By Aleta George
In Singin’ in the Rain, an energetic, bespectacled young man hits the streets of New York, proclaiming, “Gotta dance!”
Every dancer recalls their first “Gotta dance!” moment. Rita Moreno’s came at the tender age of 6 after her first time on stage in a Greenwich Village nightclub. In Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, she tells the audience that in that moment she thought, “Forget school, I want to do this for the rest of my life!”
For Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, the talented dancers who have Moreno’s back in Life Without Makeup, their moments came as teenagers.
Garcia grew up in Bay City, Texas, a small town of 13,000 people that had no theatre and no performing arts classes at the high school. Garcia fell in love with the piano (his neighbor had one), worked hard, and nabbed a music scholarship for college. That was before the Young Americans came to town in his senior year. “Oh my God, I want to do that!” he said after seeing them perform. He auditioned that day and nailed it.
He went home and told his parents, “Gotta dance!” They didn’t have the money for his tuition, but raised it with the help of the community. When Garcia flew to Los Angeles, it was his first time away from home and his first time on an airplane.
“America” was among the first songs that Garcia learned with the Young Americans, and West Side Story became his favorite musical of all time. “It’s so crazy that I’m dancing it with Rita Moreno now,” he says. “I have to pinch myself every time.”
Salvatore Vassallo’s moment hit when he was a young teen. Like Moreno, Vassallo came to America as a child immigrant, but his family came from Italy. For many years, culture shock and an unfamiliar language silenced Vassallo until he discovered he could communicate through dance. His “Gotta Dance!” moment came after watching the captain of the dance team perform at Dana Junior High School in San Pedro, CA. “She looked like she was in her element and having such a great time,” he says. “From the moment I auditioned for the dance department at 14, I have never stopped moving.”
By the time Vassallo and Garcia launched their careers, they didn’t have to lighten their skin or hide their ethnicity like Moreno did in her early career. “She paved the way for Latinos in show business,” says Garcia. “I’m very grateful for that.” Garcia is passing the torch, too. He frequently returns to his old high school in Bay City to talk to the kids. “It’s hard to get out of a small town like that, and even harder to believe you can go somewhere and pursue your dreams.”
The three American success stories now onstage of the Roda Theatre have proven that it’s not only possible to pursue you dreams but to attain them.
Aleta George, house manager at Berkeley Rep and a journalist, had her “Gotta dance” moment in high school. In her 20s she was a DAW (dancer, actress, waitress) in Los Angeles and played Rosalia in West Side Story at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera. She applied pancake makeup to darken her skin.
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