When Liz Imperio’s parents came to the United States from Cuba, they never imagined that their daughter would become the woman behind the dance moves of some of the most iconic women in the world. From Gloria Estefan to J. Lo to Madonna to Cher – if you’ve ever seen any of these ladies dance, chances are Imperio choreographed their steps.
At 2 ½ years old, she was in ballet class twice a week. By 7, she was going every day. It was a humble start for this self-proclaimed “fat kid” whose parents were told by the family doctor that their daughter needed to exercise or diet.
“Dieting in a Cuban family was out, so dance classes would be my way to a healthier body. I was hooked to dance the day I was introduced to the National Cuban Ballet star Alicia Alonzo —my mother had danced with her in the company in Cuba,” Imperio said. “When I met Alonzo, she was about 49 or 52 years old and practically blind. It was a defining moment for me. She was and is today the core of my inspiration.”
Liz is one of the most talented and inspirational choreographers working today. Her track record shows that she is a true virtuoso.
- Famed choreographer Kenny Ortega
Unfortunately, when Imperio hit puberty her body changed. Her mother suggested she try Flamenco, a more forgiving dance form for the curvy girl, and one that Imperio happened to be very good at.
By the time she turned 16, Imperio was working as assistant to famed choreographer, producer and director Kenny Ortega, who directed TV shows like High-School Musical and Gilmore Girls, and most recently the Michael Jackson, This Is It concert. At the time, Ortega had been hired to direct and choreograph a television show based on the film Dirty Dancing (he is currently working on a re-make of the movie.)
Ortega said the first time he met Imperio, she “brought us to our knees.”
“I was hooked then, and remain hooked to this day with Liz's talent and passion for dance,” he said. “Liz is one of the most talented and inspirational choreographers working today. Her track record shows that she is a true virtuoso.”
He said there is nothing she can’t do.
“She is a diva and has earned the right to be called that,” he said. “There isn't a person in the industry that has worked with her that would disagree.”
It was Imperio’s solo work with Gloria Estefan that set her career in motion. After 15 years working with Estefan, Imperio got a call in 2001 from Jennifer Lopez’s then-boyfriend, Chris Judd, an old friend of Imperio’s and Ms. Lopez’s back-up dancer. Imperio was asked to choreograph J.Lo’s “Let’s Get Loud” NBC special —it was Lopez’s first live, two-hour performance.
“Having worked with many choreographers over the years, Liz Imperio’s creativity is genius,” Lopez said. “Not only is she unique in all areas, but also her feel for the Latin influence comes so naturally. Liz is talented and driven and I cannot imagine my team without her."
In that time, Imperio began working with Madonna and Cher. She danced on the Dick Tracy film and later choreographed Madonna’s “Re-invention” tour.
“Madonna is a tough cookie and a total perfectionist with her hand in every aspect of her work,” Imperio said. “She has a very defined idea of what she wants and she has no problem asking that musical numbers be re-worked or re-done completely several times until she’s happy.”
She worked with Cher on “If I Could Turn Back Time.” She said the singer was quieter, but no less demanding.
“We had a whole number choreographed with the Navy guys, but by the time we got her hair and makeup done, we ran out of time to do the dance number. We were shocked when she chose to wear those famous behind revealing pants,” Imperio said. “It’s not the choice anyone else would have made. But all of these women take risks with no fear of failing. They totally put themselves out there.”
Ten years later, Imperio got a call from American Idol to choreograph the finale with J.Lo and then-husband Marc Anthony. She said she realized then her career was coming full circle.
Lately Imperio has been working with some very hot up-and-coming talents, including Dominican-Republic born singer Leslie Grace, whose first single, “Will U Still Love Me Tomorrow”, went No. 1 (the youngest women ever) on the Latin pop Charts.
Imperio said she feels blessed about her career and where she is today.
“I’m happy to be in the company of these women – Alicia Alonzo and J. Lo,” she said. “ And I’m proud to promote and represent Latino heritage from our music to the dancing, and watch this huge expansion into the worldwide market.”
Rebekah Sager is a nationally published lifestyle and culture writer. She's a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow Rebekah on Twitter @Rebekah_Sager.