Go Behind the Scenes of Creating the “96,000” Pool Scene from “In The Heights”

June 13, 2021

One of the splashiest dance numbers in the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, which, after a yearlong delay, has finally hit theaters and HBO Max, is the showstopping “96,000.” Anthony Ramos, who stars as Usnavi in the film, leads the cast in a song about what they would do with the prize money if they won the $96,000 lottery ticket sold at their neighborhood bodega. “Shooting ‘96,000’ was wild,” says Noah Catala, who plays Graffiti Pete and is featured in the number.

In the film’s pool scene, 90 dancers perform all sorts of dance genres, from ballet to bone breaking (an offshoot of FlexN born out of Brooklyn). “We wanted it to be an overload of joy,” says associate choreographer Ebony Williams, who can also be seen on screen in “96,000” whipping out a combo of Afro, hip hop and dancehall movements on the bleachers.

Dance Spirit
spoke to Williams, Catala and In The Heights choreographer Christopher Scott on how they managed to pull off this over-the-top pool performance.

 Bringing Director Jon M. Chu’s Vision to Life

According to Scott, Jon M. Chu wanted to shoot part of the number at the Highbridge Pool in Washington Heights, the real-life neighborhood where In The Heights takes place. The Highbridge Pool and Recreation Center opened during a hot summer in 1936, and quickly became a neighborhood landmark. According to Scott, Chu first noticed the massive pool on Google Maps while brainstorming locations during pre-production in Los Angeles. But once they got to New York City, there were some roadblocks to making it work. First, the pool was so massive, they were unsure if they could fill it enough with people. Second, it wasn’t filled with water, and wouldn’t be until about a week before it was time to shoot. “It started to feel impossible,” Scott says, “but Jon really fought for the concept, so I knew I would have to deliver on the choreography, too. It was a lot of pressure.”

Choreographer Christopher Scott on the set of “In The Heights”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Dancing With Family

“Many of the dancers featured in the scene grew up in Washington Heights,” Catala says, with dozens having studied at his mom’s dance company, KR3TS. “We’re all family. Everyone’s known me since I was younger than 10 years old. I never thought something like this would happen, being part of a movie in New York with all of us at the same time reppin’ our city.” Catala’s mom, Violeta Galagarza, is also in the film with him.

Melissa Barrera as Vanessa in “96,000”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

 How the Dancers Rehearsed Prior to Filming

To prepare for the scene, the cast rehearsed in studio for eight hours a day. Afterwards, a skeleton crew of dancers, the associate choreographers—Ebony Williams, Emilio Del Sol, Dana Wilson, Eddie Torres Jr. and Princess Sorento—and Christopher Scott took the train downtown to experiment with the choreography at a pool inside an apartment complex. “It was hilarious. None of us really wanted to get in the pool,” Williams says, laughing. “We knew it was a great idea, but I am not someone who swims often.” The group constantly asked to borrow various props around the pool to experiment with. They also had the water levels raised and lowered to figure out the best height for mastering the choreography. “We would learn that in two feet of water, this choreography looks beautiful. But with two and a half feet of water, we can’t even do it,” Scott explains. They spent about four hours a night playing around with different tricks, using a GoPro to shoot underwater and see what some of the moves looked like, such as Williams’ doing entrechats. The team also called on Luis “BBoy Luigi” Rosado, Rudi Goblen and Jean Carlos Lloret, known as “Bebo,” to test out different movement. At one point, Scott remembers Luigi and others doing 90s and headspins underwater. “I was hoping they could do something like that, but I didn’t even think to ask, because I thought it’d be impossible.”

One Day of Blocking

The choreography team had about a day to throw everything together at the Highbridge Pool, with a lot of experimenting and changing choreography on the spot. “We were about 75 percent there, and then we started shooting. I was rehearsing stuff on the side while they were shooting other parts,” Scott says of the quick process. He asked his team of associates to “divide and conquer” to get the cast ready for each take.

Dascha Polanco as Cuca, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela and Stephanie Beatriz as Carla in “96,000”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Challenges Faced On Set

There were three designated days to shoot at the pool, plus one extra day due to rain, but Scott admits it still didn’t feel like enough: “It could have been two weeks.” Although the scene is supposed to take place on the hottest day of the year, the water was freezing. While filming the scene, many dancers were housed in locations across the street and a few blocks away. “We were trying to find every way to make it as comfortable as possible,” says Williams.

Director of photography Alice Brooks and director Jon M. Chu on set

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

 Paying Tribute to Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley is best known for choreographing large-scale casts in geometric patterns onstage in the 1930s. There are certain aerial shots in “96,000” that highlight this movement, and, according to Williams, each took multiple takes to get the Berkeley look just right. Scott chose Latinx dancers that represented the Washington Heights community, rather than using professional synchronized swimmers. “I love to pay homage. That is one of my favorite things. You can have a musical number where you see FlexN, and also have a classic visual of a Busby Berkeley moment that pays tribute to the great musicals that have come before us,” Scott says.

Corey Hawkins (center) as Benny in “96,000”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Cameos to Look For

Rennie Harris: “He’s a pioneer in hip hop. He built a foundation on the East Coast of training kids and hip hop and is such a force,” Scott says.

Slick: A street dancer from NYC doing FlexN and bone breaking in the pool.

Favorite “96,000” Moments

Scott’s partial to the moment when Sonny goes into the pool. “To have a water-popping routine and then transition into FlexN, with all these street dancers that don’t normally get put in musicals, was probably one of the highlights for me. This movie is truly centered around representing a neighborhood, a block, a culture.”

Williams says her heart melted watching one of the dancers, Hailey Panchame, dancing on the picnic table. “To see her up there—I was crying. Everyone was cheering her on, and she wasn’t stopping. The smile on her face said so much.”