Salsa music has been in my life for as long as I can remember and in the mid 1970's I became proficient in dancing, what we called, Latin while attending Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) in New York.
I had always danced, as my mother did, in a side to side and circular fashion. During those college days, many students were dancing in a new, front to back "slot" kind of way.
During the dance socials at college I quickly emulated this new way of dancing. It reminded me of the hustle, which I did very well, and I very much wanted to learn to dance to Salsa this new way.
When I tried it, though, I found that something was missing in my execution of this dance!
During the weekly Friday afternoon socials at BMCC I befriended one fellow named George who seemed to me to be one of the better dancers.
George eventually showed me this new style and I was happily on the road to becoming one of the more sought-after dancers among my peers.
A couple of years later I enlisted in the Air Force, traveled the world and continued dancing both the hustle and Mambo as much as possible.
During my time in the military I became a Disc Jockey with the name MAGIC MIKE (maintaining my profession in that field until about 1999) playing many types of dance music (Hip-Hop, Club, Techno, House, R&B, Freestyle or Latin Hip-Hop, Disco AND Salsa).
My last assignment before coming back to New York was Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
While there, I was a partner in a DJ service company, S&M Productions. We played at various popular clubs and venues all around the Island.
One of the better-known nightclubs in which we launched Salsa was Reni's (in Pearl City), owned by "Magnum PI" co-star Roger Mosely.
You can bet that I continued not only to play the music, but to dance to it as well!
Fast forward to the beginning of the summer season in Orchard Beach, New York, 1989.
The DJ by the handball courts (Ernie Ensley) is playing Salsa music, while a crowd of about 200 people surrounded a pair of dancers.
One is approximately in his late twenties-early thirties, and the other is about 9 years old!
This apparent father and son team were doing some really hot fancy footwork, called shines.
I was so taken with how effortlessly they seemed to be executing those intricate steps that I said to the person nearest me, "When I grow up I want to be just like that kid!"
Unbeknownst to yours truly, this was the beginning of my true MAMBO LIFE!
I discovered a venue in New York's East Village, the Manhattan Plaza, where "mambo heads" got together and instructed those who wanted enlightenment in the ways of dancing "en clave".
This converted former ABC television studio became, literally, a hotbed of Mambo activity!
Promoted by Tony Ortiz and directed by Paula Cournier, this became the home of the Mambo Society.
Every Wednesday, from 6PM to 10PM, the dancing was non-stop! Every level of Modern Mambo was delivered to the dance-hungry, soon-to-be mambo fanatics!
The atmosphere was relaxed, especially in the summer due in part to the lack of air conditioning.
Talk about working up a sweat!
Though the facility boasted about half a dozen fans descended from its 30 foot ceiling, it was usually about 80 degrees indoors (even with all the doors open).
Yet that did not matter to the existing and future mambo maniacs making their weekly sojourn for the perfection of the dance that would transform many of their lives.
OK, so now imagine this scenario: Every Wednesday, folks from all over New York City (including parts of New Jersey), and of just about every ethnicity would arrive after work at around 6 PM to a cavernous room with a hardwood floor about one and a half times the size of a basketball court!
Usually in business suits, most everyone would carry a bag of workout clothing.
The cover charge was a mere two dollars!
Once inside, people would gravitate to the area which provided the mambo instruction they needed most.
At the entrance (led by Angel Rodriguez and his wife, Addie), one could see about 50 mambo initiates "hammering in" the basic fundamental steps of the dance.
Most of these people had never danced anything in their lives and for four hours straight, the basic step was the only concept covered.
The cool thing was hearing one concerted stomp when the left foot came down on the front "break."
About twenty feet away from the crowd of the BASIC mambo dancers you would find ME... instructing approximately two dozen dancers!
I worked with them on the first five shines of a 25-step shine routine, created just for the Mambo Society by two ladies, Mimi Medina and Evelyn Negron, a copy of which (like the one above) I keep with me to this day.
Now, frankly, I was just learning the routine as well, but I took it upon myself to break down and drill the steps for a few people at first and then attendance by others just grew.
My efforts in instructing others helped me to "own" those steps as I progressed to the other shines with the same fervor as I had at the beginning of the routine.
This would go on for an hour, and then for another hour I'd join another three dozen, dancing the entire routine repeatedly.
We would all take a break and refresh ourselves with water and sliced fruit provided by Tony Ortiz and Paula Cournier.
Without fail, everyone was drenched and happily looked forward not only to enjoying the break, but to continuing dancing as well!
Paula would then select a small group, and go out into the hallway (away from the music) to break down the mambo basic and explain how it applied to the clave.
This was my first exposure to "la clave."
The funny thing about it is that I am pretty particular about accepting information that I receive.
Having had many years of medical training and responsibility (I was in charge of a team in Flight Medicine with the US Air Force), I typically need real proof before I believe something.
I have to say that almost from the moment I was first made really aware of its existence, something rang true and I GOT IT--the truth of the clave as the life force that drives the music and dance.
I accepted the truth about clave kind of like one might accept religion, even without "proof" at the time, because deep down it FEELS RIGHT, and like a religion, I embraced the "word" of the clave, and discovered and established my signature "AOTC" (Always On The Clave)!
Eventually, I would get that proof, growing constantly, but it didn't matter then, because I felt and believed. The proof was otherwise in the dancing...
Always on the Clave!