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Let's Mambo

by Roy & Sally Plaisance

The Mambo was born in Cuba, the child of Jazz and Latin American music that itself owed so much to Africa. A black Cuban band leader named Perez Prado created in 1943 what became the big dance craze of the mid-1950s. He took the rhythm of the dances performed by the sugarcane cutters and combined it with jazz interpretations of Stan Kenton's music and thus created the rhythm that became known as Mambo. The word "mambo" came from the Nanigo dialect spoken in Cuba and as far as any historian can detect, has no "real" meaning.

The Mambo contained one peculiar feature: there was a beat in every bar on which the dancer took no step, but rested. The actual steps were embellished with kicks and body wiggles, the more sinuous the better. Although it was a simple dance, teachers did excellent business teaching it, especially when it developed three separate rhythms: single, double, and triple Mambo -- an echo of the Lindy.

During the early '30s, Latin dance bands came increasingly before North American audiences. Noro Morales and Xavier Cugat were among them, bringing Rumbas, Sambas, and Tangos to a delighted public. Then a little known bandleader recorded an opus entitled Mambo Jambo and the fun was on. Appearing first in Mexico City, Perez Prado created more excitement and perhaps more revolution than did Pancho Villa. That excitement rapidly spread throughout the rest of Latin America, and then worked it's way back north to the USA. The Mambo became one of the most abandoned, fun-filled crazes of any era.

Signature and Tempo -- Mambo music is generally written in 4/4 timing but can also be written in 2/3 timing. As with several other Latin American rhythms, the Mambo's accent beats are upbeat 2 and downbeat 4. This gives us the typical signature of 2,3,4,1. The speed of basic Mambo music in the beginning, didn't vary much, usually played around 45 bars-per-minute. Today, suitable music can be found from about 35 to 58 bars-per-minute. For round dancing, the faster tempos would need to be adjusted downward to a more comfortable speed, although the young and energetic may prefer the faster speeds.

Beat Value and Timing -- Although we primarily associate only one set of values with the Mambo rhythm, there are actually three different timings and beat values. We generally think of Mambo as QQS and a step-child of the Rumba. When in fact, the Mambo actually was an exciting newcomer that replaced the Guarach Rumba. Unlike the Rumba, with its erotic movement to an insistent and arousing beat, the Mambo consists of the dance-equivalent of the music's ragged and jagged rhythms embellishing simple steps with kicks, body wiggles, and stylish arm movements.

  • The Mambo is danced Q,Q,Q,Hold; counted 2,3,4,1; with a value of 1,1,1,1; in its basic form.

  • The Double Mambo is danced Q,Q/&,Q/&,Hold; counted 2,3/&,4/&,1; valued at 1,½/½,½/½,1.

  • The Triple Mambo is danced: Q,Q,Q/&,Q; counted 2,3,4/&,1; with a value of 1,1,½/½,1; and danced without the stop action. It is from this triple rhythm that the Cha Cha Cha was born.

For ease of teaching Mambo in round dancing, as with the other Latin American rhythms, we use the conventional count of 1,2,3,4; starting on the one-beat of the bar of music. It is still timed Q,Q,Q,Hold; with a beat value of 1,1,1,1;.

Footwork -- All normal timed steps by the man and woman are taken ball-flat with few exceptions. A few steps are taken as "partial weight" whereby the step is taken onto the ball of the stepping foot with the weight held partially over the supporting foot until the next step is taken. This "partial weight" action is usually used by the man and woman on the backward step of a Mambo Rock.

Closed Position -- The closed hold is similar to that in the other Latin dances -- stand facing partner about six inches apart with head erect and body naturally upright. Arms and hands will be in normal position. Lead hands may be slightly higher than normal if desired. The body above the waist should be held steady. When hip or pelvic action is used, there is not a reflection of the action in the shoulders.

Promenade (Semi) Position -- This position is slightly more open, and the hips are more in line with each other, either slightly apart or touching. The feet point down line of dance. The man's right hand is placed just below the woman's right shoulder blade and the woman's left arm is laid across the top of the man's back. The lead hands are held central to the bodies just above shoulder level. This position allows for proper hip or pelvic action where required. This position is achieved at the end of the preceding figure most of the time.

Latin Hip Movement -- In the Mambo, a more staccato hip movement is used -- one that is very similar to the Cuban Motion used in the Rumba -- that picks up and accents the ragged staccato beat of the Mambo rhythm. There should be an authentic lateral rolling motion of the hips, which occurs as each step is taken. We tend to think of this motion as isolated and created on its own, but it is the end result of proper foot, leg, and body action that makes the hip action normal and natural.

Each step is commenced with a flexed knee, and ends with a straight leg. The pelvis is held in line with the body and not pushed back; the upper body is poised slightly forward causing a slight contraction to be felt beneath the rib cage.

Latin Hip Movement is used as a means of expression to music and should therefore reflect the various rhythmical characteristics of the particular music. In the Rumba and Bolero, a subtle controlled movement is expressed, while in the Mambo, a sharp accented or staccato movement is used.

Technique and Dance Figures -- Good technique takes us beyond the mere learning of steps and into the specific use of feet, legs, and body that will establish and enhance the character of the particular dance.

Latin dances have a characteristic feeling of earthiness or of being danced into the floor. This down action carries throughout the Mambo; whether moving forward, backward, rocking, or checking, etc. It is important to find and maintain a low level of weight. Once found, it is important to maintain that level and not change it, creating a bounce. When dancing together there should be a natural inclination of the bodies toward each other. This generally helps the man in his leading and allows the woman to appreciate what is going to happen next. This is also true when dancing in Open Position where tension is maintained in connecting hands and arms.

Happy Dancing.



From clinic notes for a ROUNDALAB Teacher's Seminar and published in the ROUNDALAB Journal, Fall 1991. Published in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, June 2012.




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