Wednesday, October 01, 2008

It is wild. It is sexy. It is the mambo

Around 1950 a new music and dance craze swept across the Americas - Mambo. It had emerged in Cuba during the 1930s as a series of variations within existing styles before becoming seen as something new, distinct and fashionable.

In New York, the key centre for Mambo was the Palladium dance hall in Manhattan. After visiting it in 1951, writer Jess Stearn wrote an article for the New York Daily News with the headline: 'Touch of Jungle Madness: Denizens of Broadway go Slightly Primitive under Spell of the Wild Sweaty Mambo'. The article continued 'it may turn the Great White Way into a veritable Congoland before it is through. It is wild. It is sexy. It is the mambo'.

David Garcia argues that such statements - not uncommon amongst writers in the USA and Cuba - reflected a 'shared sense of anxiety over and desire for racial and cultural Others whose sounds and bodily movements did not complement those commentators' concepts of a culturally and racially homogeneous nation'. They tended to cast 'Latin musicians and mambo music as relics of the remote or "primitive" human past' and by implication not belonging in the present on equal terms with other musics or indeed people.

Dance teachers saw a potential new market in popularising Mambo, but only by reducing it to a simplified series of steps. In a 1951 article in Dance Magazine, Don Byrnes and Alice Swanson argued that 'It is now the responsibility of the teacher to standardize, discipline and properly present this thrilling dance to make it acceptable'.

By contrast, Garcia found that 'Cuban and Puerto Rican dancers... emphasize the individuated, extemporaneous and communal aspects that defined and inspired their dancing in the 1940s and 1950s'. In contrast to rigid steps, the first generation of Mambo dancers stressed 'feeling the music', inner emotions, spontaneity and dancing as 'an embodied experience, in which sound and movement were merged through the body'.

Source: Going primitive to the movements and sounds of Mambo, David F. Garcia in Musical Quarterly, volume 89 (4), Winter 2006

Some great footage of Mambo dancing in Harlem in early 1950s, posted by the folks at

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