A Career Hits the Heights: Afra Hines lights up Broadway's In the Heights

October 14, 2010

Afra Hines has the kind of presence you just can’t fake. In In the Heights, where she’s in the ensemble, she catches your eye from the moment she walks onstage—and not just because her smiling face is framed by a halo of bouncy curls (a wig, though her own locks are just as curly). In her orange short-shorts, multicolored halter top and bright sneakers, she could just as easily be on the set of a music video, or strolling the actual NYC streets instead of the boards of the Richard Rodgers Theater.

The spicy, saucy In the Heights calls for performers to tackle dance genres rarely seen on Broadway—hip hop and Latin dance. In the hip-hop scenes, Afra is sharp and focused, and super-smooth when the choreography goes slow-mo. In the Act I closer, a big salsa number set in a club, Afra gets the chance to strut her stuff center stage as a girl who steals the attention of the show’s leading men.

It’s no surprise that she can rock both sneakers and three-inch heels. At only 23, Afra has bounced from ballet to commercial and from to Broadway to Radio City Music Hall. She trained in ballet, jazz and tap growing up, first in Miami and then in Framingham, MA, and moved to NYC in high school to attend the Professional Performing Arts School. There, she added hip hop to her dance arsenal, studying with Rhapsody and others at BDC. After graduating, Afra was accepted into the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, but chose instead to defer college and hit the audition circuit.

“Right out of high school I got an agent,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to dance. I was either in class or reading Back Stage.” Through her agent, she started booking events and awards shows, including the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, VH1 Fashion Rocks and the MTV Video Music Awards. But soon she realized she could go even further. “When I auditioned for my agent, I went to the hip-hop call rather than the jazz call,” she explains, “so my agent only knew me as a hip-hop dancer. But I knew since I’d been training my whole life I could do technical stuff.” So she went on her own to an open call for the Radio City Rockettes and booked the job—then called her agent to let him know.

Afra has performed in The Radio City Christmas Spectacular three times, danced for the New York Knicks and done commercial work, including two Campbell’s Soup spots directed by Rize’s David LaChapelle. In 2006, she made her Broadway debut in Wicked, and in late 2007, while on leave from Wicked to do Radio City, she got the call she’d been waiting for. “I had auditioned for In the Heights a few months before, and I knew from the audition, the style and the choreographer [Andy Blankenbuehler] that I wanted to be a part of it,” she says.

The feeling was mutual. “It’s so important to hire vibrant and unique people who just explode with their personality,” Blankenbuehler says, “and from the first time I saw Afra dance, she struck me as someone special and magnetic to watch. In terms of dancing, she can do anything. I wanted to feature her in every section! She looks like the street coming to life in front of you.”

Afra is the only dancer new to the Broadway cast (the show had a successful off-Broadway run last year). “It was sort of intimidating coming in,” she says, “but everyone was super-supportive.” Unlike most of the cast, Afra’s not of Latin descent herself—she was born in Panama, but is half African-American, half white. However, growing up in Miami gave her a connection to the Latin community. She did find that she had to add a new skill to her repertoire, though: Latin partnering. “I’d taken some Latin jazz classes at BDC, but this was brand new!” she says. “It was a lot more difficult than I’d anticipated. You have to really have a connection with the other person.”

When she talks about her current gig, Afra lights up. “The audiences are so excited. They’re saying things like, ‘It’s about time that we had a musical that portrays Latin people in a positive light.’ That’s the best—that it’s new and different and people are ready for it and needed it. People always ask you how your show is, and it feels so good to be able to say it’s a really good show. In the Heights is awesome and I’m proud to be a part of it.”