Mambo: Cuba Created It, New York Perfected It!

history Aug 28, 2019

by Mike Bello


It’s finally been said. 

Mambo is as Cuban as apple pie is American.

For the most part, though, apple pie has not made many changes in its recipe.

The same cannot be said about mambo.

From the first introduction to the United States, the dance known as mambo has evolved and taken on rather different directions.

Because of the proximity to the Caribbean, New York became the center for mambo and the maniacs it created.

And, when Cuba became inaccessible New York became its foster parent.

Many Latinos who either grew up in New York or settled there from their homelands took to the dance with an insatiable fervor.

But, many non-Hispanics became insidiously infected with the pleasant disease called mambo mania.

With this veritable sancocho of ethnicities the evolution of mambo began.

Distinctly, it was becoming more "New York" with the style migrating from the hips to the shoulders and back again.

Body styling and movement were becoming more fluid and graceful.

The Fifties and early Sixties were Mambo's heyday and many New Yorkers like Killer Joe Piro, Cuban Pete and Millie, Lenny Dale, Augie and Margo, Papo Conga, June LaBerta, Andrew Jarrick and Charlie (Cha-Cha Aces) and the Mambo Aces were dancing a clave flurry on the dance floors of venues like the Tropicana, Abelmarle Towers, Basin Street East, Riverside Plaza, Chez Jose, Delira, Hunts Point Palace, Colgate Gardens, 310 1/2  and the legendary Palladium. 

Many of the great mambo dancers also had training in other dance forms (ballet, jazz, tap, etc.) which they applied to mambo to add a new dimension to it, though never losing the clave.

The early 1970's saw the advent of many changes in the world.

Of course, mambo was no exception.

Many of the clave-based rhythms were being grouped into a seemingly new genre of music, called Salsa. 

Disco was also making strides in America and a new type of couple/partner dance emerged.

The hustle was introduced approximately 1972 and many of the young, particularly in New York, began to master it.

Interestingly, a great many dancers were either dancing mambo, the hustle or both. What transpired then was an intermingling of the styles.

Dancers would borrow from each form to enhance what they were dancing at the time.

Turn patterns, with the occasional dip or drop, flourished and blossomed into what became the Latin hustle.

By the mid to late 70's, the Latin hustle became very prominent and the mambo infection was becoming stagnant.

That is to say that not as many new dancers were flocking to mambo. Yet, those who had been dancing never gave up on it entirely.

One such individual, Eddie Torres, was instrumental in keeping the mambo flame alive. You could say that he is the Father of Modern Mambo. Everything that is attributed to the style is a reflection of Eddie Torres' passion and innovation.

He became the "Rock of Gibraltar" - teaching, creating, and maintaining.

The 80's spawned nothing new or dramatic.

Well…at least not until the late 80's when there was a mambo resurgence in New York.

The mambo dance community was very limited.

Merengue turned out to be the flavor of the decade (even in Puerto Rico) and many salseros were not that interested in dancing to salsa, at least not as much as in previous years.

Then, 1988 saw small groups of people, many of them former Eddie Torres dancers, wanting to share their knowledge of mambo with anyone who was interested.

One such group banded together and became the Mambo Society. 

This was the beginning of the resurgence of mambo in New York and the rest of the world.

For only a two dollar entrance fee you could spend four hours every Wednesday evening learning everything from the basic clave step to advanced shines to partnering and styling.

This also turned out to be the breeding ground for many of today's New York professional mambo dance companies (Angel & Addie Rodriguez' Razz M'Tazz, David Melendez' Starlight Studios, Jimmy Anton, Nydia Ocasio, etc).

In the past decade, mambo has again become the infectious little bug that was so contagious in the 50's and 60's.

Eddie Torres is as strong as ever and there are many respectable mambo schools and dance companies in New York.

It is getting much attention outside of New York as well with performances and workshops around the globe.

So, Cuba gave birth to mambo, but New York fed, nurtured, and supported the "dance of the clave."


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