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Jon Alpert & Matt O'Neil Interviewby Pattye Grippo    

This is an interview with filmmakers Jon Alpert & Matt O'Neil about the documentary Espiritu De La Salsa . Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Jon Alpert, Francisco Bello, Matthew O'Neill and Tim Sternberg follow ten amateur dancers who prepare for their first salsa performance with just six weeks of rehearsal under the tutelage of celebrated salsa dance instructor Tomas Guerrero of the Santo Rico Dance Company. Ranging from the Hudson River's revitalized waterfront to the streets of Spanish Harlem to the glamour of Times Square, the documentary spotlights people from all over New York City - including an E.R. doctor from Battery Park, a heartbroken Wall Street trader, a Midtown Manhattan policeman and a macho Queens construction contractor - who have just one thing in common: a desire to invigorate their lives through the magic of dance.

Question:
How did you find out about Santo Rico and Tomas?

Matt O'Neil:
We found Tomas and the Santo Rico dancers as a producing team. Tim Sternberg and Francisco Belo, the other producers on this film, had scoured the city visiting every salsa studio, every salsa dance recital, and every salsa club looking for the right maestro to bring back to Sheila Nevins at HBO to focus on this salsa documentary. When they came in with Tomas and Santo Rico, that was it; [he] was the one. And then we went and spent a couple of weeks at the school, meeting all the students that were coming through. Because they have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of students that come through all the time, Tomas selected this special class of students to work with this six-week series.

Question:
You answered my next question. How did you choose the characters for the film?

Matt O'Neil:
We picked the characters all together - the producers and Tomas - trying to get the right mix of our friends and neighbors. We are all New Yorkers and what you see are the people we grew up with, the people we see walking down the street and the people who you would never necessarily know spend their nights, weekends, many sleepless hours living their salsa lifestyle.

Question:
I recently picked up the New York Times and they had just run an article on the emergence of salsa dancing as a way to get out and meet people. Are you surprised that this is becoming so widely known as a way for singles to meet other singles, or is it just something that comes in waves as far as popularity goes?

Jon Alpert:
It's a surprise to me because I haven't danced at social dancing since the fifth grade. So it's not the type of thing that I would think about in terms of socializing, but it obviously was a motivation for many of the people who were in the class, whether they were in our movie or not. It puts you not only in touch with other people, but it also puts you in touch with part of the soul of New York City. And that's a lot better than sitting at home at night, waiting for the takeout delivery to come.

Question:
Do you think that that's why it attracts singles?

Jon Alpert:
I'm sure that's part of it. There were people there that were couples [who] were looking to get out, but there are lots of things that New Yorkers do. I go to karate class and I play hockey, and my microscopic social life is built around that. It's really interesting that there are so many New Yorkers [and] that in all these different areas and places that you would think, "Gosh, there's nobody doing this here," there's hundreds of thousands of people doing it - whether it's salsa dancing or checkers or any of the other past times that we New Yorkers like to do.

Question:
Do you think it's because we live in such small spaces that we need to get out and we find things that we connect ourselves to?

Matt O'Neil:
I think that in New York, lots of people treat their apartments like high school students treat their lockers. They're out all the time, meeting new people, experiencing life in the city and salsa is a great way to do it. Just making this film, we've met so many characters and so many unexpected characters. In part, salsa is about Latino culture in New York and Latino culture in the country, but salsa is attracting people of all walks of life, of all shapes and sizes. The crowds that we see at these different salsa events and [the crowds we expect to see] when they turn up to screen the film are a testament to that.

Question:
Do you think that this could happen anywhere outside of New York City?

Jon Alpert:
Sure, they could do it, but they would be stepping on each other's toes and they would be off-beat in any other city. New York is the place that has the real salsa soul.

Matt O'Neil:
This is a very different type of film than the films that John and I usually are working on for HBO. In April when we were working on Baghdad ER, there was, in fact, a big sign advertising salsa lessons on the biggest military instillation in Baghdad. So there is salsa dancing all over.

Question:
You sound like you had a lot of fun filming the movie. What do you think was your favorite moment during the shooting?

Matt O'Neil:
Hands down, my favorite moment came at a screening of Salsa in the filming process. There's one character in the show, who, when he started this process, didn't think he was going to be able to salsa dance. Nobody on the team thought he was going to be able to salsa dance, Tomas didn't think he was going to be able to salsa dance and really we were nervous that he was going to be in there as sort of a joke. When we had a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival when the film premiered, he was there and after the screening, he was surrounded by a gaggle of groupies who were eager to introduce themselves to him and talk about how he inspired them to reach out and learn how to salsa dance because if he could do it, anybody could do it.

Question:
Is this the gentleman with the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

Matt O'Neil:
You got it.

Jon Alpert:
He's a rock star. The other night there was a screening in Saint Nicholas Park in the heart of Harlem. It was a very nice setting for the movie: outdoors and a natural amphitheater, as the park sloped up the hill and maybe 300 people were there. And afterwards, just like at the Tribeca screening, there was a big crowd of fans around Larry. They like him not only because of the New Yorker "We can do it" courage, but because he is a really good dancer and they want to go dancing with him.

Question:
They aren't turned off by the fact that he has no furniture in his house?

Jon Alpert:
More room to dance.

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