This is the first story about Luis Salgado written in English. In Spanish, it's another story. Check out these headlines: "Luis Salgado saborea el éxito teatral" ("Luis Salgado savors theatrical success"), Primera Hora newspaper. "Línea ascendente" ("Rising star"), El Nuevo Día. And when it looked like he'd have his first Broadway role, in 2005's The Mambo Kings, the newspaper Hoy Nueva York proclaimed, "El debut de un grande" ("A great one's debut").
He's known in places where they speak other languages too. The German telecommunications giant Arcor twice hired him for an industrial, first as a dancer and the following year as choreographer. He's gone to Japan three times to be the guest artist with a dance company.
Here in New York, where he's lived for the last five years or so, Salgado currently has his most prominent role to date. In off-Broadway's In the Heights, this season's most ingratiating new musical, he's one of the denizens of that barrio up near the top of the subway map—i.e., Washington Heights. If you don't notice him for his mop of curly hair, you do because of his eye-popping dance moves, especially in the club scene, when he comes between would-be sweethearts Usnavi and Vanessa.
Salgado, 26, first heard about Heights from its original choreographer, Sergio Trujillo, with whom he'd worked on Mambo Kings. About a year and a half ago, Trujillo told the previously close-cropped Salgado to start growing out his hair for a role in the new show. Though he ended up passing on the In the Heights workshop to be dance captain for a regional production of Aida, Salgado let his hair grow all last year, even while he was filming two movies and playing other parts on stage—including prissy Bobby in A Chorus Line. "It gave it a comedy thing—like a little psychotic Bobby," he laughs.
Salgado was billed as a "special guest star" in Chorus Line, which was presented for six performances last fall at Centro de Bellas Artes de Caguas, outside San Juan. He was, after all, returning to his native Puerto Rico with some Hollywood credentials—dance double for star Diego Luna in 2004's Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and parts in scenes with Russell Crowe and Patrick Dempsey in, respectively, American Gangster and Enchanted (both scheduled for release this November).
In 2004, Salgado had made another heralded return—for his hometown's annual Carnaval Vegalteño, which was dedicated to him in recognition of his accomplishments and the example he set. Salgado grew up in Vega Alta, a city of 38,000 on Puerto Rico's north coast, about 25 miles from San Juan. Coincidentally, it's also where the family of In the Heights
' creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda hails from. Miranda, whom Salgado hadn't met before working on the show, wrote a lyric—sung by Daniela (Andréa Burns)—about "the hills of Vega Alta" for Heights
When Salgado was still a teenager, he started a dance academy in a local gym. He notes that, ironically, the government which would honor him with Carnaval after he'd left the island wasn't that forthcoming with financial or logistical support during the five years his school operated. But it had 300 pupils—children and adults—and put on a show every six months. In the spring of 2001, Salgado and his students were invited to perform at New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade (Vega Alta was one of that year's parade honorees).
That trip led to Salgado's decision to move to New York, and by the following year he was living in la Gran Manzana and working pretty regularly. But he'd arrived in the city without the childhood indoctrination most of his colleagues have had. "I was pretty much unaware of the power of musical theater until I came to New York. I didn't grow up seeing Mary Poppins, I didn't grow up seeing The Wizard of Oz," Salgado says, though he does recall being profoundly affected by a nonmusical stage production of Pinocchio as an adolescent. "When I moved to New York, my first voice teacher told me 'See more!' and I'm like, 'Who's Seymour?' And he was, 'No. See more shows. You've got to go and study, you've got to learn.' So I was in Blockbuster every week, renting movie musicals."
Before he left Puerto Rico, he produced one last show with his school—"Por Amor al Arte" ("For Love of the Art"), the story of a Puerto Rican boy who goes to New York to pursue his showbiz dreams. "In a way it was an apology, because I was leaving," says Salgado. Then and now, however, people around Salgado must know how important following one's dreams is to him. He had named his school Ensueños—In Dreams—and his bio in the In the Heights program concludes "Dare to dream." Last May, he co-choreographed and danced in Starting Today Dare to Dream…, a show performed in Jackson Heights, Queens, with students of the Lexington School for the Deaf.