Have you ever thought about why you dance Salsa the way you do? Perhaps you’ve even wondered who invented the Susie Q? Perhaps not.
Whatever your level of curiosity, there are many dancers who influenced Salsa/Mambo dancing in the early years, and we wanted to highlight some of them.
The roots of Salsa extend from West Africa, through Cuban Son, and Mambo. This blog post is an attempt to recognize a few legends who helped establish Mambo (and subsequently Salsa) as a dance after its rise in popularity in the 1950s.
It is not meant to be an all encompassing history of both the dance and music. If you’d like to share other dancers with us, then please feel free to do so! Hopefully we can help spark a bit of interest in those (much like ourselves) who aren’t dance encyclopedia’s, and are curious to learn about dance history.
Carmela Dante DeFrancesco (1934-2007) and Pedro Aguilar (1927-2009) were two of the first popular Mambo dancers. Better known as Millie Donay and Cuban Pete, the duo danced at the famed Palladium Ballroom in New York City back in the 1950s. In 1949 the Palladium began allowing Hispanics to enter the ballroom and it became the Mecca of Mambo in the USA.
In 1952 African-Americans were allowed to join the party and the venue became an intercultural melting pot where all people could celebrate latin dance and music. Donay (Italian) and Pete (Puerto Rican) met at the Palladium in 1952 and they won several dance contests held there. Donay was a formidable Lindy Hopper and brought many of those techniques to the ‘new’ Mambo that was becoming popular in the NYC. Donay and another popular dancer of her day (Marilyn Winters) joined together to form the first all-female Mambo performance team. Pete trained as a boxer in his youth, but began using his feet to compete, instead of his fists, after winning a dance contest. If you’ve ever heard of the ‘Susie Q’ step, credit Cuban Pete for inventing the move. He was proclaimed ‘greatest mambo dancer alive’ by Life Magazine in 1954. He also trained Antonio Banderas to dance for his role in the movie, “The Mambo Kings” (1992). Check out the clip below for a video about Donay and Pete.
Augustin Rodriguez and Margo Bartolonei (better known as Augie and Margo) were another influential couple who helped build the foundation of Salsa/Mambo. Like Cuban Pete and Millie, they got together due to a dance contest they won. They fused Flamenco dancing and Mambo to give them a style that was uniquely there own, which gave them a different vibe then most other dancers of their time. The duo was incredibly influential in extending Mambo throughout the globe, and bringing it into mainstream consciousness. As with most talented Mambo dancers of the era, they could often be found dancing at the Palladium…however, they had bigger dreams and aspirations. They developed dance routines beyond Mambo (such as jazz) and eventually became internationally known.
They performed with such popular acts as Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Tito Rodriguez, and The Tito Puente Orchestra. They also performed for President Nixon, President Kennedy, and the Queen of England. They married in 1950, but later divorced. Watch the video below, and you will recognize many of the same elements and tricks from contemporary Mambo performances. Notice the spin at the end of the clip? The next time you attend a Salsa Congress and see about four couples do the move you will know who originated it!
That leads us to the ‘Mambo King’, Eddie Torres. Mr. Torres studied the rhythms of the Mambo musicians of the 50s and 60s, and in the 1970s created and perfected the dominate Salsa teaching methodology that still exists today. If your current instructor doesn’t know who Eddie Torres is…then you may need to consider getting a new teacher. Below Mr. Torres talks about his dance influences and these individuals had a direct impact on how he danced. It is a YouTube clip from an interview with Salsa Legends And Masters Academy at Slamanater.com. We have also provided a link to his profile below if you wish to read more about him. Watch the clip below for some additional Salsa/Mambo history from ‘The Mambo King’ himself.
The knowledge from the video below should go into the ‘Salsa Dancing Bible’, if there was such a thing. He again talks about his influences, how ‘On2’ was invented, and the importance of finding your own style.
A must see documentary about the Latin Music genre in the United States (and Salsa, in particular) is ‘Latin Music USA’. It was a 4-part documentary produced by PBS in 2009. Watch all four 1-hour episodes as they tie in to each other. There is a WEALTH of information in this documentary.
Highly recommended. They are available both in Spanish and English.
Click the pic to access the documentary.
Please feel free to post comments on other dancers who paved the way for Salsa enthusiasts of today, and help their stories and legacy live on.