Mambo King Pete

Lucy is at it again. Ricky is in white tie and tails, wowing the nightclub crowd with his 1946 hit "Cuban Pete." He opens his arms wide, inviting the audience to join him in a "dance/of Latin romance. Cuban Pete won't teach you in a hurry/Like Arthur Murray," his song promises. "Cuz I'm from Havana/and there's always mañana."

Suddenly a rousing vamp overtakes the light Latin beat. Lucy breaks into the show, dressed as Sally Sweet, "the Queen of Delancey Street," wearing a ruffled skirt and a feather in her hair. "Ay, yay-yay!" worries Ricky. "Listen, Cuban Pete," insists the zany redhead while chomping a wad of gum, "have the Cubans a different beat?/And if they do/can you teach me to/chick-chickie-boom, chick-chickie-boom, chick-chickie-boom?"

In the 1950s I Love Lucy ruled television. Real-life band leader Damaso Perez Prado outlasted Elvis Presley on the pop charts. And everyone in the United States wanted to dance like Cuban Pete. Eager steppers bought "dance kits" that contained the latest records and a footprint-covered floor chart. In 1954 Life magazine declared the nation "mad for mambo." And the best mambo dancer, said Life, was Pete Aguilar, a Puerto Rican from Spanish Harlem, who earned the nickname Cuban Pete by winning title after title at New York City's legendary Latin ballroom, the Palladium.

Edward Villella, now artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, was a kid growing up in Queens back then. More than 40 years later, the mambo still rings in his ears. Villella says he decided "to pay homage to the great ballroom artists and the legacy they left us" in a full-length survey of U.S. social dance. When complete, Ballroom Ballet will culminate in Mambo No. 2 A.M.

The frenzy unleashed by the mambo might seem a far cry from the formalism Villella champions as a disciple of choreographer George Balanchine. While classical ballet takes dancers on their tiptoes to ethereal heights, the Afro-Cuban mambo roots dancers to the earth. Ballet keeps the torso and pelvis still, elegant levers for extending the limbs. Mambo pulsates at the hip and bursts into spectacular spasms across the shoulders and chest.

Villella began fusing the two dance forms by doing research in local salsa hotspots Starfish and Club Mystique. There he observed the Cuban ensemble ring dance, rueda. "I said, 'Wow!'" he recalls. "The structure, form, line, and exchange all suggest [the classical] tradition. There can indeed be a compatibility here." To teach his neoclassical ballerinas a little chick-chickie-boom, Villella consulted Cuban Pete.

The mambo maestro moved to South Florida from Puerto Rico because the ballet legend "called and said he needed my help right away." The most important lesson to impart: the clave. "My mama taught me how to dance," Cuban Pete remembers, "but the muchachos in the band taught me the clave." A five-beat pattern over an eight-count phrase, the clave is key not only for the mambo, but also for related dances, from the rumba to salsa. "[Mambo great] Machito taught me that as dancers," Cuban Pete continues, "our bodies are the extension of the clave."

Cuban Pete worked directly with Villella. "Whenever he asked me for something, I gave him some steps," says Pete, who did not stick strictly to mambo. "Sometimes I would give him something from rumba, sometimes something from ñañigo, which is a religious dance. He would take whatever he could use. Sometimes he would make five, six, seven, or eight variations on the same step."

The piece begins with a furious conga line that snakes into a circle around a single couple. The pair dances a ballet version of rumba, a social dance of courtship that developed in Cuba early in the past century. In rumba the man pursues the woman, who plays hard to get. If he dances well enough, she surrenders in the end.

For Cuban Pete Mambo 2 A.M. is a romance, too. "Do you know we made history?" he asks earnestly. "This was the first time that ballet made a marriage with Latin dance. I feel proud that my people's music has finally been recognized as artistic and has been preserved in ballet for future years. When the kids hear and read about it, they'll be learning the history of their culture."