Los Angeles - Interviews

MIKE BELLO INTERVIEW - "WHAT IS MAMBO?"

by Rita Hargrave (courtesy of Salsaroots.com)

In the latter part of 2001, I had an opportunity to interview Mike Bello, a well known Mambo dancer, instructor and historian about his introduction to Mambo in his native New York City.

YOU HAVE TALKED ABOUT THE MAMBO SOCIETY IN NEW YORK. CAN YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT THAT? IS IT STILL HAPPENING?

"No, it is not still going on. It was just a cool name for a bunch of dancers getting together. It was basically like a "social" before socials became popular in New York. It was every Wednesday down on Fourth St. in the East Village at the Manhattan Plaza. The place used to be an old NBC studio. The dance space was about as long as one and half basketball courts with parquet floors. We had a lot of space. Every Wednesday from 6-10 PM you would just dance, dance, dance. There was a DJ playing the music all the time."

WHAT YEAR DID THE MAMBO START?

"I want to say it was around 1988 or 1989."

HOW LONG DID IT LAST?

"Unfortunately it did not last that long. Sadly what stopped it happening at the Manhattan Plaza because egos got in the way and it disbanded? But it was going on for a good seven or eight months. It went on long enough to affect several hundred people."

SO PEOPLE HEARD ABOUT IT?

"Yes. You know that New York clubs are infamous about their dislike for people passing out fliers. It does not matter what the event is. You can't go into a club and pass out flyers. They feel like you are assuming a confidence that has not been earned. But I was really excited. I was a big supporter of the Mambo Society. I was happy to be back in New York and I was really crazy about getting people to come down to our event to learn this stuff. I had been dancing for a long time but I had never counted until that then. So I would go around passing out flyers. I would say "Come on down to the Mambo Society. We're dancing on '2'. We are dancing on 'clave".
Then one time a guy who was an MC at the Copa (the Copacabana was a very popular Salsa club in New York) tried to roust me out of the club. It didn't happen but it got really ugly for about 30 seconds. But I kept going out there passing flyers. There were a lot of other people going out there passing on the word about the Mambo Society."

HOW WAS THE MAMBO SOCIETY STRUCTURED? WERE THERE FORMAL LESSONS OR DID YOU JUST PICK STUFF UP FROM OTHER DANCERS AND ASK QUESTIONS?

"It was somewhere in between formal lessons and a jam session. This was the scenario when I first walked into the Mambo Society. It had only been going on for maybe a month. It was during the summer. So you walk in and you are looking at this long hall with a group of people. It was a little bit smaller when I got started but it grew to about a group of 50-60 people who were dancing just the basic step. That's all: nothing else. At the head of that group were Angel Rodriguez and his wife Addie. Their section had about 4-5 rows of people dancing. Then further down beyond them you would find people with their left shoulders facing a series of mirrors doing "shines". The place did not have real mounted mirrors. The mirrors were just propped up so that we could watch ourselves. This eventually grew to about 40-50 people just doing shines. I still have the original shine list. I carry it with me all the time in my wallet. It is a really well worn list with about 25 shines. Those were the shines we used to practice."

WHERE DID THE SHINES COME FROM? FROM THE DANCERS FROM THE 60's?

"These shines came from people who had already been with Eddie Torres. There were 2 women, Evelyn Negron and Mimi Medina who put together the shines into a piece of choreography. Because of them, I put my shines to get together in a similar way because it was a good way for people to learn them.
I had always been pretty rhythmic with music and dance since I was a kid. So I was picking stuff up pretty quickly. People would stop me during the break and ask me how to do certain shines. So I would show them and by teaching other people I started to learn more. I remember one of the first shines I had trouble with-a pivot triple. It was a real killer. I was stumbling all over my feet but I kept going and I am still doing it now. So we would take a break and I would teach a group of 5 shines to 10-15 people and continue to rotate the group of shines every week. Meanwhile the main group would be doing the entire routine. Later we would all take a break and my group get back with the main group. It was a lot of fun.
So there were a group of people doing the basic and there was another group of people like myself doing the shines. There were also sporadic groups of couples doing patterns."

DURING THIS TIME, WHAT WERE THE OTHER PEOPLE IN THE CLUBS DANCING IF THEY WERE NOT DANCING "ON 2?" WERE THEY DANCING "ON 1"?

"For the most part, I think they were dancing "on 3". What is really true is that if you leave people to their own designs, leave them alone, they didn't get any instruction and they picked up the rhythm, they would dance "on 3". Most people innately feel the pulse of the music which is the downbeat. So a lot times if you can feel the phrasing of the music, the "1" sets you up to get started. So, since you don't really start "on 1", you start to dance on the next downbeat which is "3". People were also doing a "back break" similar to a cumbia type of step. That's what a lot people were doing if they were not experienced dancers."

I KNOW THAT YOUR WEBSITE, WWW.MAMBOFELLO.COM, AND OTHER WEBSITES DESCRIPTIONS OF THE "CLASSIC" MAMBO AND THE "MODERN "MAMBO, WHICH EDDIE TORRES IS KNOWN FOR. WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF THE "MODERN" MAMBO?

Modern mambo and classic mambo are terms that are not widely used. But I associate the terminology with Adrienne Tripp-she a "mambo nick" ( a devotee of mambo style dancing). She is a dancer who approached me a few years ago when I was teaching in Marina Del Rey (California). She had read my postings on www.salsaweb.com and came down to meet me. We talked, danced together and formed an alliance. We jointly came up with terms and phrases to identifying moves and styles without associating them with the names of particular people. It was an effort to make terminology more universal. Modern mambo is basically the timing that Eddie Torres teaches. Some people even say that Eddie Torres invented modern mambo but he would be the first one to say that he did not invent it. He codified the dance."

IS THE EDDIE TORRES STYLE MAMBO CLOSER TO THE MAMBO OF THE 50'S OR WERE PEOPLE ALSO DANCING THE CLASSIC MAMBO.

I don't really know. I would like to think that both of them were happening. I know that classic mambo was happening. But we have to remember that just like now people were fusing different styles, different dance forms. Just like Salsa is "fused" music with the core being son. Some people feel that aspects of danzon are present in mambo. What we are calling mambo is actually a type of Cuban son. What ever the roots, clearly there were different approaches. Once dancers became more avid and more comfortable in the frame work of the 8 beats, they were not stuck with choosing one timing or the other. If you watch the better dancers, you will see that at times they are dancing on modern mambo timing and at times they are dancing on classic timing. They are transitioning between the two. You can do that because of both styles is the "2-3" beat."

IS THERE A DIFFERENCE IN THE STYLE OF THE WEST COAST MAMBO AND THE NEW YORK STYLE MAMBO?

Style really means what we are doing with our body. There is a New York style and an L.A. style. But those different styles do not alter the timing of the dance. When you talk about what the body is doing, there is a big difference. We have to remember that Mambo cut its teeth in New York-the music, the dance. It all evolved in New York even though it is Afro-Cuban in nature. When I was in NY I never heard contemporary Cuban music. It was either non-existent or it never made it to New York. It came to the West Coast but it never made it to New York. We never had any influences from Cuban style mambo. But we had everybody dancing, all types of New Yorkers -- Black, White, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Italians. We just had a really good mix of people dancing mambo.
The approach to the break step is different in L.A. Their movement, their energy, body styling (not direction of the timing) is more forward and back. The L.A. style dancer's energy is thrust more forcefully into the break step, though the L.A. mambo scene is changing due to the NY influences and the interaction between dancers during the Salsa Congresses.
Also in L.A. there is very little "Cuban" styling". Their contra-body motion is more open with more free expression. L.A. does not have a long tradition of having dance approaches and styles being handed down like New York. For example, Salsa has been growing on the West Coast for the last 6-7 years but Salsa has always been in New York, even before it was called Salsa.
When I was growing up, we just had 3 types of music and we danced to all of it. We had "Soul", "Latin" or "Rock". This was before the term "disco" or "club music". Anything played by a white band was "rock", anything done by a Black band was "soul" and anything played by a Latin band was "Latin." We all went out and dance together. That's why salsa and mambo evolved especially during the time of the hustle. The Hustle influence gave salsa a lot of the styling aspects that are present in today's Mambo in New York.
We would go to a club or a party and there would be a lot of different styles of music. There was not just one type of music. Folks who were dancing hustle would often dance with people dancing mambo. So, one style would influence the other. People would take mambo styling and contra-body motion and apply it to hustle. Other people would take the turn patterns of hustle and apply it to mambo."

Much thanks to Mike Bello for participating in this interview. As a teacher he is committed to helping dancers infuse more musicality and rhythm into their Salsa. His motto is whatever you do on the dance floor, you should strive to be "Always On The Clave".

IF you want to learn more about different styles of mambo, timing and rhythms go to our review of his video and timing CDs www.salsacrazy.com/mike_bello_review.htm

Read more about Mike Bello's initiation into the world of Mambo at www.mambofello.com/articles/hmbbmf.htm

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