How did you start dancing?
I was in marching band in high school. They had social parties, so we went to these parties and fooled around with dancing. But I didn’t really have a good idea of what I was doing. It was mostly moving and bouncing around to hip-hop music of the 90’s. I think it was in the era where N’SYNC was big. I imitated whatever they did because I was tired of all the girls saying that they were the cutest things in the world, and I was like, “I could do that.” And then I just stopped. I went to college for something else.
In college, it was just social dancing again. I really liked music and expressing myself to music. At this point, I was learning from observation and application from TV and people freestyling. So then I took one dance class in college and found some dance scenes in New York and felt the love of hip-hop and house. It was fun to play, but once again, I stopped dancing. I went backpacking in Europe for like three months after I graduated college. When I returned home, I wanted to make some money, so I started to teach what I knew of dance to kids.
Finally I went to this thing called Carnival: Choreographer’s Ball in New York City. I was really inspired by one of the performances, and I wanted to be involved in that. So I found out that a hip-hop company called The Movement was having auditions. At the time I had a job offer with Ameriprise Financial, but I went to this audition for the dance company, and it was an unpaid commitment. So I knew that I wouldn’t make any money, but I joined the hip-hop company just to be a part of it. I started training with them underground and learning how to dance through observing things like the House Dance Conference and watching iconic dancers from the underground world. I would observe, apply and take class with my group of people. Sometimes I’d take classes at BDC. I’d just stick to what worked at the time. A lot of training was self-training in New Jersey where I am from. Since then, I started working and pushing myself. I’d also book a job, and learn on that job. It snowballed from there. That’s how I started. There wasn’t a moment, besides shortly after college graduation, where I chose to focus my time and effort towards dance. It was always some sort of a hobby. I didn’t really even know what a dance studio was.
So you didn’t really know that you were going to be a professional dancer until you auditioned for the hip hop company.
Yeah, but even then, what was that going to bring? I just knew that I was going to be involved with the company. I was scared. I was going to an audition and didn’t know if I was going to get it. I was going against all these people who knew what they were doing. But I just trusted my heart. At that time, I was teaching dance in NJ and knew that I was limited in my facility. It was good to teach people who have no idea what they’re doing because I have some sort of idea of my own rhythm. But I didn’t know what it took to be a professional dancer. I couldn’t call myself a professional dancer until I got a job. Even then, I felt weird about it. But I suppose it was during that era that I decided that I was going to be a professional dancer.
How did you make that decision?
It was a really big choice actually. Like I said, I had a job lined up, and I had been afraid of not being successful for a very long time. My parents immigrated from Colombia, and I was the first one to graduate with a college degree--from Rutgers’ University in Communication & Public Relations. A part of me just thought that I could pursue art as a career, but there was an insecurity—if I didn’t get work as an artist, I was screwed.
How did your parents react to your decision?
They were always supportive. They always believed in my decisions as long as I could take care of myself. When they first came here, they always managed to pay the bills, and I had always managed to do the same. I guess I always had a pretty stern way of approaching things, so when I set my sights on something, I was going to go out there and do it.
Maybe it wasn’t scary for us because I got my college degree in something else and I could’ve always done that something else. But at the time, I was young and wanted to try it, so I jumped off the cliff and just kept going on from one thing to another until I got to the next cliff. As long as I could pay my bills and was having a decent time, it was okay. Time wasn’t ticking quite yet. I had room for error. But I guess at the back of my mind I was afraid to disappoint my parents with what I could achieve with the platform that they gave me. They sacrificed many, many of their wants for us to do what we got to do. So I made the choice, and I went for it hard. They never said, “Don’t do that.” Not that I saw. Maybe behind the doors they were worried. But they never said that to me.
What are you up to now?
I am in a musical on Broadway called Hamilton. I am in the ensemble, and I have a featured part for Charles Lee. I’ve been a part of that project for a while. I’ve been working with this creative team since I’ve been 23. When the creative team of Hamilton expressed their interest to continue to work with me, I said yes knowing that my vocal and physical influence was going to help shape the show from the ground up. My choreographic abilities were certainly a useful tool for the physical life of the show. The show is doing very well. It’s a beautiful show. Lin is a genius and wrote a very engaging show.
I am also in auditions often for TV and film work. Some of them have gone really well. I’ve made some really great connections. That’s where I am putting a lot of my energy as well. I have a deep passion to continue to work and explore as an actor. TV and film are probably what inspired me growing up. Dance was my passion at first because I could access it and expressed myself through music. But acting was the emotional trigger that really developed my interest in the performing arts.
I have an agent and a manager who believe in me and send me out often, and things are going well there. I am also choreographing at conventions nationally. I just came back from one in Arizona. I am looking at some other conventions as well. I’ve also choreographed and creative-directed for recording artists. Acting-wise, outside of Hamilton, until opportunities present themselves soon enough, I’ve decided to start writing my own stuff.
I am writing my own film that actually involves dance and acting. I’d like to refer to that film as The Good Will Hunting of dancing and acting. I want to tell a story, and dance will be an element and a vehicle but not in the likes that’s been used in films like we’ve seen thus far. It’s a work in progress. I’ve been sending it to a few actor friends and Doug Wright, who’s a wonderful human being and a writer, to proofread it and check it out. It’s nice to have some really smart eyes look at it. I’d like to get a grasp of how engaged people are to the aspects that I am applying. It’s going to take money and time. So we’ll see how that goes. It’s been a love and labor project, and I enjoy doing that in the midst of everything else.
How did your relationship with Lin-Manuel, Andy, and Thomas Kail begin?
Before I had an agent, I auditioned for the Off-Broadway In the Heights. I went in for RENT, no cigar, but then Telsey, who cast RENT, called me in for In The Heights, and I eventually got in a room with Lin and Tommy and them. That’s when the relationship started. Andy liked my dancing on stage, and he asked me to join him in the studio to help him start brainstorming new movement ideas for other shows. I then joined them on Broadway. During the Broadway run—I started doing readings for them for other projects.
I auditioned for a musical called Bring It On, and got the part of Twig. I helped Andy shape the vocabulary for that show. When I did that in Atlanta, Lin was involved in it. I then booked a play at the Old Globe called Somewhere with Priscilla Lopez. I always wanted to dig deeper into the craft of acting, so I chose to do the play, which meant that I had to leave Bring It On. So our relationship sort of disbanded at that point. They went one way, and I went another.
That’s when I ended up doing Hands On A Hardbody, Kung Fu, a short film called Fall to Rise, and Law & Order, and other stuff. Things were happening. And then I got a call from Lin and them that they’re doing American Songbook over at Lincoln Center and wanted me to be involved with Hamilton. It was called Hamilton Mixtape at the time. It was pretty much all of Freestyle Love Supreme, which is Lin’s group, and me. It was cool. I got to do it, and then they did a reading of it later, and I got to play Aaron Burr at the time. And then they were progressing—I was doing Kung Fu at the time. They did a workshop, and I wasn’t involved with it. Finally, they were doing the lab, and they asked me to be involved in the ensemble and cover Hamilton and be Charles Lee. And I knew I was going to be shaping a part of the voice of the show. I did the lab, and then we went to the Public, and now we’re on Broadway.
So the relationship has been going on since I was 23—it’s been 9 years working with these cats. Seeing them evolve and seeing myself evolve, it’s pretty special. That’s the kind of relationship we have. They’ve been good people to me and are aware of my abilities and really wanted to celebrate what they could in the show. I am grateful for that. We’ve been associates for a while now. It’s just amazing to see how inadvertently I’ve been a part of something that I’ve been deliberately trying to do--revolutionize musical theatre and dance in the arts and storytelling in the arts. Kismet, really. I’ve added to things that they wanted to accomplish. That’s been the extent of the relationship thus far. Who knows where it’s going to go from here
How was your transition from being a hip-hop dancer to a musical theatre performer?
I was always sort of different. I trained with all the underground dancers, but I was compelled by something else. Whether it was for the purpose of storytelling or expressing a variety of emotions, I loved really different music. The first dance I really choreographed was to Linkin Park’s “Points of Authority.” I don’t think anyone in the underground world would’ve done that. I think from the start I was compelled to do something more expressive using the fundamentals of hip-hop. Don’t get me wrong--I love the funk aspects of hip-hop. It was just something else that I liked about it. I think those qualities translated well into musical theatre. I could adapt to different music right away, yet still authentically do what I do. When music from musicals would come on, I would just move the same way I did. I didn’t care what I was hearing. I saw no other way to move for me in musical theatre than how I moved as a dancer outside the realm of musical theatre.
I call what I do urban theatre because it’s very much fundamental hip-hop, but I add musical theatre storytelling elements. And I just add how I express myself and make that kind of a melting pot. I didn’t see any other way. You know, I see Gene Kelly and all of them, and I wish I could tap and do all those things. Maybe it was a combination of my lack of funds or timing, but I said to myself that I am going to do what I can do and express myself. I am not going to spend a lot of time to train in every style of dance just so that I can recreate what people have already done. The main question I always want to answer is: “how can I express myself?” That’s when I started using whatever I had and training in that. Inevitably, I had no choice but to alter how musical theatre would move.
And I think there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve created that a lot of people are catching onto that the world doesn’t know about. It’s on my YouTube channel, but there are things that I am creating with other dancers, and some of the dance community doesn’t know how to absorb it yet. I think it has to do with the fact that they think I am trying just to make something look cool, or deliberately be different, but I’m not. I am just expressing myself. I don’t follow the guidelines of classical trained dance. I do what I do, and I really try to evoke an action or an emotion or something that’s stimulating via my movement. It has been working, and I am excited to see where it can go.
With what’s now theatre jazz and tap, somebody had to go out there and create it. People combined different movements to create their own styles.
I guess you could attest to Fosse being the biggest one because Fosse literally went the other way. I am rooted in organic, raw movement and absorbing what I can from ballet, funk, and everything. I want to forge what I feel into some sort of physical vehicle by making it into movement. Whether my style is going to catch on or not, I just keep doing it and hope that I can thrive while I am doing it.
What has been your toughest time as a dancer?
I guess there are two ways to answer that. I think my toughest time as a dancer was recognizing what I am effective at and what I am not effective at. I had a tough time liking my freestyle. I had to train my body in order to get my body to freestyle how I wanted it to freestyle or at least open the doors up to more possibilities to what I could do. I can imagine all I want, but I need to build the tools in order for my imagination to really emulate what I am visualizing. It was tough because I was surrounded by the best hip-hop dancers in New York. It was tough to stay on their level and, at the same time, still be able to stray away from what they were doing. That’s probably why I am one of the few from that generation of dancers who ended up doing theatre and Broadway. My style emulated a different kind of energy because my other interests influenced it. I was training while I was dancing to pay my bills and pay the rent. There wasn’t a conservatory where I had some time to really find my voice and dance.
Second hard thing as a dancer was realizing that being a dancer isn’t being at the bottom of the totem pole, but it is being at the bottom of the totem pole in this industry and how to deal with that. You could be in the best position as a dancer and still not reap the rewards that you need in order to live a more than comfortable life--more than survive. It’s hard as a dancer to do that because you feel like you have to disassociate yourself from being a dancer in order to do that. So it’s tough because you have to stay level with what you’re doing and realize that you have to find other ways to make a living. I am an actor, but when I work as a dancer, I notice the differences compared to when you’re the choreographer, an actor, or a singer. That’s tough. I could say that, right now, I am at the top of my game as a dancer and that question has still not been answered. Hence me writing my own movie [laughs].
What were some of your favorite moments from your career?
I think my favorite moments were from being a choreographer. The only reason why I am dancing is because I wanted to choreograph. The reason I freestyle, besides pure enjoyment, is because if you are a real choreographer, you have to know your voice.
My proudest moment would be what I am doing now. Hamilton. My most fun moment would be when I choreographed for Phish at their Fall Tour / Halloween concert, and I was dancing with my friends on stage. It was so much fun. I also had some fun times dancing in In the Heights and doing jobs with the crew I came up with such as Nexx Level and The Movement. I think those moments were fun because I’ve always wanted to be a part of something. When I was dancing those jobs, it wasn’t even what I was dancing. It was who I was dancing with. It’s the moments I feel like we’re infecting the people around us. I know it sounds deep, but I’ve done so many great events, and I can’t say that it’s always fun. The most fun moments are when I forget about it and realize that I am just dancing with the people I am with and when the audience is sharing their love and light as well.
What’s your number one advice?
Believe in your voice and only your voice. Don’t be afraid to absorb other people’s voice, but believe in your voice. For me, I think it’s the only way I made it. I just said, “This is how I move.” And that probably was from starting dance as late as I did. I was going to do what I do, and if I didn’t make it, at least I put myself out there as opposed to try to be someone else. That’s all I could’ve done. Really hone in on your voice--and by voice I mean the way you move, the way you feel, the way you express.
And be kind to yourselves. That’s something I didn’t do. If you’re not kind to yourself, inevitably you will get in your own way. Remember that when we fall, we’re falling forward. Find your voice and be kind to yourself while you develop it.
Is there any last thing you want to share with the world?
I can only hope that this is the beginning of a longer story. I hope to inspire and have the platform and opportunities to continue to share my work. Thank you to all the people who are open to what I am saying and want to continue to follow what I do as a choreographer and as an actor. There’s still more of me you gotta see. A lot more.