Ballroom Dance Club – Mambo: a conversation with the Gods

Steve Holdener

Mambo is a highly energetic Latin musical form and dance style. However, it is not to be confused with a Mamba also known as The Black Mamba, a very deadly snake in sub-Sahara Africa. The word mambo (“conversation with the gods”) is the name of a priestess in Haitian Voodoo derived from the language of the African slaves who were imported into the Caribbean. The mambo is a musical and dance vehicle which contained the culture, religion and identity of a people and lived through different regions and times to still unite individuals through harmony and understanding across all boundaries.

Mambo is a favorite Latin dance of Cuba and has multiple facets of invention, development and popularity. It was invented in the 1930s by native Cuban musician and composer Arsenio Rodriguez then developed in Havana by Cachao and finally made popular by Damaso Perez Prado and Benny More.

To gain an appreciation of mambo music and dance it may be worth your time to rent the 1992 video of The Mambo Kings starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas (his first all English movie). The two play musician brothers Cesar and Nestor who leave Cuba for America in the 1950s, hoping to hit the top of the Latin music scene. Cesar is the older brother, the business manager and the ladies’ man. Nestor is the brooding songwriter who cannot forget the woman in Cuba who broke his heart. Hence he writes the pensive bolero song Beautiful Maria Of My Soul (Bella Maria De Mi Alma) performed by Los Lobos in the original soundtrack.

The fusion of Swing and Cuban music produced this fascinating rhythm and in turn created a new sensational dance. The mambo could not have been conceived earlier since up to that time, Cuban and American jazz forms were still not wedded. The mambo is attributed to Perez Prado who introduced it at La Tropicana nightclub in Havana in 1943. Since then other Latin-American band leaders such as Tito Rodriquez, Pupi Campo, Tito Puente, Machito and Xavier Cugat have achieved styles of their own and furthered the mambo craze. Some of these band leaders are featured in The Mambo Kings soundtrack.

The mambo first appeared in the United States in New York’s Park Plaza Ballroom—-a favorite hangout of enthusiastic dancers from Harlem. The spirited dance gained its excitement in 1947 at the Palladium and other renowned places such as The China Doll, Havana Madrid and Birdland. However, the mambo craze did not last long and today the mambo is much limited to advanced dancers. Teachers agree that this is one of the most difficult of dances. Two of the greatest contributions of the mambo is that it led to the development of the cha-cha (a favorite of mine) and as an authentic nightclub style of mambo dancing, increasingly known in the 1990s as the salsa (gaining popularity).

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