Solange Castro has been dancing salsa for the past 15 years. She was excited to release a memoir of her experiences in the Los Angeles salsa scene -- and published the book on March 5, 2020, just before the world shut down.
Even with the pandemic shutting down in-person events all over the city, there's still salsa dancing happening right now, according to Castro. But she's opting out until after she gets the vaccine, and probably for a while after that.
"I don't know if I'm ever going to a social event again for a year or two -- it's gonna be a long time," Castro said. "I feel like, for the younger dancers, it's much more of a loss."
She knows there are dances every Sunday on Venice Pier, which is just two blocks away from where she lives. But she's doing her best to avoid the temptation.
"When I look at videos of social events, people are wearing masks, but not everybody -- maybe half," Castro said. "If I ever do that, I will wear a mask. But honestly, you're dancing -- it's the most aerobic activity. Your mask just becomes a wet cloth, so it doesn't really help that much at that point."
Considering the close proximity of dance partners, combined with the physical activity that leaves you breathing heavily, Castro feels that dancing anytime soon is fundamentally unsafe.
She hadn't gone out to dance since March 8, 2020. But she started to feel the call -- and recently made plans with a friend, who brought a dance floor and music so they could dance outside.
"Even meeting my one friend to dance feels like I'm risking my life -- but it also feels like I really need it, so I'm willing to take that risk," Castro said.
In some areas, people have been much more open about dancing -- and Castro believes that a lot of those dancers were transmitting the virus, but didn't care.
THE EVOLUTION OF L.A. SALSA
All of this is a big change, although the salsa world was already evolving before the pandemic largely shut it down, according to Castro. Other dance styles were starting to rise, with salsa increasingly being seen as a bit old-fashioned.
"Even though in the '90s, they were dancing to music from the '40s," she said.
There has been such a strong salsa community in Southern California for decades that a unique Los Angeles style developed, which Castro traces back to the 1990s.
"It's a little bit ballroomy style of partner-dancing to salsa music," Castro said. "It was very flashy and a lot of big movements -- more lifts and spins ... more dancery."
L.A.'s biggest style difference is that it's danced "on one," with dancers breaking on the first beat, as opposed to the "on two" style that came out of New York.
"On two is more just wanting to enjoy the music, however you feel it inside. And it's not about, 'How do I look making these big, bold movements?'" Castro said.
She's worked to transition from an on-one to an on-two dancer herself.
"I can't even believe I used to let guys throw me in the air," Castro said.
Castro always appreciated that dancing let her have a hobby where she didn't have to feel competitive, rather than her experience in her other career as a stand-up comic, always trying to advance her career.
"Obviously, a lot of guys use it to get laid, but I think dancing in general creates connection between people," Castro said. "It's so lacking in our culture to have something that's a bridge between people -- I discovered in the last year how many Trump supporters dance salsa."
Her book explores Castro's relationship with the men she met as part of the salsa scene.
"All the hashtag-MeToo stuff, it happened in salsa, as much if not more," Castro said. "There is definitely an ugly underside to that, so I didn't want to create this false idea that it's this utopian existence of dancing. It is partying and bars -- and that part of it, I actually really don't miss."
FINDING HERSELF IN THE DANCE
She started blogging in the early 2000s, so when she wanted to start dancing salsa a few years later, she chronicled her dancefloor adventures online. Her life became work, sleep, and salsa, moving from dancing a few nights a week to joining a dance team.
"When I would watch really great woman dancers, I was just so in love with it," Castro said. "I gradually became this on-two dancer who is really snobby about the music."
Castro said salsa has helped her get in touch with her mixed-race white and Latino background.
"One thing salsa is, is it's not white. The idea of 'whiteness' doesn't apply to salsa," she said.
Castro developed her own dance persona, with the dramatic outfits to match -- but says she doesn't think she was ever as big a character as many of the male dancers she met.
"Your personality can really come out in dancing," Castro said. "So whatever you do in your day job, you can have a creative thing. I worked in digital advertising. It really helped with shyness, and it helps a lot with being comfortable in my body."
Another aspect that Castro loves about salsa is the lack of ironic detachment. As a stand-up comic, that detachment is a big part of her sense of humor. It's one area where she feels she never fully embraced the salsa spirit.
"If you watch salsa dancers on Youtube, it's drama. It's theater. It's telling a story, and it's intense," Castro said. "If you see pictures of dancers, they're looking at you like the power of the world is in them -- I think a lot of that is Latino culture, too. It's like this spiritual ecstasy."
THE LIGHT DANCING AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
She does miss dancing, deeply. Castro hopes what happens after the COVID-19 shutdowns end will be similar to the aftermath of the 1918 flu pandemic.
"If the first pandemic is any indication, [salsa will] come back with a vengeance, and we'll be entering this new dance craze era," Castro said. "Eventually, when it's safer, people need that kind of outlet."
One advantage of living in L.A. before 2020 was always being able to find somewhere to dance salsa. She likes to think that, in the post-pandemic world, there will be a lot more dancing in all different styles.
She's excited to salsa dance at summer concerts in the park -- once she's been vaccinated and COVID-19 is no longer a fear.
Watch Castro teach comedian Maria Bamford how to salsa dance here:
‘Lady And The Dale’ Shows How An LA Trans Woman Almost Revolutionized The Car Industry — Before The Law Caught Up To Her
HBO's documentary series The Lady and the Dale just wrapped up over the holiday weekend, exploring the life of 1970s Los Angeles trans woman/con artist Elizabeth Carmichael. She almost revolutionized the car industry with her company, Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, and its eco-friendly Dale car... if it weren't for her criminal history creeping into her approach to business. The series was co-directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker -- Cammilleri told LAist about his decade of digging into Carmichael's story, along with how it brings both Liz and trans history to life.
He first learned about her story in 2011, when he watched a 1989 Unsolved Mysteries episode -- the episode had helped lead to her arrest. He wanted to know more, but found little written about it. So he started following the trail, trying to get court transcripts from Carmichael's trial -- but those records were either missing or sealed, with Cammilleri needing a court order to find out more.
"I just couldn't figure out why I couldn't find anything, and it took me years. I really got upset, because I wanted to know everything," Cammilleri said.
Carmichael was known for pulling various scams under a male identity before transitioning. She served overseas in Germany, as well as moving around the country regularly. She was arrested for counterfeiting in Los Angeles in 1961 -- then jumped bail and went on the run with her wife and children in 1962.
Carmichael even faked her own death when moving on from her previous identity, including shooting up her own car and leaving the bullet-riddled wreck for authorities to find. She began her transition in 1966, eventually re-emerging and going on to promote the Dale -- before her past caught up with her.
Cammilleri thought early on that it might make a good screenplay, but when he found out there was another script out there that hadn't been made, he decided to go in a different direction. And even though he'd never made one before, he started filming with the aim of creating a documentary.
His goal, Cammilleri said, was to prove that there really was something to the car that Carmichael was developing -- that it wasn't just another scam.
"If the car was fake, then there was no point in doing this documentary," Cammilleri said. "There's a character arc, if that car is real. Because that means that that's a person who's seeking redemption."
Not being a part of the LGBTQ community, Cammilleri brought on Zackary Drucker as his co-director. The story wasn't well-known within the LGBTQ community, according to Drucker, with Drucker feeling that it was because of Carmichael's criminal history.
"Zackary has the lived experience of a trans woman. I'll never know that life, and there's no way I could get up to speed on that fast enough for this," Cammilleri said. "Zackary came at it being like, 'This is a trans story,' and I came at it like, 'This is a Liz story.'"
Drucker told Cammilleri that she didn't think there had ever been four hours of television devoted to a single trans person before.
Cammilleri was fascinated with her as an entrepreneur and working mother -- while Drucker was fascinated with Liz as a trans woman and a trans mother, as well as what that means in trans history. Carmichael had raised five children alongside a woman who she told others was her secretary -- as well as having another five children with four previous wives.
Cammilleri couldn't understand why the 15,000 pages of court documents he was going through kept referring to Carmichael as a man.
"At the time, I didn't know a lot about it. So I was like, why do they keep saying she's a man? I never understood that -- she clearly lived and died as a woman," Cammilleri said. "[Zackary] helped me understand a few different things -- one of them, that the trans community is widely accepted in the mob/mafia, and basically organized crime in general."
Cammilleri noted that trans women have historically found places outside of regular society to operate. Trans historian Susan Stryker explains in the documentary the ways that being trans may have been part of what led Carmichael into being a career criminal, both before and after her transition.
"If you're not being the person that you understand yourself to be, you don't often follow that normative life path," Stryker says in the series. "If you feel that interacting with people and institutions and the public and the government is something that, at every step, it invalidates who you are as a person, maybe you're resentful about that, and maybe you engage in more so-called 'antisocial behavior' out of those unresolved feelings that are based on your transness."
For trans women, who often are unable to fit society's definition of what a woman should look like, it can also be hard to find work due to the discrimination they face, Stryker notes in the documentary.
"You have to make ends meet, however you're going to do it," Cammilleri said.
Carmichael struggled to find a job as a woman, before finally finding an opportunity to work in real estate. She moved on to working in marketing, where she met Dale Clifft -- inventor of a three-wheeled car with low gas consumption. She worked with him to create, and market, the Dale.
The Dale was a three-wheel vehicle, whose design was meant to save fuel during the '70s oil crisis. She promised that it could deliver 70 miles to the gallon, even promoting it as a possible giveaway on The Price Is Right before they'd even created a working version of it. As it was being developed by her new Burbank auto company, utilizing the same San Fernando Valley community that had spent the past decade designing for NASA and Boeing, she would regularly make numerous other claims that the tech couldn't back up just yet.
The new 1970s version of Carmichael pretended to be a widow taking on the Detroit auto industry, while also claiming to hold engineering degrees from institutions with no record of her. All that big talk led to scrutiny from the media and the car industry.
As she refused to play by the rules, she was arrested for fraud and business code violations before the Dale was ever released to the public. Her criminal past and her previous life living as a man came to light in a time when that revelation was even less accepted than it is today.
She went on the run once more, for more than a decade, but was found living under a false identity and put on trial after that Unsolved Mysteries episode. She was sentenced and served 18 months in a men's prison, before living out her days as Liz Carmichael once more.
In his quest to tell her story, Cammilleri got hold of a scrapbook of articles from the trial, the jury foreman's notebooks -- and even the blueprints for the Dale.
"Once I saw the blueprints, I was like, 'Holy crap, this is real,'" Cammilleri said.
He'd worked from the outside in, starting with the information that was publicly available before ultimately meeting and doing interviews with Carmichael's family.
"There's a picture of the Dale car that is one of the only two things that Liz kept with her as she moved from house to house," Cammilleri said.
And she was ultimately arrested in an appropriate location: Dale, Texas.
While Carmichael died from cancer in 2004, the film uses interviews with her family and those who knew her, audio recordings of Carmichael, and a handcrafted animation style that breathes life into her and her wild existence.
"It allows Liz to touch every single person in the series in a very personal way, which I think gives her the most agency in her own story," Cammilleri said.
Cammilleri hopes that viewers take away an understanding of the sacrifices that Carmichael made in order to survive as a trans woman. He also hopes it leads to people asking questions about how the prison system works, with the way that Carmichael's counterfeiting in the early 1960s had repercussions over and over again throughout her life.
"It's this echo," Cammilleri said. "We penalize people all the time. We make sure that they're always a criminal."
He also wanted to show how the effects even go through generations -- one of her children ended up barely able to fill out a job application, due to being on the run with his parents and not going to school.
You can learn Carmichael's full story in the documentary -- all four parts of The Lady and the Dale are available on HBO Max now.
Cobra Kai has become a hit since moving to Netflix for its third season, offering a new perspective on the saga of 1980s mega-franchise The Karate Kid.
Martial arts instructor Mark Parra helped to train one of the series' leads -- and has his own real-life story of martial arts battles in the San Fernando Valley.
Parra runs House of Champions, a Van Nuys martial arts dojo founded in 1995. Cobra Kai actress Mary Mouser, who plays OG Karate Kid Daniel LaRusso's daughter Sam, came to the school during the show's first season to train for her role.
Mouser wasn't sure what she wanted to focus on at first, so Parra started her with punching, kicking, footwork, and head movement. He moved on to fight choreography, working with Mouser on how to react for the camera during a TV brawl.
"Then she wanted to get more specific," Parra said. "She wanted more classical stuff, because she started to understand her character and the show more."
So he began giving her some classic karate training, including training in a karate gi, fitting with the traditional Karate Kid LaRusso style.
Despite the show's success, it hasn't led to a big increase in students. Of course, that may be because the show didn't get nearly as much attention until it moved to Netflix in late 2020, right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
MARTIAL ARTS DURING CORONAVIRUS
Parra is proud of the 6,200-square-foot House of Champions facility. It's a major step up from what Parra described as a typical martial arts school that's a third of the size, similar to what Johnny Lawrence opens on Cobra Kai.
But the pandemic led to him losing his more than 400 active students, and having to re-evaluate everything about how the school works.
"I had to make a decision whether I was going to try to grind it out or just close my doors," Parra said.
For Mouser, Parra sent one of his trainers to go work with her. He would take a COVID-19 test every day before seeing her, before the show went back to Atlanta to film.
But one-on-one training doesn't scale very well to an entire school. So House of Champions started offering classes online via Zoom, as well as setting up an outdoor area for training that they call "The Yard."
"It sucks," Parra said. "[But] if I didn't have it, I would have been out of business."
He's frustrated with California's leadership, and he's putting in longer hours to make up for being down from a 20-person staff to just six. But he's thankful to be back to more than 200 students at this point.
"I'm not going anywhere. I'm a fighter, so I'm built for this," Parra said.
THE REAL COBRA KAI?
Parra compared his struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic to another struggle he faced in the early days of the House of Champions.
Another popular dojo -- the Jet Center -- closed in the early 1990s, and Parra seized the opportunity to open his school. Just like in Cobra Kai, he signed the lease on his first location and didn't have much time to start bringing in students to pay the rent.
The first week, two kids came in, and Parra started training one of them in boxing. It later turned out that they were both part of a local gang, Parra said.
A couple days later, three carloads full of gang members drove up outside the school. They'd come by because they heard that a kid who was trying to leave their gang was training there, according to Parra. They were drinking beer and smoking pot outside the school, so Parra went out and asked them to leave. They responded with threats.
One of the guys Parra was working with was a Vietnam veteran -- and he came out with a sword, threatening one of the gang members. That's when a fight broke out.
"Me and two of my guys are in the middle of Vanowen, and we're throwing down with these 10, 12 people from this gang," Parra said. "We take them out quite quickly. And most of them are threatening to kill me -- 'You're dead, you're dead, you're dead.'"
That night, as he was teaching class, four guys showed up outside his dojo. He grabbed a double-barreled shotgun that one of his colleagues had brought in for protection and managed to scare them off.
But the next day, he got another call from his student.
"He said, 'Sensei, they're going to come do a hit on you today,'" Parra said.
Parra called an LAPD officer he'd worked with as part of the D.A.R.E. program to see if he could get some help, but he was told there was nothing that could be done unless those gang members showed up at the school armed.
Around 4 p.m., gang members started to show up both on foot and in cars, according to Parra. He received a call from a police sergeant, warning him not to go outside.
Soon after, cop cars swarmed the location and arrested members of this gang.
"A police officer pulls up and says, 'It's over,'" Parra said.
But Parra knew he still wasn't out of the woods after angering members of the gang. He reached out to a sparring partner of his -- an older former gang member he knew, Héctor López, who was also an Olympic silver medalist.
López worked with his own students, tracking the head of the crew who had been threatening Parra to a local laundromat.
Héctor called Parra the next day and said, "It's over." For real this time. Parra felt safe once again.
"That's my version of Cobra Kai, but in a much more intense, realistic way," Parra said.
Parra's working on a screenplay of his story right now.
ACTUAL MARTIAL ARTS BAD GUYS
While there weren't any local sensei as threatening as Cobra Kai's John Kreese, Parra said that there were some who would pose a problem at the big local tournament, Long Beach International.
"There's always been the sensei that can't stand the other sensei, therefore he hates his students," Parra said. "They talk s--- about each other, they try to degrade each other. 'He doesn't teach -- come to me, I'll show you the real s---.'"
He noted that one of those sensei would sit to the side, give his student a look, and they'd actually try to seriously hurt their opponent. It's up to other trainers to force those guys out of the business, according to Parra, since there's no state licensing for opening up your own martial arts school.
Despite those issues, Parra said that he tries to be about respect and honor.
"We're not trying to mold Cobra Kai-style students, as much as take students' strengths and improve on those," Parra said.
And while he can come off like a tough guy at times, Parra says he ultimately wants to help the kids and adults he works with.
"It all comes from love. We don't have a Cobra Kai mentality," Parra said. "I always tell everyone when they bring their kids or they train here, I'm like a Payday bar -- I'm salty on the outside, but sweet and yummy in the middle."
He hopes that, as the pandemic improves, Cobra Kai and other shows will help add some momentum to dojos like House of Champions.
"The only thing permanent for me is change," Parra said.
So far, he's seen it help draw some young people, as well as older people who have a connection with the original movies.
The new NBC comedy Mr. Mayor, starring TV legend Ted Danson as a wealthy ad executive-turned-mayor of Los Angeles, is about a month in. It's the latest from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who've been busy creating a modern TV comedy dynasty following the success of 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
But they've spent a career writing about New York City, so what's it mean when they start writing about Los Angeles?
"It's very much New Yorkers' spin on L.A.," actress Vella Lovell told LAist. She plays Danson's social media influencer-turned-chief of staff.
The show was originally designed as a 30 Rock spinoff following Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy character becoming mayor of New York City. But when Baldwin opted not to do the show, and with Ted Danson uninterested in heading out east, they redesigned the show around Danson -- and Los Angeles.
Mr. Mayor was written out in New York, but the writers' room features a team repping both coasts.
"There's definitely a lot of authentic L.A. jokes in there, but also making fun of, lovingly, the Los Angeles culture and ridiculousness," Lovell said.
A recent example of that: in the third episode, a Brentwood City Council meeting featured Chrissy Teigen, Andie MacDowell, and David Spade all as entitled versions of themselves, lobbying to get the city to go put the trash somewhere else.
As the show films, Fey and Carlock spend their days following the action on set via Zoom.
"Which is really weird. But they're on Zoom all day," Lovell said. "You can run over and get a note from them. They're also able to be in a million places at once, so they're both thinking about the current joke, and also a season-long arc for your character, and also where you're fitting in."
It's Lovell's second big Southern California-set show, following Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and its loving portrayal of the Inland Empire -- just two hours from the beach, four in traffic. She's enjoyed getting the chance to come back to the West Coast to star in both these shows, lovingly making fun of SoCal.
"I was born here, and I've felt like a homecoming in getting to work out here," Lovell said. "L.A. is such a specific, quirky, interesting place."
The show's top-billed names aren't the most diverse, but the office staff provides some of that L.A. multiculturalism between Lovell and the other top staffer in the mayor's office, Mike Cabellon's Tommy Tomás.
"I'm happy to be representing a mixed woman of color on any show that I'm on," Lovell said. "With TV, you don't get to be with people as they take in the show. I always remind myself that it's going to such a wide audience that that representation does really matter, and can really make a difference. Like when I was watching Saved By The Bell, I was so glad Lisa Turtle was there, and that meant a lot to me."
While there aren't any Latinos in the regular cast, the show is representing L.A.'s half-Latino populace with the help of some guest stars. That includes Lovell's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-star Gabrielle Ruiz guest starring as a PR person for the Dodgers, as well as Natalie Morales showing up this week.
"Bodies are political, so you put people on a screen, and it's saying something," Lovell said. "There's some really exciting guests that we have, and they're able to kind of fill out the diversity of L.A."
The show's first three episodes were filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic, so the last couple have been the first real peek at what it's going to be like for a while as Mr. Mayor settles into filming in a new way.
"I felt so incredibly safe on set, with all the protocols," Lovell said. "To do a comedy that is so light and silly has been a huge blessing. We're in masks and shields, and then we take the shield off for a two-minute, three-minute take, and it feels so good."
Fey and Carlock are known for their dense comedy style, and Mr. Mayor certainly doesn't leave you wanting there.
"Especially with the pilot, it felt like every single draft that would come in had 30 new jokes in it," Lovell said. "I don't know what their brains are like, but it's just a never-ending foundation of jokes."
Trying to keep up with the Fey/Carlock pace left Lovell feeling a bit of impostor syndrome trying to keep up, she said, though Mr. Mayor isn't as off-the-wall as 30 Rock or Kimmy Schmidt. Well, not yet at least.
Lovell's particularly loved playing opposite some of the show's more absurd characters, like Holly Hunter's deputy mayor and Bobby Moynihan's communications director.
Lovell and Hunter's characters "have a lot of fun dynamics as the two women at the head of the administration, that were in different generations," Lovell said. "It feels like we're building this wacky family. I feel like Holly's the mom, and Mikaela's the older sister, totally butting heads in terms of disagreeing about how to do things."
One upside of the pandemic: it's helped the cast grow closer.
"During the time we were in lockdown, we would Zoom every so often, and I feel like we really got to know each other on this level that we probably wouldn't have if we just shot for eight, ten weeks, in the before times. We've worked on the first season for over a year now, so we're all in way deeper with each other."
You can watch Lovell and the rest of the cast and crew working to add to the canon of Los Angeles TV shows Thursday nights on NBC, or Fridays on streaming.