The Mambo Dance

Learn the origin and history of the mambo dance, including how it is danced, where it came from and how it is viewed today.

The mambo is a very popular and sensual dance, with African and Cuban rhythms. But how did it get its start? How is it danced today? Read this article for a history and overview of the mambo.

Mambo is actually a name for a bantu drum. The word "mambo" means "conversation with the Gods," and these drums were used for sacred and ritual purposes. The mambo is a spinoff of the English country dance, which made its way to Cuba through immigrants. It was named the danza, or the dance of Cuba, and gradually its beat and movement became saturated with African and Cuban rhythms, creating an entirely new beat and style.

Mambo's origin lies in the early 1900's in Cuba. Oresta Lopez, a composer and cellist, created a piece known as the "mambo" mixing everyday Cuban rhythms with the African and south American aspects on the street. The result was a new fusion, and one that supported a continuous beat. Mambo became ever more popular when Prado Perez, a famous bandleader and a friend to Lopez, marketed his music under the name "mambo." It contained big brass and drum sound, and incorporated fast beats and runs on the instruments. In 1951, Perez Prado and his Orchestra took a tour of the United States, establishing Perez as a mambo king and mambo's as America's latest craze. Perez was actually the first to market the "Mambo #5," now popular again in the 1990's! Dancing houses and clubs began to improvise steps to the beat created, and the mambo was born.

This popularity spread to the United Stated very rapidly. It was actually not the first Cuban-African dance to achieve popularity in the United Stated. The rumba was introduced in the 1930's to the American public, and it took on like wildfire. During the mid-1900's, people danced up a mambo storm in Miami, New York and San Fransisco. The mambo was especially popular in New York dance halls, where dancers twisted and turned and threw their partners, arms, legs and hands in the air to win dance competitions. Mambo bands developed intense rivalries as to who could create the best mambo rhythm. Players like Ellington, Gillespie and Bob Hope were all part of this friendly competition.

Mambo is written to music in 4/4 time, but some of these beats call for the partner to hold. The first step on every 4/4 beat has no movement, followed by quick-quick-slow beats. Mambo is characterized by the hip movements that it entails. While moving forward and backwards to the beat, dancers "sway" with the hips, creating a fluid motion that flows with the music. The mambo can exist in different forms. One form, the triple mambo, is so fast that the beat is accelerated to three times its normal rate. Out of this fast-stepping dance came another genre, the cha-cha. What many people do not know is that the cha-cha is actually still a form of the mambo. It's music and beat structure make it a surefire relation.

Modern mambo is considered a New York creation. The fluidity of the dance entered the mambo scene shortly after its emergence into New York. The five note, two bar rhythm pattern known as the clave was the backbone of the dance, and from this New Yorkers like Lenny Dale, Cuban Pete and Killer Joe Piro added steps from jazz, tap and swing. By the mid 1970's, the hustle also became a favorite dance form in New York, and Latin moves were added to create the "Latin hustle." This dance form was the rage in the late 1970's, encompassing mambo with quicker rhythms and steps.

Mambo today exists mainly in competition. When dancing the mambo with a partner in competition, many couples strive for a sensual, Latin look. The mambo is quite different form other dances because it is blatantly sensual, instead of dramatic, fast or flowing. To win a competition in this genre, a full understanding of the sensual capabilities of this dance must be exhibited. For this reason, couples that win in this area tend to do slower, simpler dances with less flashy moves and more graceful simultaneous motions while staring into each other's eyes.

For the modern mambo dancer, while performing the mambo, certain rules of dance etiquette should be used. Public dance halls often have a raving mambo scene, meaning that dancers are moving closely in a crowded area, stepping on each other and executing moves that occasionally put another dancer at risk. To observe the proper rules of etiquette, be aware of the other dancers and the space that you have. Execute your moves accordingly. Practice moves beforehand, so that you don't do anything that may put another dancer at risk. Get a feel for your partner. Can they follow the moves that you are leading? If not, don't lead them. Move on to easier steps as to avoid embarrassment or accident.

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