The documentary shows how these "average Americans" are all performers in more ways than one.
"We're gonna take these little stories and turn them into success stories," announces Tomas Guerrero at the start of El Espiritu de la Salsa (The Spirit of Salsa). The camera follows his gaze around the room, his new students smiling or standing back, watching their teacher and each other. One or two look at the camera, intimating the connection between Tomas' exhortation and their imminent adventure: these "average Americans" are all performers in more ways than one.
To start, their very averageness makes them exactly Tomas' target audience and clientele: anyone can salsa, he insists. Thus he owns a studio in Spanish Harlem, the Santo Rico Dance School, where he instructs, pesters, and thrills his students. "I want to show the world," Tomas says, "'Wow, if he can do it, I can do it.'" In turn, they are enthusiastic and imperfect, hoping to leave their daily lives behind once a week in order to discover themselves anew. Equities trader LI Ouyang wants to get over a broken heart, Larry Spiegel is hoping to find energy to overcome his chronic fatigue (this is his identificatory title: "Chronic Fatigue Sufferer"). And Jessica Bennington, a caterer, happily reveals that she's signed up in search of shared passions: "Beside the fact that I love Latin men," she says, "The music got under my skin." Tomas turns to the wide angle lens to mug, "You heard that?!"
The documentary, which premieres on HBO on 9 August, tracks their preparations for a performance just six weeks from their first moments on screen. This too-neat story arc delivers the "success" Tomas promises, but little else. In the studio -- each class numbered and introduced by a moment of animated dance-steps -- the students swivel their hips and Tomas tells them they'll need to work harder. "Angel, what's up wit you?" he asks a Brooklyn police lieutenant, "You're looking a little slow. You need to stop eating those donuts."
The brief shot of big smiles all around the dance floor cuts to the precinct locker room, where Angel dressed and describes the items on his gunbelt ("This is my handcuff, this over here is my pepper spray, and this is my weapon"). He also explains that his job is stressful and he uses the dance class to clear his head, "So tomorrow I can start the day new." Her performs this admirable sentiment in a next scene, where he dances on a rooftop, his dress shirt bright white, his ribbons and badge glinting: he swivels his hips and grins, and you imagine his new day.
Then you hear thunder and the camera tips up to show grey storm clouds above. This provides an awkward transition to a sidewalk full of umbrellas. On her way home, Luz notes that LaGuardia housing is "pretty rough." But the film provides no context: Luz spends a few minutes arguing with her mother over her dancing: "I am afraid for you." Whether this means she's afraid that Luz is 49 and single, going to class, or just going outside, is unknown. "I'm 71," Luz's mother says. "I have more experience than you." No doubt. But the film offers not a glimpse of it: Mami's tense performance is pungent but in this incomplete form, seems a cliché.
The moment underscores the film's narrative pattern: a dance class followed by an at-home background-as-personality scene, followed by a dance class, etc. One performance is set alongside another, neither is explored or resolved. The pattern's liveliest instance involves Ricky, a construction worker who may or may not still live with his father, Richard, and his own son, Rick. "Growing up in this neighborhood," Ricky smiles, "A traditional guy background, with sports... Usually a regular knock-around guy like me doesn’t go for salsa." The spaces are small, the décor rudimentary: table and chairs, a couch in front of the TV.
Ricky asks for his dad's opinion: "I don’t want to go there," answers Richard, eyes averted and head shaking, and you're thinking, here it comes, the regular knock-around guy's father's surly disapproval. "I think it's a bad move for you,' Richard goes on. "My friends won't talk to me no more, my wife left me." Aha. Now you see how Ricky, all sly smiles, can ask his son to practice with him, how they take turns "being the girl." These regular guys are delightful.
It appears the Rickys were like this before salsa. That's not to say salsa can't be transformative or educational, only that the film doesn't show it. Instead, it offers fragments, some of which are intriguing (after he demonstrates a couple of steps in his apartment, Larry retreats to his bedroom to lie down, explaining over his shoulder, "I need to lie down because otherwise I can't figure out what I'm doing") while others appear contrived. None is revealing or consequential. That's not to say Espiritu de La Salsa doesn’t mean to be exactly that, a series of images of joy, connection, and accomplishment. These images are insular, not indicating how these students' lives are changed, as the closing epigraphs suggest they're still pursuing what they said they're pursing before -- boyfriends, girlfriends, other distractions.
While this climactic performance is heartening, it reinforces the film's by-the-numbers construction. Tomas states at documentary's start, "This is very Latin, by the way, this is very, very Latin." But Espiritu de La Salsa doesn't explore that Latinness, what makes the dance or the hard work, the joy in movement or the culture of salsa so magnificent and special, what makes it "very, very Latin." And that Latinness is important, as it describes a culture and history, here giving back to another culture, those "average Americans," in need of uplift and a change in perspective. As the film concludes, you might be fantasizing other performances, say, salsa inspiring Lindsey Graham or Jan Brewer to see outside their borders.