Hip-hop’s Auti Angel shows her wheelchair moves in ‘Musical Chairs’
Twenty years ago, Auti Angel was beginning to make a name for herself as a dancer and singer with a Latina hip-hop group. She was touring with Eazy-E and N.W.A. and on the cusp of signing a contract with Columbia’s Ruffhouse Records imprint.
Then on May 3, 1992, a horrific auto accident ended her career — Angel’s back was snapped in half, her spinal cord severed. In the wake of the accident — which was followed not long after by the death of her mother — Angel got involved with abusive men and fell into a downward spiral of depression, drugs and alcohol that eventually led to a three-month jail term.
But those days are firmly behind her. Angel, who doesn’t have the use of her legs, has a supporting role in the new film “Musical Chairs,” which opens in limited release Friday, playing a woman who finds happiness as a wheelchair ballroom dancer. Also this weekend, she and her female hip-hop wheelchair dance group Colours ‘N’ Motion will perform at the Los Angeles Convention Center at the Abilities Expo — she is the “dancebassador” for the organization.
Additionally, she is one of four women in wheelchairs profiled in the upcoming Sundance Channel reality show “Push Girls.” The series “is another amazing platform for us to deliver our message of encouragement, empowerment and inspiration,” said Angel, on a recent afternoon in the courtyard of her favorite Italian restaurant near her home in Toluca Lake.
Angel, 42, says her personal transformation owes largely to her strong belief in God, but she was hesitant to make the leap to acting with “Musical Chairs.” The film, which centers on a love story between a Puerto Rican busboy-janitor-aspiring dancer (E.J. Bonilla) and a white ballroom dancer (Leah Pipes) who becomes paralyzed, featured only two other actors in wheelchairs in major roles.
Angel, who plays the feisty Nicky, said meeting the ensemble of players who appear in the indie movie from director Susan Seidelman (“Desperately Seeking Susan”) convinced her to take the role. “Once I met the cast I understood why they were in it — they were perfectly cast,” said Angel.
Seidelman said she felt it was important to incorporate disabled performers into the film to the greatest degree possible, and when it came time to cast the project, she did online research to find potential actors.
“We went on an Internet search and looked up wheelchair dancing and saw [Angel’s] website,” the filmmaker said. “When I talked to her on the phone and our producer met her, she was so perfect because her story really in some ways mirrored the story of the film.”
Angel said she did her best to educate her able-bodied costars about the reality of life in a wheelchair, so she took them out to lunch on the streets of New York, where the film was shot. “They were blown away because in rehearsal, everything is perfectly acceptable,” Angel explained. “But once they went out in the real world, they noticed the cracks in the streets and trying to go down the curves.
“There is a challenge every time I roll out of my house and go into the natural world,” she added. “But it is the attitude you have when you go out and face the world head on.... I learned from my father at a very early age to take challenges ... and run with it.”
For her part, Angel said her greatest challenge came from learning ballroom dance, which is quite different from wheelchair hip-hop. “Hip-hop is freedom of interpretation of yourself without limitations of posture,” said Angel, who worked with three choreographers on “Musical Chairs.” “But ballroom and ballet — there is definitely a serious posture that you have to respect. I thought being a natural dancer, it would be easy for me to go right into it, but I had to learn a whole new respect for posture and dancing.”
Seidelman found Angel “amazing” to work with. “She wasn’t camera shy and because the story had so much personal meaning to her ... she was totally real and natural.”
Now she’s moving on to new challenges. Angel and her husband of five years, DJ Eric “Stretch Boogie”’ Rivera, are working on an album that is due out later this year, and “Push Girls” chronicles the couple’s efforts to conceive a child.
“There are so many things I am dipping my wheels in,” she said with a wide grin.
-- Susan King
Photo: Auti Angel Credit: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times