns as result of years of dedication and practice. To many it means experience, to others it separates the amateur from the professional performer. We commonly call it "paying your dues," when learning a trade. It is also something that I feel every professional salsa/mambo performer is entitled too, though rarely receives.

When it comes to this mambo dancing business, I still consider myself fairly new at the game and in the process of "paying my dues". I don’t claim to have the experience of an season professional like Eddie Torres, but I have had a small measure of success performing on stage and traveling to several different countries with my wife Addie Diaz-Siverio. Yet most of my workplace experience comes from my background as a member of several established performing guilds (SAG-Screen Actors Guild, DGA-Directors Guild of America, AFTRA-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, WGA-Writers Guild of America). What I see when working under the jurisdiction of one of these guilds is not what I usually experience when doing a mambo gig. The main difference lies within the basic working conditions that dancers endure when performing their craft on stage.

Lets face it, dancers, like any other craftsman require BASIC WORKING CONDITIONS in order to produce quality work. What are basic working conditions?? These are the minimum required elements that dancers feel they need in order to produce an optimal performance. For a mechanic it may be the use of his toolbox, for a bartender it may be glasses, ice and drinks. For a dancer its usually a changing room, bathroom, water and dance floor. In my opinion providing a decent workplace, a.k.a. working conditions (along with payment), is the greatest sign of respect that a promoter can give to a dancer. Its really a common sense/no brainer thing evolving around the Comfort and Safety. The purpose is not to point the finger at people but to educate those who never really thought of what it takes for a dancer to go out on stage to perform.

Addie-tude Dancers by their changing room

The first and one of the most important basic working conditions... a changing space. As a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) performer, I’ve come to expect certain things that I think all performers should be entitled too (this includes salsa/mambo dancers). Preparing to go in front of camera is very similar to performing on stage for a mambo gig. The difference usually is in what space you are allowed to prepare in. For example, whenever I work on a SAG gig, I’m either given my own room (if I’m stunt coordinating) or given a room that I share with other stunt performers of the same sex (if I’m working as a stuntman). This is basically no different than a dancer who needs to get into costume for a performance. Easy right! Wrong. Most promoters (not all mind you) seem to forget that dancers need to change into costume before going on stage. That we need a place to prepare. Especially the women who have the added responsibility of touching up hair, make-up, jewelry, etc. What do these promoters think?? That dancers walk off the street ready to go. How about a nice comfortable room to change in. Nothing fancy, four walls with a place to hang up clothes and some chairs will do. Preferably one room for men, the other for women. Not too much to ask for don’t you think?? Unfortunately this is not the case in the mambo world. This may sound like a prima-dona mentality to you, but think about this; I’ve been asked to change in public bathrooms, that’s right pubic,,,, I mean public bathrooms.....ahhhhhhh!!! Now why would anyone in their right minds want to take their shoes off in a smelly, sticking disgusting floor with who knows what growing on it. Yea, that’s the glamour of show business alright, sharing your space with total strangers who walk in to urinate next to you as you change. Disgusting right! Yuckkkkkk!!!

How about having to change in a room so cold that you can see the fog from your breath every time you exhale. Its bad enough that your in an icebox where your nipples are frozen so hard that you could cut glass with them, get the chills, see steam vapors evaporating off your skin after a performance, run the chance of catching a cold, pulling even tearing a muscle from the sudden temperature change after coming back in from a performance. Then there is the opposite, a room so hot with no ventilation where make-up runs, sweat drips down your face and you look like you’ve walked out of a pool. By the time you get out on stage, you end up looking more like an unmade bed. I guess you could forget about looking fresh, clean & ready to perform.

But I guess these two temperature extremes are better than having no changing room at all. This may sound like a slight oversight from the promoter but its not impossible. I know because its happened to me. There was one time that we were asked to change in a exposed open tent at a public festival. Bad enough that the tent was exposed, but we where less than 10 feet from the viewing public. If we weren’t careful, the dancers would give two types of shows for the price of one that day, and here I was without a G-string. Golly, how inconsiderate of me. So we approached the person in charge and informed him that at least the women needed a better enclosed place to change in, the man couldn’t understand the point behind our complaint. If memory serves correctly, he only got offended when I asked him if he would allow his wife, daughter or sister to change in such a barren environment. Hey, no offense was meant by that comment. If it was going to be good enough for the girls on our team, then it should have been good enough for the women in his family. The only choice for us that day were some porta-potties (portable bathrooms). Those of you who have ever walked into one already know it was not an option. Therefore that day we ended up creating a make-shift wall made out of plastic, that was held up by the men from the team as we stood with our backs to the ladies. What kills me most is that securing a room (or rooms), shouldn’t be a major expense for a promoter. As a matter of fact, with a little planning & pre-scouting the promoter can almost find a suitable location for free.

Then there are other horror stories of having a changing room, but being kicked out of it when the main talent of the day arrives on the scene. The star wants a space of their own space (and understandably so), but it’s the dancer that pays the price. I know of a group of dancers that were kicked out of a changing room before they were fully ready to go on stage. Then to add insult on top of injury, security wouldn’t allow these same performers to view the show from the changing room and even worse; allow them to get their personal items (clothes, bags, etc), until the star left the changing room at the end of the show. Talk about feeling like a second class citizen!!!!!

Like I said before, a changing room should be a workplace no brainer. It provides a dancer with a space to change into costume and some much needed privacy. And privacy to a performer equals time to collect themselves both mentally and physically for stage work. For example, performers go through a series of rituals that can include stretching, clearing their minds, controlling last minute nervousness (a.k.a. butterflies in the stomach), quick mini- rehearsals, and/or group prayers. The end result is a better on-stage show that satisfies the paying audience, which spreads positive word of mouth, that will generate more business future events. For example, those of you who have attended an Albert Torres event in LA know that his name on an event signifies an excellence in standard. I’d put an Albert Torres event against the best, and his is better pound for pound. E-nuff said

Addie-Tude Dance Company (courtesy of Justsalsa.com)

The last time I looked, dancers are not camels. Bottom line: We get thirsty. I’ve been to events where promoters hadn’t thought of supplying water to dancers. People don’t realize how much water you can lose on the day of a show. A dancer could be a little nervous, gone to the bathroom a more times than usual, maybe not drink as much liquids as they should have. No was asking for anything fancy. No Avian was needed. A little portable water cooler with some dixie cups would have been fine. Most of the time there is no water fountain in sight; just dehydration, the dancer and a floor to collapse on. I can personally remember one show, on a hot afternoon, where everyone was waiting to go on stage. We had all been around for a while, gotten changed, warmed up and were ready to go. In all the time we were there, no one thought of giving us water. We weren’t asking for the house’s best wine, or even soda, just a simple glass of water. The guys got sick of waiting. We took some cash, quickly left the room, headed straight to the closest bar and bought several bottles of water for everyone on the dance team. No one realized how thirsty they were until we broke open the water bottles. It was like we had found an oasis in the middle of a dessert. What kills me is that with a little planning, water shouldn’t be a major expense for a promoter. Again, I think this is more due to lack of planning than anything else.

Dancers, like everyone else have certain biological functions that need to be taken care of. Access to a bathroom is one of the most fundamental requirement in every workplace. E-nuff said on this topic.

If the kitchen is considered the main workplace for a Chef, then the stage is the main workplace for a dancer. Incredibly many people overlook this major-little detail. Many career ending injuries occur from dancing on poorly designed dance floors. The severity of these injuries can range from simple sprained ankles and pulled muscles to serious broken bones, torn ligaments (i.e knee joints) and dislocated joints. I’ve seen many salsa/mambo dancers perform on uneven floors, floors with slight gaps between floor panels, floors covered in grooves, floors with sticky surfaces or with unmoved electrical/sound equipment cables laying over it. Sometimes they are asked to work on stages to small for the number of dancers expected to perform on it. Yet what amazes me most is that mambo dancers usually manage to overcome many of these problems. I said usually, but not always. For example, famed mambo dancer, performer & choreographer Eddie Torres once told me a story where he and his wife Maria were dancing on a floor so bad that it literally tore up their shoes and their feet. The couple continued dancing only because of their fierce dedication, professionalism and showmanship to their art and living up to the concept of the "show must go on". On another occasion I witness a well known DJ assist a choreographer sprinkle talcum powder on the floor so lessen the stage surface’s stickiness and lower the chances of dancer sprained ankles/knee injuries that could result from dancing on it. The kicker to this second story was that it occurred during one of those dancer showcase type world conventions.

Jimmy Anton Dancers
(courtesy of Justsalsa.com)

I don’t think that anyone in their right mind would abject to any of the four basic work conditions listed above. For the most part these are all items that will cost little if nothing for promoter. On the other hand, this is not meant as an attack on promoters, but as a tool of enlightenment for those organizing events entailing the use of mambo dancers. I personally don’t think promoters maliciously forget these things to dancers out of disrespect, but out of ignorance. Most of the time its simply because they don’t know any better. It could be because promoters usually don’t think of everything or we as dancers are too scared to ask for things. Unless we as a collective group of individuals ask, how can we ever expect them to know.

No matter how you look at it, salsa/mambo dancing is still a business, an art and a profession. A lot of money, time & hard work goes behind putting together these performances in order to make them sharp and entertaining. Its an art form that has been going through a growing process over the last few years. Mambo is breaking new ground, becoming more popular, better known and widely excepted. Its going through the same metamorphosis that Jazz did decades ago when it was considered a street art. Now look at Jazz, we see it showcased in such entertainment forums like Broadway or at Lincoln center. If Jazz could do it, then so can mambo. The best way to tackle this problem is to think big, but start out small. Its important to know where we’re at, but never lose sight of where we would like to be. I guess what I’m saying that until we think of ourselves as professionals, then no one will treat us like one. And it all starts in the workplace and having a little respect.

See you on the dance floor - Manny Siverio


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