Is it Mambo or Salsa? Only the Clave Knows!

dance history Sep 03, 2019

by Mike Bello

My background in salsa and mambo is New York-based.
I grew up listening and dancing to salsa as far back as I can remember.

Before the advent of terms like "Hip-Hop", "Disco" and "Salsa" my contemporaries and I used to call them "Soul", "Rock" and "Latin".

As a teenager, I used to go to New York's Bethesda Fountain in Central Park to play congas, campanas, guiros, maracas and claves.

At age twenty, I joined the U.S. Air Force and maintained my "Salsa roots" by associating with other Latinos at the bases at which I was stationed and I
also worked as the DJ at clubs and functions (usually a mixture of domestic dance music and Salsa).

In 1988 I left the Air Force and returned to New York.

After several months of getting back into the Salsa scene (at least three days a week at places like the Copacabana and the Palladium) I witnessed
something that changed my life forever.

Every weekend in the summer near the handball courts at Orchard Beach in the Bronx, the DJ, Ernie Ensley, played salsa.

On one such day, I arrived there to a crowd of people that was surrounding a couple of figures dancing.

When I was able to see the couple, they turned out to be a boy of about nine years old and, what appeared to be, his father.

They were dancing a pretty serious routine of shines.

I mentioned to someone nearby that "when I grow up I want to be just like that kid."

It was then that I discovered that there was a venue in the East Village of New York called the Manhattan Plaza which housed the Mambo Society.
Many former Eddie Torres dance team members, as well as other notable dancers in New York, had gotten together to help propagate the knowledge of mambo.

Dancers like Paula Cournier (founder of the Mambo Society), Evelyn Negron, Addie and Angel Rodriguez, Mimi Medina, Paul Calderon, Evelyn Leon, Stacey Lopez, Nydia Ocasio, Aurjelio Rodriguez, David Melendez, Janice Bruno, David Campbell and on and
on and on.

There is where I discovered how to dance on 2, or more precisely, "en clave," in the timing I refer to as "Modern Mambo."

I immediately became a part of the Mambo Society and was probably its most ardent supporter.

Shortly thereafter, I began teaching the shines I learned, being involved with putting together small routines and performing them.

This, I found out later from Eddie Torres, was the beginning of the resurgence of mambo in New York.

What a pleasure it was to see so many individuals getting back to mambo and really tearing up the dance floor in a clave-oriented way.

Style, grace and enjoyment were the most apparent aspects portrayed by these experienced and knowledgeable dancers.

What wasn't so obvious, unless you really paid attention, was
the camaraderie, civility, courtesy and concern that they exhibited whenever they danced.

A constant respect for neighboring dancers on the dance floor while syncopating the rhythms came naturally as they refrained from lifts, dips,
drops and tricks that are so fashionable in other locales.

Major adherence to dance floor etiquette continues to create a more relaxed and safe dance floor experience as an accurate expression of the music was
conveyed through mambo.


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