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& The Workplace:
R-e-s-p-e-c-t! Its 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 dont 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.
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 youve 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 werent 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 couldnt 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), shouldnt 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 its 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 wouldnt 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. Id put an Albert Torres event against the best, and his is better pound for pound. E-nuff said
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 were at, but never lose sight of where we would like to be. I guess what Im 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