Can Mambo recapture the glory of its golden days? Can the flashy Cuban dance step find a new following in the 1990’s?
The Mambo dance originated in Cuba where there were substantial settlements of Haitians. In the back country of Haiti, the “Mambo” is a voodoo priestess, who serves the villagers as counselor, healer, exorcist, soothsayer, spiritual advisor, and organizer of public entertainment. However, there is not a folk dance in Haiti called the “Mambo.”
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, the Cuban and American Jazz were still not wedded. The “Mambo” dance is attributed to Perez Prado who introduced it at La Tropicana night-club 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. The Mambo was originally played as any Rumba with a riff ending. It may be described as a riff or a Rumba with a break or emphasis on 2 and 4 in 4/4 time. Native Cubans or musicians without any training would break on any beat. It first appeared in the United States in New York’s Park Plaza Ballroom – a favorite hangout of enthusiastic dancers from Harlem. The Mambo gained its excitement in 1947 at the Palladium and other renowned places such as The China Doll, Havana Madrid and Birdland.
A modified version of the “Mambo” (the original dance had to be toned down due to the violent acrobatics) was presented to the public at dance studios, resort hotels, and at night-clubs in New York and Miami. Success was on the agenda. Mambo happy dancers soon became known affectionately as “Mambonicks”.
The Mambo craze did not last long and today the Mambo is much limited to advanced dancers. Teachers agreed that this is one of the most difficult of dances. One of the greatest contributions of the Mambo is that it led to the development of the Cha-Cha.The Mambo is enjoying a renewed popularity due to a number of films featuring the dance as well as a man named Eddie Torres. Eddie is a New York dance pro and Mambo fanatic who has launched a crusade to make sure the dance reigns in the ballroom once again. Torres has become the leading exponent of the style, steadily building a reputation as a dancer, instructor, and choreographer. He has become known as the “Mambo King of Latin Dance”. Torres is determined to reintroduce dancers to what he believes is the authentic night-club style of mambo dancing, which in the 1990’s is increasingly known as Salsa.
“It’s a great time for Latin American dances,” says Torres. “The Mambo is hot now, like it was in the ’50’s. It is a dance with many influences — African, Cuban, Jazz, Hip-Hop, even some ballet. You’ll never run out of steps.”
Popular Mambo songs include “Mambo Italiano”, “Papa Loves Mambo”, “Mambo #5”, “I Saw Mommy Do The Mambo”, and “They Were Doin’ The Mambo”. ‘Dance City’, the superb CD album featuring Hernandez and the Mambo Kings Orchestra, stands on its own as one of the best recordings of its kind in years, an energetic big band-style session that recalls the glory days of Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez.
Of all the dances available to us, Merengue is by far the easiest to learn! Since the 1930s Merengue is readily recognised as the national dance of the Dominican Republic. However, there is some controversy regarding it’s origins. To get an unbiased opinion we really do need to differentiate between the music’s historical roots and the nostalgia of the dance itself. Musically, it has links with Cuba but the dance belongs to the island of Hispaniola – one third of which is now called Haiti and the other two thirds make up the Dominican Republic.
A quick look at the island’s history might assist in providing some understanding to the debate about Merengue’s origins.
In 1697 Spain ceded one third of the island of Hispaniola to France, who created the colony of Saint-Dominique. The French colony became the most productive agricultural colony in the Western Hemisphere. By contrast the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo was small and it’s economy mainly depended on subsistance agriculture. Prosperous French plantation owners sought to maximise production by importing great numbers of slaves.
By 1790 Saint-Dominique was a powder keg waiting to explode! About 500,000 black slaves were being managed by only 57,000 whites and freedmen (in Santo Domingo there were about 60,000 black slaves to 65,000 whites and freedmen). The inevitable happened and in 1791 the slaves revolted. The initial reaction of Freedmen, French colonists and Spanish colonists to news of the slaughter of Frenchmen to armies of rebellious slaves was to flee to Cuba taking some of their slaves with them. It took 20 years before the first of these emigries returned to the island. Hence the Cuban connection. It is regularly discussed whether the Merengue music was taken to Cuba (influencing the music there) or whether on return to Santo Domingo the emigries brought back Cuban music which in turn influenced the development of Merengue.
The independent nation of Haiti was established in 1804 and ruled the entire island to 1844. Hence, the Haitian connection. Of the dance; one story alleges it originated with slaves who were chained together and, of necessity, were forced to drag one leg as they cut sugar to the beat of the drums. This being true the dance probably originated with the slaves of the French Colony.
However, the most popular story relates that a great hero of the revolution, who had been crippled in one leg was welcomed home with a victory celebration. It was known that he loved to dance but all he could do now, was step with one leg and drag the other to close. Out of respect, everyone dancing copied him and the Merengue was born. The trouble with this story is that “which revolution” is not mentioned. If it is the slave revolt then the dance originated in Haiti. If it was the revolt of Spanish emigries against the Haitians then the dance could be either Dominican or Hiatian depending on which side tells the story.
Who invented the dance and how it came to exist really doesn’t matter to anyone but the Dominicans and maybe the Haitians! The important thing is the imagery of the above stories, both describe stepping side and dragging the other leg to close both are worth remembering as you learn the basic dance steps.
From the middle of the 18th century the Merengue developed as rural music in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. However, the Haitian méringue is sung in Creole and tends to have a slower, more nostalgic sound, based on guitar.
The most representative form of Merengue only survives in the rural areas of the Dominican Republic. It consists of paseo (walk), body and “jaleo”. In time the walk disappeared, the body has been extended and the jaleo has been alienated by the insertion of exotic rhythms.
These days, Merengue is done with the man holding the woman in a vals-like position, they step to the side (paso de la empalizada – stick fence step). Turn clockwise or counter clockwise while maintaining closed dance position (merengue de salón) or individually perform turns while holding onto at least one hand of their partner (merengue de figura).
Strangers and older couples tend to keep a respectable distance from each other, while more intimate couples break the barriers of personal space and entwine their bodies. Whatever age the contagious beat causes the adrenaline to rise and you can imagine yourself dancing bare foot to the pulse of a Caribbean sunset.
Bachata is a popular guitar music from the Dominican Republic. While Bachata is based on the bolero rhythm, bachateros have traditionally included other kinds of music like son, Merengue, vals and ranchera in their repertoires. The influence of all of these styles, and particularly that of Merengue, can be felt in the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of Bachata proper.
Guitar music has always been a part of the Dominican musical landscape, but the first Bachata recognized as such was recorded in 1961 by José Manuel Calderón. The Bachata of Calderón and his contemporaries was virtually identical to the bolero of other Latin American countries like Puerto Rico and Ecuador. In fact many of the songs which these bachateros recorded were covers of earlier boleros, and the music was viewed by society at large in the same way that bolero was viewed throughout Latin America—a romantic music popular with lovers and serenaders.
In time, however, Bachata began to be associated with another world, that of prostitution, poverty and delincuency. The reasons for this are many and complex and involve the conflicts within Dominican society around poverty and wealth, tradition and modernity, as well as genuine bad faith on the part of other elements in the music industry. So strong was the stigma against Bachata that only one national radio station would play it. While this situation was deplorable and extremely difficult for the musicians involved, it also helped to consolidate the genre. Relegated to the brothel and the barrio, Bachata began to tell the stories of that world, the experiences of the lover of a prostitute, the poor country boy who gets to the city and gets ripped off, the plight of the barrio dweller without light or water—all replete with slang and sexual double entendre. From about 1970 to about 1990, Bachata was thoroughly unique among Latin American musical genres in its free expression of the underground life of a nation. This free expression naturally provoked even more fiercely the contempt of the Dominican mainstream. Ironically, it was the most despised of these cabaret bachateros, Blas Durán, the master of sexual double entendre, whose music marked the end of Bachata’s isolation when he began to record with an electric guitar in 1987.
After Durán’s innovation Bachata’s popularity began to soar, as Anthony Santos and other bachateros used the new style to record more acceptable, romantic songs. The influence of Merengue became marked in the rhythm and the guitar lines of the music, and in fact modern Bachata was first made popular by the bachateros’ Merengues rather than by their Bachatas. Several middle class musicians, notably Juan Luis Guerra, also experimented with the form, and were so successful that the music began to be accepted by all sectors of society.
In its current form, Bachata is listened to throughout Latin America, and is probably the most popular kind of Latin music in New York City today. It has been fused with other styles, like Vallenato (Monchy y Alexandra, among others) and R&B (Aventura), with great success.
Latin Cha Cha
In the late 1940s, Havana, Cuba, was one of the most popular resorts for North Americans, especially those residing along the east coast. The most famous American dance bands as well as the many outstanding latin bands native to Cuba played at the city’s casinos. Some of these orchestras tried combining the American JAZZ beat with the Cuban RUMBA rhythm; The result was a new rhythm called the MAMBO.
A dance was developed to the new mambo rhythm, danced to the off beat rather than the traditional downbeat. For this reason, the dance was popular mainly with dancers thoroughly familiar with complex Afro-Cuban music. However, among the many figures of the mambo was one called the “chatch”, which involved three quick changes of weight preceded by two slow steps. By the early 1950s, this figure had developed into a new dance comprised of many simple variations on the basic footwork. The dance acquired the name CHA-CHA ; its characteristic three-step change of weight carried the identifying verbal definition, “cha-cha-cha”.
The cha-cha inherited much of its styling from its parent dances, the rumba and the mambo. Like most latin dances, it is done with the feet remaining close to the floor. The dancers’ hips are relaxed to allow free movement in the pelvic section. The upper body shifts over the supporting foot, as steps are taken.
When the English dance teacher Pierre Lavelle visited Cuba in 1952, he realised that sometimes the Rumba was danced with extra beats. When he returned to Britain, he started teaching these steps as a separate dance (Lavelle, 1975, 2). The name could have been derived from the Spanish ‘Chacha’ meaning ‘nursemaid’, or ‘chachar’ meaning ‘to chew coca leaves’ (Smith, 1971, 161), or from ‘char’ meaning “tea’ (Taylor, 1958, 150), or most likely from the fast and cheerful’Cuban dance: the Guaracha (Ellfeldt, 1974,59). This dance has been popular in Europe from before the turn of the century. For example it is listed on the program of the Finishing Assembly in 1898 of Dancie Neill at Coupar Angus in Scotland (Hood, 1980, 102).
It has also been suggested that the name Cha Cha is derived onomatipeically from the sound of the feet in the chasse which is included in many of the steps (Sadie, 1980, 5/86).
In 1954, the dance was described as a “Mambo with a guiro rhythm” (Burchfield, 1976, I/473). A guiro is a musical instrument consisting of a dried gourd rubbed by a serrated stick (Burchfield, 1976, I/1318).
The Mambo originated in Haiti, and was introduced to the West in 1948 by Prado (Burchfield, 1976, II/809). The word “Mambo” is the name of a Voodoo priestess in the religion brought by the Negroes from Africa (Ellfeldt, 1974, 86). Thus the Cha Cha had its origins in the religious ritual dances of West Africa. There are three forms of Mambo: single, double, and triple. The triple has five (!) steps to a bar, and this is the version that evolved into the Cha Cha (Rust, 1969, 105) (Sadie, 1980, 100).
The “Cha Cha” is danced currently at about 120 beats per minute. The steps are taken on the beats, with a strong hip movement as the knee straightens on the half beats in between. The weight is kept well forward, with forward steps taken toe-flat, and with minimal torso movement. The chasse on 4&1 is used to emphasise the step on beat 1, which may be held a moment longer than the other steps to match the emphasis of the beat in the music