May 31, 2021
Rise up and rise above with Maria Torres from New York City
Maria Torres has an extensive professional career that spans the theatrical and commercial markets as a choreographer, director, performer, and beyond. Her Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban heritage has always inspired and informed her artistry, leading to the cultivation of “Latin Jazz” as a dance technique. Co-founder and Artistic Director of her non-profit organization MTEAF (Maria Torres Emerging Artists Foundation) continues to train, mentor, supervise, and develop performing artists worldwide. Maria is a two-time Clio Award winner for her choreography and has worked with producers and directors at MTV, NBC, HBO, BBC, and Walt Disney. Choreographer for the contemporary reworking of Man of La Mancha (5th Avenue Theatre), Choreographer for Luis Valdes’ critically acclaimed revival of Zoot Suit for the 50th Anniversary of Center Theatre Group, Associate Choreographer for the Tony-Nominated Musical On Your Feet; and Associate Choreographer of the Off-broadway for Tony award-winning musical, In The Heights. Choreographer of The Donkey Show.Celia Cruz The Musical.Best Of Both Worlds. Dance Consultant on Becoming Nancy and Donna Summer The Musical. Lortel Nomination for best choreography of Four Guys Named Jose Executive Board Member of the Society of Directors & Choreographers. League of Professional Theater Women. Artistic Associate at Amas Musical Theater Board member of Engarde Arts. Artistic Director & Founder of Creative Workshop. Guest choreographer of US National Fox’s show So You Think You Can Dance and two seasons on Canada’s So You Think You Can Dance. Working with music icons Don Omar and Enrique Iglesias. Creative direction and choreographer for programs Latin Billboard Awards, NBC’s Radio City’s reopening gala NBC’s America’s Got Talent, Amazon’s The Tick, co-conceiving, choreographer and director of the musical Magic Of Salsa Kingdom and the Off-Broadway hit Latin Heat.
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Maria Torres is a dancer, working choreographer, actor and instructor and more. Maria Torres has starred as the “girl in red” in the Tony nominated Broadway musical Swing. She also performed at the Radio City Spring Extravaganza, in Public Theatre in The Skin of Our Teeth, and featured in the film Dance with Me. As a choreographer, her work can be seen in the Off-Broadway hit The Donkey Show, in Enrigue Iglesias Ballamos video, in John Leguiszamo’s international Budweiser Commercial, in Segram’s Latin Rock Show, and in Four Guys Named Jose at The Blue Angel Theater in New York City. Maria has been nominated for the Off-Broadway Lucille Lortel Award for Best Choreographer for Four Guys Named Jose. Maria has been featured and interviewed by New Yorker Magazine, The NY Times, Newsday, and People En Espanol. Her life-story will be chronicled in Current Biography which will be available in all NY Public Libraries. She is the winner of numerous awards; with the most current being the Latin Achievement Award by Bacardi. Maria is the Co-Chairperson of Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing (a summer program of dance music, performances and instruction) and Producer and President of Hustle USA Dance Championships (an organization dedicated to the art of the dance Hustle, as well as a yearly dance competition).
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WHAT’S NOT OK: No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Sonia Kyriacou’s name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Sonia Kyriacou from her Media Kit page. Episode Attribution Sonia Kyriacou. (Host). (2021, May 31). Rise up and rise above with Maria Torres from New York City [Audio podcast episode]. In Choreograph Your Life with Sonia Kyriacou. Parcast. https://soniakyriacou.com/rise-up-and-rise-above-with-maria-torres-from-new-york-city/ TRANSCRIPT Voiceover 0:05 Welcome to the Choreograph Your life Podcast, where we dig deep into the journey of people’s pursuit of their passion for dance. Join us as our host and guests discuss their dance journeys, the business of dance obstacles they face, and even lessons learned along the way. Now, here’s your host, Sonia Kyriacou. Sonia Kyriacou 0:30 Alright guys, welcome back to my podcast. My guest today is a very special person. She’s a performer, a director and a choreographer for really, really big gigs example, she’s been the associate choreographer for the Tony nominated musical “On Your Feet”. And she’s also been a guest choreographer on the famous show, “So You Think You Can Dance”. Please welcome Maria Torres. How are you Maria? Maria Torres 0:56 Hi, I’m good. I’m good. It’s so good to be able to talk to you and see you too. At the same time. It’s, it’s, it’s been a long time. I think the last time we saw each other was when we, when you came to New York, and you were there and we you got to see “on your feet”. You know? Sonia Kyriacou 1:11 That was something I’ll never forget Maria, like, we, I think, you know, Moris and I always had this desire to go see plays shows on Broadway, or Off Broadway. And we just never did it. So that one time that we were in New York, and you graciously brought us to the show, when we got to see the backstage and meet some of the artists, it was such a special occasion, I felt like a kid that, you know, got to see like, you know, got to go backstage with the famous star on the stage. And it was really something else. And I at that point, I remember feeling like, WOW, this is what it looks like and feels like to be in a Broadway musical. So for me, that was really eye opening. And it helped me in so many different ways. So thank you for that. Thank you. It was a great memory. Maria Torres 1:59 Oh, you’re welcome. You’re welcome. And it was good to see you. Because I hadn’t seen you for I don’t even know how long prior to that. I mean, it was it must have been like a decade or so. You know, it’s a long time. It’s been a long time. So I’m glad we got a chance to share that moment. Sonia Kyriacou 2:15 Me too. For all the listeners out there. I met Maria when I was in Puerto Rico, a very long time ago, when the salsa congresses had started. That’s the first time I met you. And I remember looking at you and meeting you and listening to you and watch you teach. And at the time. I think you also emceed that year when I first met you, and I thought, oh my god, she is so powerful she is so…your presence and your energy is is just undeniable. Like, you know that Maria is in the room. And I I was in awe of you. And I was also a little bit scared to be honest, because I’m like, Oh my god, how do I talk to her, you know, you just impressed me so much. And I knew at that moment that you were someone that I was going to look look at, as, as a person that I would want to imitate or become, you know, because you you have this way. I was just watching your videos again before our podcast. And you have this way of moving Maria, that is very unique. You’re you’re not just powerful, but you’re graceful, and elegant and sexy. And you have this like package, you know, it’s like incredible. Maria Torres 3:33 Thank you!Thank you my love…And I remember when we first met because I was still in the Broadway, I was in the Broadway show “swing”. So that was the Yeah, and I remember that they brought me out there as a surprise to give me an award. And I got to meet and I had never been. You know, I didn’t even know what the congresses were. And I was completely like, just like, my heart broke open because I remember as a child growing up, that was like a ritual in the living room with my mother, my father and my my sisters, right, my brother. And I would always thought about what would it be like to be able to just do this on such a major scale with like, for me to be there was like, wow, you mean, these dancers have an opportunity to have their own platform, when I didn’t have that I had it at home, you know, not the only platforms were the industry, you know, to go into the industry to become a professional dancer, if you want it to do anything because there was no such thing as congresses or you know, there was small things, but nothing of that magnitude of what I remember. So that was like a really special time and, and just meeting everybody from all over the country from all over the world. Celebrating, you know, Salsa, you know, the my culture that I grew up with, because my father was a congero, you know, I was like blown away too. So I was like, Oh my god, I just want to pour into all these dancers. And I hope that they they listen and that they get do you know get to do more because they’re so lucky to have that this platform. That’s what I, that’s what I remember. And that I wanted to and the talent, all of you, I remember watching you and your husband dance, I mean, extremely talented, like all of you can be doing what I’m doing. It just takes, you know, time and discipline, you know…which is a different story. Sonia Kyriacou 5:20 I do remember Yes, it is. We should talk about that too. But I remember how the energy was so electric, in those first years at the Congress of Puerto Rico, I remember, everybody was was feeling just like you’re feeling they felt like, it’s like you just brought all these, you know, stars together, you know, the energy of the stars, and you made a big galaxy, and everybody was just like, on fire, ready to share, ready to dance, ready to love and learn. and oh, God, I miss those days, they were just so special. And from that came so many beautiful things, right? So many dancers became pros, and so many people went on to compete. So many people, open studios, had their own events. It was just like such a special time, I’m really, really grateful for that event. And for meeting you at that point. Maria Torres 6:09 Absolutely! And from that just from, you know, from doing the Congress, I remember, you know, wanting to come out there after that first year and mentor all of you, and then teach people how to choreograph, how to present themselves, how to be able to, you know, set up competition, because that was something that was not something that they had done. And I remember Eli at the time said, you know, we really want to do a big competition in Puerto Rico. And would you help us set it up? Absolutely, I would, you know, I would do that. And so many positive things came out of that. And a lot of the dancers, there’s a lot of dancers that actually got to work with me on on different things in movies, and on TV, and on Broadway Off Broadway, you know, commercials, I mean, all different kinds of stuff, music videos, it was great, because I wanted to, I felt like I had arrived home, you know, I wanted to, I always dreamt of opening up the doors for the next generation of Latinos in New York, because I’m based out of New York, and always traveled as a choreographer or whatever. But but what the salsa gave me was a direct connection to my childhood as to how I knew I can give back, if that makes sense, you know? And so watching you guys and being there and seeing the growth, every time that I would go, it would just make me so happy because I was like, yeah, this is what I’m talking about. Keep going. You know, it doesn’t matter what you do, you guys, you guys are on the right track. You’ll land when you’re going to land by persistence, right? I think that’s the important thing. But you’re doing it your way, which is how I did it. I did it my way. You know? Sonia Kyriacou 7:46 Exactly. And there’s something very beautiful and unique about that. And, you know, it did give us the sense of freedom where we didn’t have to be a copy paste of anyone, right, we really, were able to express ourselves in the way we felt the music and the way we saw the choreographies. And this is something that gave us the beautiful variety that came out of that, right, you would see, you know, people from Venezuela doing it their way, people from New York doing it their way people from the Dominican Republic, there was Colombia you remember Colombia?…first time I had ever seen Colombian dancers and I was like, Holy Moses, like what is that it’s just so powerful and fast. And they have such confidence at such a young age. Right? Maria Torres 8:31 So is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I loved it. I really love seeing that. That whole combination of how, you know, one dance was able to bring everybody from all over the world, a lot of people that didn’t speak the language, but but under the banner of the dance, was were able to communicate through the dance, you know, through the movement. You know, so funny because I just finished doing an interview today about “Call beyond the green room” from the for the Broadway community since I’m talking about how dance matters to me. You know, it’s it’s what I’m working on right now. You know, this year is about really putting that on the map in a different way. But that to me what I loved about the community, especially those first few years of meeting everybody was the comaraderie and how the barriers of there’s no such there was no such thing as race didn’t mean it was the language color was not an issue non that did not exist. All I knew is he saw bodies and bodies of intergenerational bodies of people dancing, not only separately but together no matter you know, so to me, it was like Like I said, like a large living room because I used that’s what I grew up with. Right. I grew up with two parents that every Saturday that was our ritual, we would eat dinner, go into the living room and salsa dance, you know and Bomba and Merengue, whatever else came out, you know that so it was great to be able to see that on such a level. Such a magnitude, you know, the high level… Sonia Kyriacou 10:01 I love that I love the way that you you kind of set it in a living room. That’s a really nice picture in my mind, where people are so comfortable. And so, you know, the living room is where everybody chills, it’s where everybody feels good. Like you come home and you want to sit in the living room. And that’s exactly you just described it so perfectly. That’s the feeling that I would get when I would go to the Congress every year, I would see the familiar faces, I would see. You know, the little kid that started it, you know, when I first got there was five years old. And then I was still going every year, Maria for 10 years in a row. Maria Torres 10:35 Yeah. Sonia Kyriacou 10:35 And I would see them now like taller than me. And I was like, Oh my god, I feel like this is my family. It’s my dance family. And we’re getting together. And we’re just doing the living room chilling slash dancing, and just exploring. It’s such a beautiful comparison. I love it. Tell me a bit about your nonprofit. When did you get inspired to start that? Like it says that you’re? You’re the co-founder and artistic director? Yes. Maria Torres 10:59 Yeah. Well, that came out of always wanting to give back because as a dancer, right, in order for me to become a dancer, what was challenging for me is that, first of all, the way that I looked, was not a common look. It wasn’t something that was my figure being a full figure, not tall enough, not, you know, light enough or dark enough. Because, you know, Latinos in those days were looked like Natalie Wood. That’s how I best described it. Right? They were very, very fair. Or they look like Rita Moreno in the movies. You know, very Indian, and I sort of didn’t fit any box, but people didn’t know what what box to put me in. And I remember telling my parents, like, Listen, I’m gonna make it. I was like 10. I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna be famous people gonna know me. That was my attitude. I’m going to my mother’s like, yeah, they’re going to know you, once you after you hit the books, because I want you to be either a doctor or a lawyer, you know, or ice skater. Okay, whatever. What does that mean? Mom, she goes, Well, at least if you skate you, it’s a sport. And they could get you into it could get you involved in getting maybe to the Olympics if you want. And then you could be on the box of Wheaties! And I was like, okay mom, I don’t know about that. But I know dance, it’s gonna be a big part of it. And so for me, it was a prove it to my family thing that I had to do, you know. And then I remember like, along the way, having these mentors that as I started to learn how to dance, and I didn’t have enough funding, gave me these their own scholarships. And I said, if I ever make it, I want to be like them, I want to be like them. And when we ended up happening as I started to make it, and in the early, I would say the early 90s, I started, I started a teaching a created a classical Latin jazz, that at the time, nobody was doing it in any of the performing arts, I put the staple, I organized that. And I said, This is what I want to teach. I want to teach Latin jazz, because I want to be able to put a face to our culture and also teach this fusion of everything that has given me an opportunity to become a professional dancer. And that I’ve but here’s what happened, my classes will be packed. And then I would see one or two, three people that were super talented, and I wouldn’t see them all the time. And they would say, Oh, I don’t have money. I was like, just come to class. So I wanted up like giving people my own scholarships, it got to a place that in 2009 no 2008 from 2008 to 2009. I had accumulated over. First of all, I like I said it was for a long time that I’ve been doing that. But in that specific year, I really remembered that because I had about a 30 students that I was mentoring, right at Broadway Dance Center. And in addition to that, from the years of teaching Latin jazz, I had all these kids that will come from all over the country to come and want to do something with me. And I didn’t know what to do with them. So I remember these producers from England had, they had came to see this off Broadway show that I directed and choreographed called “Celia”, the musical, I did that off Broadway. They said we want you to do a show. We want that you can create a 90 minute show that you can create and bring it to Southport England. And I went, Okay, that sounds great. And we want to frame it so that it’s actually going to be in a theater to up to 100 seat theater, and then have like a whole festival in Southport, England. And I said, Great. That sounds amazing. In the process of doing that, I still had these 30 kids that Didn’t you know that by the time that I was getting involved, they were like, We want to keep going, can you come up with something? So I was like, Okay, give me a chance. I’m promoting the show in England. When I come back from doing the six city tour. I’m gonna think of something anyway, while I was there. I’m thinking of how do I get these kids involved with these dancers involved. And I get a phone call from my good friend Vanessa Williams, of the award winning actress. She’s on a mission…she’s going to she’s like, what are you doing? Like, well, I’m on my way. I’m on my way. I forget. I was like, from London to Newcastle and Newcastle to I don’t remember one of those. And she said, um, so what are you doing? She says I’m on my way to Cuba to do a mission trip. And I was like, Oh my God, that’s amazing! And I said, Oh, and then we started talking. She goes, Yeah, I wish she could come with me. I said, y’all, um, you know, I’m here promoting this show this dance show. I also am working with these kids in New York City, you need to meet them. She goes, why don’t we get together when I come back? And sure enough, about maybe 10 days later, we got together, we had dinner. And I started to share the story of all these kids, I said, Listen, I think what would be great, is if I could find some way to take them to England, and give them an experience of a lifetime, you know? And so she’s like, okay, we’ll put something together. But I was like, What do you mean? She goes, Yeah, just put on, you know, just just go ahead and start it started and, and whatever you need, I’ll help you. I’m like, only I should have never done this at this magnitude. Like, like, that was not my thing. My thing was mentoring. My thing was teaching. My thing was do you know what I mean? but to organize, like, fundraising and doing all of that her and my husband, both in each ear, got me to start getting other people involved. And before I knew it, she had been asked to go on, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? which is a very famous TV show here in New York, in America, right? And so it was for celebrity. And then she said, Oh, I’m picking this up. Who are you playing? For? She goes, Well, I’m gonna play for him for my friend Maria Torres. And for her for her organization, we weren’t even established. I know. I mean, she’s like, literally this, I found out after, you know that at this fundraiser. She didn’t tell me before. You know, I found out afterwards, because she kept it a secret. She goes, you got to name it something, you got to say something. And I couldn’t put two two together, you know what I mean? So then the evening that we did our, our fundraiser, she announces it. And she says, guess what happened? I won and you guys were $50,000. We winded up raising at that fundraiser between her help, and the people that she and engaging my husband engage over like $80,000, where we were able to really start to do something like of that magnitude. And that and I was like, wow, if I can do that, like, like, literally, do it. Take these kids from New York to transatlantic, then I want to see what I can do my own backyard. And what how can I use now this platform that I’ve been thrown into in this other arena, right? Because I’ve always done it, like I shared with you going to Puerto Rico and all this other stuff? What can I do to be of service, because I want to use my art as a way of being of service. Because to me art, and the performing arts changed my life and gave me such an amazing platform. And I want to do that for others, even if they don’t want to be professionals. I know what it does confidence wise, right. So that’s what I did. I came back in 2009, we started to incorporate ourselves became a 501 C3 started mentoring a three initiatives mentorship, arts, in education, bringing it to locations and people that don’t have the means to be able to start programming, and then creating diversity programs that would build bridges as opposed to dividing and also allow for really important conversations through art because that my tagline is life lessons through the arts. Right? So it’s taking what I did, and I wanted to pour that into the the the foundation, but also in these types of pilot programs that I kept doing for for a long time, which, you know, has led to this past year, really given me an opportunity to take it to the next level and in the sense of oh, I understand what’s going on. But here’s what I did to break down those bridges. You know, I use the arts as a way of expressing myself and getting out and not letting adversities stopped me but rising to the rising, rising above adversity through what I best was able to express, you know, which is through my art, you know, and becoming becoming a professional, a professional creative artist. So this year, all I did was really pour into the generation of high schoolers, and college students that graduated in 2020 in such a really traumatic way and said to them, I’m going to train you how to be able to be strong and and allow yourself to be an artist and today’s time, so that when we open then you’ll have your own vision of what it’s like to live through adversity because I understand adversity. Let me tell you my story right. So that I mean, though, and I’m kind of going really fast, but through Vanessa, and Amas Musical Theater, which is a performing Theatre Arts company that I’m a part of, it’s given me an opportunity to work with so many people around the world. I mean, and we’ve done programs in New York, we’ve done programs in Chicago and Los Angeles, in Italy and Spain. I mean, it was just like, like, unbelievable the amount of and then we joined forces with the New York Salsa Congress to create our, our programming. For two, we did it for two years. And then we got, we were supposed to expand in 2020. And we got shut down, you know, I started “the impact program”, which is an intensive musical Performing Arts career training, you know, which was gonna allow me to bridge the gap between what we’re talking about, you know, all the, the dancers that come from around the world, to have an opportunity to spend a weekend with me, and then bringing for me to bring to them and to their to, to them, all of the people that I know that I work with in my industry, and giving them a glimpse, so that there’s some kind of a pipeline, and that’s, that’s what I’m, that’s what I’ve been focusing on this year, this year, gave me an opportunity to be home, working on that, and really pouring into my community, because it was decimated, you know, not only the kids of dancers that are marginalized, but everybody that stopped that their world stopped, you know, as a performer. So it’s been intense. And I have to thank both Vanessa and my husband, because I had no idea. I still don’t know what’s a 501, you know what I mean? Like, I, that part of it, I’m still learning. But the part I’m passionate about is a part about how do we how do we build bridges? And how do we, how do we how do we really are able to teach life lessons, you know, to the performing arts, that’s what I that’s what I do professionally, but that’s also what I do through the foundation. You know… Sonia Kyriacou 21:58 I love how the pandemic has created. You know, at first everybody felt so sad, upset, outraged, you know, all the different emotions we all went through, as, as artists, but also as humans, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s crazy, the things we’ve lost, right? Whether it was for some people, their source of income for others, their source of, you know, therapy in a way, because you know, a lot of people dance, not just for work or for fun, but it’s also a form of therapy. So I know like in, in Canada, it’s a little different. Because, you know, that’s one of the things the US you guys have this wonderful opportunity to make dance your full time career. And really, you know, a dancer can say, I’m going to be on Broadway, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that I’m going to travel, I’m going to work full time and dance. In Canada, it’s a little different, we don’t have as many opportunities. So a lot of the people that do dance, Salsa, and anything Latin American in Canada are basically social dancers, you know, they do it because they love the music, they love how it makes them feel. And so for them, it was completely, there was nothing, there was no parties, there was no socials, there was no congresses, there was nothing. So a lot of the people that were just kind of dancing for the pleasure of it started to realize how important dance was to them, how it was a form of therapy, how it was something that made them feel so good, and it was taken away. And then for those of us who are in the industry, you know, our dance studios completely shut down my festival canceled two years in a row now. So it’s been it’s been rough, it’s been rough on all of us. And I love the way you know, you took the opportunity, and you just created even more, right, you, you took that and you created an even more. And I think also now coming out of this pandemic, I’m hearing a lot of dancers in Canada that were, you know, busy at work doing something like either they filmed instructional videos, or they, you know, worked on their dancing, or they’ve created their studio if they didn’t have one, and they’re about to open. So it’s interesting how this, you know, horrible event has actually given us all an opportunity to, to reset and create something even more beautiful, more powerful.So… Maria Torres 24:13 I want you know, one thing about me because we lost the other thing that for me, it was like we lost a lot of my I lost a lot of my friends and family members and I my husband and I both had gotten COVID. And by the time I came out of it, I lost like all of my work was also cancelled. But in the midst of all of what happened, it was like I reverted back to when I was a child. And I remember my mother bringing down the shades and putting on the music really loud and singing and having a singing and dancing. And then I understood what she was doing was protecting us from all the horror that was going outside because 2020 really brought that back out, you know, in terms of all these protests and the hate that was being spewed upon all of us, right? But the one thing that I love about, you know, dancers from across the globe, it didn’t matter whether it was Salseros, because I’m in all these different worlds, that’s the luxury that I’ve had, right? Because I love it so much. And for me, each world has its own richness. We’re resilient. And we were made for these times. And that’s what I loved about the community in general, worldwide, what I saw was, you know, the, all of the artists utilizing their skill to entertain and to and to really help not only themselves, because that’s why we do it, but it’s a way of helping others. And people really starting to take a notice on that, right. That’s what I loved about it was the resiliency coming out in ways that, to me were new, but not to me wasn’t new, but for them was new. And it was great to see that tool being used, because that’s a positive way to do that. That’s a positive way to do that. And that even though, you know, like I said, my job, all of my jobs got canceled, everything got canceled. I didn’t know what was gonna happen. But I knew I couldn’t sit home and not to not be part of the culture change. For the positive. I knew that because that’s how I was brought up. I was brought up always thinking about, you know, like, my mom used to tell me my mother was very Cuban, Dominican, Dominican, Cuban, African looking at my father looks like you, you know, I was like, and I come out like mocha, right? This and then my sisters like red hair with freckles. And very fair that I’ve got another sister that’s like Indian, you would look at all of us, you go are you all for the same, you know, parents?But I also remember really young, them dealing with racism, and then dealing with this dealing with a lot of ugly stuff. But my parents always looked at us from a different kind of lens, saying, It’s not our problem that they don’t understand that this is how we are, it’s not our problem that our skin color is what it is, you can’t change that, all you can do is be you or you can do is always remember that you should be the better person by showing them. Not by telling them but by showing them that you’re just as human as they are, that color has nothing to do with it. That’s how I grew up, because really young, we were being protected. And we were instructed. And that’s what I shared with people during the 2020. I was like, Listen, I’m not oppressed, we were poor. But we were not we were rich in culture and education. We were rich, because we were taught how to have fun. You know, people go into the living room, like I shared with you, my mother would cook up, we could cook, all five of us couldn’t go out, we didn’t have the money to go out because I’m cooking, my father would take out his congas, guys put some music on and we would have what party and then we would all perform. Right. So I grew up doing that with that grew up doing that in Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, when I was a kid, that was a part of the ritual. That’s why the arts was so important. That’s why I felt like it was my It was my calling during this time that I was like, I was watching everybody on zoom on the Instagram and on Facebook. And I started to see, like one of the Salseros from Turkey, another one from Colombia, from Mexico from all over and I was loving it. And I’m going that said that you got to do and then I would see the others posting all these negative things. I’m like, I’m gonna watch this because this is gonna make me have fun. And then I decided that I wanted to be a part of that in whatever way that I can. And that’s how I started to, to utilize my time during the pandemic, you know, of creating a, what I call my virtual audience and virtual classes where we can have an opportunity to talk and move and create, you know, so Sonia Kyriacou 28:50 I love that! I think that now that we’ve been through all this, we all realize that two things; we could do things more efficiently. And we could do things you know, there’s no, there’s no excuse, right? It’s not about like, where you live or what time it is. You actually could just do everything online as well. I’m not I’m not saying that I prefer it because honestly Maria I love in person and that will never change. Maria Torres 29:13 Oh yeah me too Sonia Kyriacou 29:14 Now we have this whole other, you know, opportunity where we can see how it’s possible to communicate with each other and create projects and develop you know, our craft through zoom through internet, which is amazing. It’s like hey, you know, we would probably would not have been as creative and effective had we not gone through this right now we know that anything is possible and there’s no way there’s no way to squish the arts. You cannot cancel the arts. It just doesn’t happen. Maria Torres 29:17 absolutely! Sonia Kyriacou 29:30 we were on this kind of campaign of sending out the message in in where I live in Montreal, to the government and to you know, other to anyone that would listen, we kept saying “dance is essential”. So we don’t like only essential services can work, we’re like, Wait a second, dance is essential. What do you mean? So it’s kind of, you know, made me feel how important it is to, to bring it to the forefront and to let you know, we want to be more recognized. We want the government and you know, other organizations to understand that what we do is, is just as important as any other. Maria Torres 30:25 Absolutely. That’s what we changed. You know, here, we did the same thing to there’s a lot of organizations that started to pop up, because listen, hundreds and hundreds, like, of artists were completely lost their contracts lost their way of making a living, they had to give up their apartments leave the country, because there there was no, there was nothing right. And there was no financial resources, no health insurance, nothing to help, because because if you’re not in a show, you lose all those those a bit, you know, all of those privileges, right. So it was really, it was really powerful. And then for us, and then to start getting the research where, you know, we were able to inform the government, that we were creative workers that brought billions of dollars into the New York City industry, you know, and not only that, it was like Not only that, the theater, but also and I said, What about the film television? I said, No, no, it’s not even there, either. This is there’s a whole non union community of dancers that bring in tons of money everywhere. I said, so what about that, and I started to really get like I said, I rolled up my sleeves, join the union started to do all these interviews, and really talking from that angle, we are essential. I said, We are creative artists, we are essential to the industry turn on any social media, what do you think is keeping people alive in their mental well being is the arts is the arts, if there was no arts, could you imagine how that how that year would have been for people, if they wouldn’t be able to go and tune into a class, a dance class, or singing class or painting or anything Netflix, pick one, I don’t care, it would be it would have been a completely different things, we are very essential. And it’s time. So glad that you’re doing that. And I will encourage you to continue to do that. So one of the things that I also, like I said, I took on about bringing awareness that we are important, and that we have to have the resources, and also the know how financial literacy education behind of how to take care of ourselves. So that the next time that something like this happens, we don’t see the the, you know, the traumatic and catastrophic things that were happening, like people without dances without food not being able to stay in their apartments, it was killing us, you know, really, he was very, very, that’s the part that to me, that’s what kept me going, you know, on a daily basis, like, what can I do? What can we do? So yeah, I think it’s important that you do that, or that you continue to do that, because this is laying the groundwork, to to bigger and better things for Salseros globally, but also for dancers, that are not unionized. If you’re not in the Union, then what happens to you if you break your leg, or that’s one of the things I used to go to Salsa Congress and talk about that, you know, talk to them is like, Listen, think about other ways. And now we’ve got resources that are there, you know, people can to if they don’t have insurance, they can go to the Actors Fund, globally, and literally get attention for health insurance. And you know, if they don’t have if they need education, or financial literacy, there’s help there too, so they can get themselves and feel better about making the transition. If that’s a lot of people that had to do that, right that are, this is their last hurrah, because their age or an injury? Who knows, you know, so many different things. And so, to not have pay attention, like I said, shine a light on those other resources like now what, that’s what I can say, now what was asked that question, but then let’s answer it now. What now? What now? What do we do? How are they going to eat? How are they going to pay the bills? Right? Are they gonna go to a doctor? Right, let’s get out of me. Like those. Those are the things that I started asking questions, you know, so I think it’s good that you are doing that in Canada, and that you continue to do that. Sonia Kyriacou 31:44 Thank you. And I think it’s also a little bit why we lose the talent that we do develop in Canada, because because there isn’t enough support and there isn’t enough work. one of two things happen either the dancers move to another country where there is more opportunity, or they stop because they need to get the real job, where their security and there’s, you know, a more normal schedule. And these are things that drive me insane because I’ve always, I’ve always seen it, like if you are an artist, you’re a creator and you love what you do. It’s your passion. You should not have to give it up because you get to the point in time where you say, Well, I want to have a family, how am I going to feed them? How am I going to keep them safe? Or how am I going to keep myself have protected if I fall and break my leg. And these things, you’re right without insurance without some kind of plan, it kills the it kills the dancers, they just reach a certain level. And they say, well, we just got to find something else now. And I’ve seen many, many talented dancers in Montreal alone. Abandon ship, because they don’t there’s nothing left for them. Like they reach a certain point. And then they’re like, yeah, now what what do we do? Where Where can we perform? Where can we grow? How can we earn more money? How can we protect ourselves, and, and then what it does is it just it knocks them off. And then we end up back again, with the big, you know, the young beginners, which are wonderful, but then they never mature. Do you know what I mean? Using the upper, the, the experienced mature dancers, we keep losing them because of the industry. And and this is frustrating, because I feel like I’m alone. There’s not a lot of people at my age still doing this. And especially in Canada. So I’m a little bit saddened by that, I’d like to, I’d like to change that and find a way to create more opportunities and more security for dancers in the future. So these are all like awesome projects, right. And it just means like, there’s just so much room for expansion, which is amazing. Maria Torres 36:14 Yeah, and it’s a definite and important conversation that should lead to more roundtables of how to create opportunities. And that’s the other thing that I’m focusing through the foundation to is, is really, I spend my time now between the Union, the Society of directors and choreographers, I just got elected to an executive board position, which there I’m working on this from December to now, I’ve been really active in changing the bylaws, helping to change the bylaws of how directors and choreographers can get, you know, you know, how they can get better resources for themselves as well. And then, our union, also working on the contracts so that it reflects that. And so for me taking that knowledge now and applying that in every arena that I go to. And I’ve been supporting a lot of the nonprofit theaters that are here in New York City, because they they’ve also been hit really hard to and they do amazing work, and giving opportunities to people that come from all over, as well as I want to have them preserved because we don’t have enough of them left that focus on new works. So if we lose that, then I’m saying, Oh my God, we can’t do that. I remember growing up in the city, when I was a child, and I would take you know, I would go into the Manhattan from Brooklyn, and I can go to an art gallery, I can go to like a, you know, a dance in a park. I can I mean, I was exposed to so much culture and performing arts for free. And I know in the summertime forget about it. Because we had some programs we were we got exposed to being able to, you know, to do things, and those things also went away. And I’m going, we got to do we got to bring that back. And for me as much as we’re talking like even in this conversation, to learn that that’s also happening amongst y’all. It is something that when we open up again, people think of the arts as not important. But when you take it away, like people saw how that got away, and they’re not able to express themselves or exert exert what they call Oh, my playtime. Well, we are the people that create the playtime. Sonia Kyriacou 38:25 You’re correct. Yeah. Yeah, I think now I think now there’s a new appreciation. And I think now that you know, it’s given us as well this fuel to, to really address those things. You know, we’ve been busy, right? When when you’re always busy, you don’t have time to look at those important things, you just always deal with the urgent. And then when you have the time you’re like, Oh my gosh, there’s some important stuff we haven’t taken care of. And I think that’s what the the, the pandemic time has given us. And so, you know, let’s hang on to that desire and and get get, you know, the world on board with that. Maria Torres 39:01 Yeah. And look you for many years did you do you’ve been producing and you have your dance studio, and so you you’ve been a leader in Montreal, to show show dancers what they can do to be able to get to that next level and keep going right, even though it’s challenging, but, but you’ve been you’ve been walking the walk and don’t talk in the talk. Right? So I think it’s I think it’s it’s getting people like minded better have had similar experiences to now you know, like I said, Let’s come back better. That’s that’s worked differently doesn’t mean that we can change it overnight. Because I you know, nothing’s nothing’s good happens overnight, but the fact that we’re talking about it, it’s a start. And then to start Sonia Kyriacou 39:47 Absolutely.Tell me Maria there was I had this question I, I was researching on you and I couldn’t figure out how you got involved with the Hustle and and you are known as one of the top hustle dancers and influencers. So you know your Latin American you grew up with Salsa you get into the Latin jazz, but how did the Hustle show up? Maria Torres 40:11 Well, Latin Jazz came up way later. But hustle was my, my dance as a teenager. My cousin’s taught me at home. And then that dance gave me an opportunity that when I went to high school, I met my first my one of my friends, Melvin Scurry was his name. And he was a hustle dancer. And at lunchtime, in school, we started hustling, dance on also dancing. And then I remember that with him, he got me into doing dance shows and dance competition, because he was so amazing. He was incredible. And between dancing with him, there was a local Dance Studio in New York. I mean, in Brooklyn where I live called Dariens Dance studio, and I had my what I call my dance parents, Gloria and Walter Darien owned that studio. My, my parents, like I told you, my mom and my dad were pretty strict about me only dancing on the weekends. But Walter and Gloria and Melvin became like, my dance family. Walter and Gloria, talk to my parents. This is she’s super talented, you got to let her that will take care of her. She’s got to go out there and dance and compete, you know, and hustle was a dance. That’s the dance that made I want a lot of money with with I mean, I made my first contest. I think it was like $10,000 and I want to ban a great adventures. I took that money. And I was like, I put it in the bank. And I was able to like show my mother Hey, hello, your daughter’s super talented. She could do this, you know, my mother’s like, you know, so, you know, I started to really get $1,000 contracts we that that dance also was a dance. So I started to get recruited by different dance partners, you know, and before I knew it, we were part of this, like top 20 to 25 dancers in New York City performing all over the place competing against each other. It’s a dance that gave me like I said, the end to becoming a professional dancer. That’s when I knew that I can. I fell in love with that dance. I saw it and I went, I’m gonna be the best that I could. The energy of it, right? The energy of the dance, the dynamic, the physical, you know, demand that it had on it. It had everything I love about it. I had everything that I loved about it. Yeah, Sonia Kyriacou 42:23 I saw that choreography you made for the So You Think You Can Dance episode? Maria Torres 42:28 Oh yeah. Sonia Kyriacou 42:29 You did a Hustle? Maria Torres 42:30 for Lacey. Yeah, Lacey and Cameron. Sonia Kyriacou 42:32 For Lacey and her partner, can’t remember his name? Maria Torres 42:34 Cameron, Cameron, Cameron. He was adorable. Lacey. Sonia Kyriacou 42:39 At the end, she did that trick where she ends up in a split and I’m like, Oh, my God, Maria does that! Maria Torres 42:45 Ah yeah, choreographed it. And I was like, I did that was my homage to my community. Because I had, you know, it had given me the dance had given me so much. I went from this kid with a dream, to literally like, going through what I call that, that that long curve to come back to dance as a professional, you know, later in life, because I did I I went through, I came in and out of it only because like I said the industry had done a number in my psyche. You know, after when you’re young and you’re vulnerable. And you don’t understand why you’re being rejected. It’s it’s really, it’s really traumatic, right? So when I met my husband, who was the one who kind of pushed me back out and said, Go do it, you you got the talent going through this. And when I started to do it, I said, you know, if I’m going to do I’m going to do a 250%. And when I make it, I’m going to make sure that people know what what dance is. You know, what, what is the what is the dance that made me you know, and hustle was one of them. So like what I’ve got to I’ve never forget when I saw Lacey and Danny who’s on the show at the time, and Cameron, that whole group. I was like, I gotta go on that show. These kids remind me of me when I was growing up. I want to bring this dance. They’re the ones that can dance this dance. And if anything, that’s my homage to my community to let them know, Hey, I love my hustle. And I’m going to make sure that you this is a thank you to you. And that’s what we did. I remember when I went on that show. They were like, what do you want to call this dance? Do we call it disco? I’m like, No, we don’t call it. Disco is the place that we used to go. Do the dance called the hustle as a matter of fact that it’s called the Latin hustle, but for now we’ll call it the Hustle. Sonia Kyriacou 44:22 So Cool. You are right. The Disco? Yeah. Maria Torres 44:26 No, no, it’s like yeah, it was hilarious. Like, because people are like, why would you want to your legend? Why would you want to come on the show I said because of these kids. These kids remind me of Eddie and Arte and Lordes and Nelly all of the dancers that I grew up with. They were so like they are vivid in my head and I remember that group that when I saw on So you think you can dance that reminded me of them especially Danny reminded me of Eddie Vega so much that I was like wow, I have to I gotta I got to do this. You know, just just because you know because of that of my childhood. My childhood dance that I love so much. Sonia Kyriacou 45:02 I love it. Who was the very, very first person that influenced you? Who did you look at first and say, I want to dance. I want to dance…? Maria Torres 45:12 A professional, a professional dancer? Yes. To become a professional dancer, it was like, every day, after school, there was a, we used to have what is called a 4:30 movie. They don’t do that anymore. But ABC would have every day they would have a 4:30 movie. And what they would do is that they will put movie musicals sometimes. And I never forget watching, I saw “Bandwagon”, a movie called Bandwagon with Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire, and they did a piece called “dancing in the dark” in the in the park. And that blew me away. Like, I was mesmerized, I couldn’t. I was like, I wish that I could have watched it over and over, I remember sitting in front of the TV set, and I was dumbstruck. And all I could do was just like, everything stopped. And all I could do is focus on them. Right. And it was because, like, if I could describe it, it’s like, everything went away. And I felt like I got I was in the park, sitting by a bench watching them. And I get goosebumps thinking about it. And I knew that I wanted to do that. And then the next one after that was a Westside Story with and I see Rita, and I went, I can’t do that. I was like, that was easy. I saw that scar is like, Oh, I could do that was easy. For me. I was like, Oh, I could do that. I’m gonna I want to do that. I was like, for sure. I’m gonna do that. That’s what got me It’s fine. And I would show my mother. She was like, see, see me he thought, you know, she was like, Yes, yes, my daughter, you know, because I was little. And as I grew up, I always kept telling her that, that I wanted to do that. And when I was 12, I said mom that said, I’m going to take start taking class, I’m too old. If I don’t start taking classes forget it’s going to be done for me. She goes, What are you talking about? You’re 12 years old. I said, Mom, I gotta go and take dance classes. Please take me. She goes, we don’t have money for classes. I said, Fine. I’m going to go and I want to get a job you got to do all you got to do is sign the papers for me. And I think she signed up. You know, the working papers in New York City, you had to sign the parent side. I got my lottery to be… of lottery tickets out. So if you got a job in the summer, you would get paid. You know? $200 like every two weeks, right? That’s $400 for a young kid, I took that money. Hey, Mommy, take me I’m taking I want to go to a class. So every Saturday, one day a week, she’s gave me the weekend, one day, remember one day a week. That’s it. I would go from morning to like, as far as I could, mid afternoon. And then I would rehearse for the whole week. I would practice by dancing for the whole week. But I would always have like the vision of like Cyd Charisse, Mitzi Gaynor, Rita Moreno, all these dancers, Ginger Rogers, all these like dancers from this 4:30 movie is my inspiration to want to become professional. And then the hustle like I told you, the hustle was it. Because I could see myself being able to emulate that in that dance and that dance. When I met everybody who was these phenomenal, incredible, you know, agile dancers. That was it. I was hooked. You couldn’t get me out of it. I knew I was, I was gonna find my way. Sonia Kyriacou 48:20 I love it. I love the story. And I love the fact that when you say Maria, that you only were allowed to dance once a week, you were only allowed to dance Saturdays and look what you did with that, right? You? You took it and you’re just like you savored it, you so appreciated it. And then you like just practice, right? And, and that’s something that I find is very specific to artists and dancers is when they’re told they can’t do something. It’s like something switches on. And they’re like, Oh, hell no, I’m gonna find a way. And and that’s, I love that. I love that. It’s such a, it’s the passion. It’s the drive, you know? Maria Torres 48:56 Yeah, yeah. And yeah, when you take that, no, I took the nose and turned it into a yes. You know, it’s like, that’s it. That’s the only way to do it. I mean, I think that that’s what I love about dancers. That’s why I felt like, like this the last the last 14 months I’ve, I’ve been so proud of of everybody. Because, like I said, resilient, we’re made for these times we we stand up and we pivot. You know, people are using our terminology for life in general. Now, if you think about it, because we do find a way to turn whatever that is into something that allows us to figure it, we figure it out. That’s what I love it. We figure things out, no matter what we figure it out. I love I love. I love that about dancers, too. You know, we’re disciplined in a way if you think about it, because we have to in order for us to be good, we got to practice you can’t, you know, can’t stay in business if you are not good enough. Sonia Kyriacou 49:51 That’s right. And we always overcome the obstacles no matter what gets in our way we find a way to dance around it and make it happen. Right so… Maria Torres 50:01 Yeah, we’ll look at you. But I mean, I mean, look at what you’re doing right now you’re doing this podcast I was so proud of you. You have your book is coming out. I was like looking at her. It’s, you know, you pivot to you, you took something like, but it’s it’s amazing what, what happens when I think what happens when you have less. That’s why I said that in these times it reminded me of when I was a child, what it was, there was five of us living in a two room apartment and my mother would dream. And then those dreams became a reality to say, we’re going to be moving from this neighborhood, you won’t be hearing that noise out there. We’re going to move to a middle class neighborhood with a brownstone how she described it to a tee. And then that happened, because they worked for it, you say so and that’s I grew up, I grew up watching two parents that taught us that to through hard work, you you know, if you actually want, we don’t have money for dance, but we were gonna feed each other. But if you want to dance, you’re gonna have to work for it. So, so automatically, I was like, I’m gonna do this, you know, and I’m gonna, and I’m gonna pivot, and I’m gonna say, I’m gonna make it same thing. And this year, I think this 14 months is, if anything is taught us to rise up, rise up and rise above, you know, and I like I said, I’m proud of you, which is why I was like, absolutely, I’ll come on your podcast and, and share because I think that what you’re doing is fantastic. And it’s gonna inspire everybody that’s listening to this podcast, and hopefully also in your hometown of Montreal, to start thinking outside the box, you can be their their Cyd Charisse or their Rita Moreno. Sonia Kyriacou 51:37 Thank you so much. And it’s really my honor to have you on this podcast. I, like I said, when I first saw you, to me, you were this goddess, and I said, Oh my god, I want to be Maria. You know, like, you were so powerful and awesome. And people were listening to you and watching you and just like you were you are dance, you know, there was there was no doubt and and and this is something that inspired me from early on. So thank you so much for being so generous with your talent and with your time and letting everybody learn from you and take your classes. I mean, your story about letting dancers come and take your classes for free. Like, it’s, it’s something that and just what you said about the 4:30 movie, right, that there were artists through the screen that influenced you, and gave you this drive. And that’s what we do we pass it on, by being dance by being who we are, and getting ourselves on that stage on that TV show or whatever it is. and showing people it can be done. This is you as well. And I love it. You were starry eyed. You were a child, you saw that and you just saw it through and this. That’s an incredible story. Maria Torres 52:46 Yeah, thank you, thank you. I mean, I didn’t do it by myself, I had, you know, my husband, that was really a big supporter and believed in me, you know, that gave me the confidence because even though I love dancing, the other the reality was is that the confidence wasn’t there. Because I was told that I wasn’t going to make it you know, the powers that be that were older than me that were teachers were telling me that I wasn’t going to make it. So with his encouragement, I decided to my mother to she’s going to be a teacher, throw yourself into the deep end of the pool. And once you come out, and you swim, and you arrive and you get there, then you need to be teaching and you need to pass on that you can make it and that’s what I decided to do. Like when I would always say when I make it, I will be different, I will not discourage that person. Because I still have that 12 year old on my shoulder. She’s never left me, you know, and when you’re 12 and 13. And you’re listening to somebody saying, Well, I don’t think I think you should think about another career because I don’t think dance is going to be for you. Oh my God, that’s devastating. I would never say that to anybody. Because I feel like everybody can find their stage in their way. Whatever it is that they want. Right? It all depends on how much time you put into it. I really do believe that. So, you know, that’s why for me, it was important to always find whenever I was invited to share to do that. Because I know what it was like to be told or be discouraged to not to not dream, right. So Sonia Kyriacou 54:18 That’s so powerful and awesome. One last question Maria, a dancer that is thinking about becoming a pro right now in this environment, what is the the piece of advice you’d like to give them? Maria Torres 54:34 I would say that in today’s time, because we are now all starting at Ground Zero while still are starting at the same level. What I love about what’s happening now is that those that rose to the top during the pandemic, we’re there because their resiliency of their work and their constant work ethic allowed them to have a platform and that if you go on to become a dancer then Don’t be an Insta dancer, meaning, you know, the social media dancer. The Insta I call them the Insta Sonia Kyriacou 55:08 Insta! I love it! Maria Torres 55:11 Don’t be an Insta dancer. Be a longevity career goal dancer, that is in it, because they’re passionate, and they’re going to dedicate themselves to really be open vessel to continue to learn and train. Because the train dancer that trains and and I’m not saying Oh, just ballet or just this No, no, no, no, no, no, I’m saying that I’m saying train, really train on whatever the whatever speaks to you, but become the best at it not by being an Insta dancer, meaning you get a gig and you call yourself a professional. But by truly learning the craft, you know, because that’s what, that’s what we that’s what longevity gives you the walls, those that stayed is because they’re like me that people go what what kind of dance Are you like? Well, I’m a master of my fundamentals and my basics, because I trained. So I will always be able to work. I’m not worried about that. I’ll find my way. I’m not just copy, you know, I trained to be able to continuously have an open vocabulary of work. And I continuously work on my epic even today. You know, like I, through the pandemic, I was working on my craft, so to that dancer that’s out there that is thinking about it. I would say take the social media Insta dancer out and find a way to replace it by being humble and dedicated to your craft. And then and then also use the social media once you get there as well, because I’m not discarding that this is a new tool that we’ve got right? But use the tool because you’re, you’re you’ve you’re earning the right to be to be in the room. Sonia Kyriacou 56:52 That’s wonderful advice. Thank you so much. Maria Torres 56:55 You’re welcome. You’re welcome. Sonia Kyriacou 56:56 It was such a pleasure. Thank you so much. And we wish you continued success. And to all the listeners out there. This has been a wonderful experience. Please check out Maria on her Instagram, Facebook. And I’ll Of course put all the social handles in the description. Thank you again for spending this this afternoon with us. Maria Torres 57:17 Oh, thank you so much. And congratulations again. And I can’t wait to get your book and you have to sign it. Okay. Sonia Kyriacou 57:22 My pleasure. It would be my pleasure. Maria Torres 57:25 Alright, my love. Sonia Kyriacou 57:26 Thank you Maria. Maria Torres 57:28 Thank you. Bye. Voiceover 57:34 Thanks for listening. Find Sonia on Instagram at SONIKYRI and on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter at Sonia Kyriacou. Check back weekly for new episodes. Until the next time, keep dancing.