I have had the good fortune to meet and talk with Nydia Ocasio, one of New York's most experienced teachers, performers and choreographers on the Mambo dance scene. Her unique style seamlessly encorporates rhythms and movements from Afro-Cuban, Afro-Puerto Rican and Afro-Brazilian folkloric dances. Read this interview if you really want to know more about the flavor and spirit of Mambo dancing from a real master.
RITA: MIKE BELLO HAS MENTIONED THAT HIS FIRST REAL EXPOSURE DANCING ON “2” WAS WITH THE “MAMBO SOCIETY. WHEN WERE YOU INVOLVED IN THIS SOCIETY?
NYDIA: I became involved with the Mambo Society, a dance venture created by Tony Ortiz, a promoter and a supporter of the Latin music and dance back in the early 90’s. This event was located in a dance club in the East Village, NY. His goal was to gather several of us more experience Latin dancers to come in and teach those who wanted to learn and enhance their dance style. Initially it was free for all, but as our popularity grew, we decided charged a small fee for the group classes for the teacher’s hard work and added mirrors in the club, suitable for proper teaching. The classes were not structured as in a dance studio. The club was big enough to allow more than one instructor to teach simultaneously using the mirrors. This allowed the students the option of choosing whom they wanted to learn from. As for the music, the DJ simply continued playing his music non-stop. That was the beginning of my first Dance Company Latin Sensations, which by the way, Mike Bello was a member of.
RITA: WHEN DID YOU START DANCING MAMBO?
NYDIA: In 1968, as far as I can remember Latin music and its dance was always and still is an impact in my life. My parents embraced our culture and so did we. I went to my first Latin nightclub at age 16 and dancing on “1” was popular then and still is today. Latin Musicians refer to what they play to as Latin music. It was a compilation of all Latin and Afro-Caribbean rhythms from the Latin American countries fusing together. (click here for music historian Max Salazar’s “Reflections on the origins of the word Salsa) The word “Salsa” became commonly used not only as a description of its music, but also how people danced to it. The “1” beat was easily heard by the cowbell. This instrument is heard the loudest and holds tempo. Dancers tend to hear and respond to the accented first beat of the measure, which is recognized today as dancing on “one”.
As for the Mambo, its intro in our dance world of Salsa came in from the late 60’s early 70’s. Rumors spread quickly of a different style of Latin dancing introduced as Palladium Mambo and danced on the second beat. We as natural dancers immediately adapted to this different style, winging it the best we could on the dance floor and it stuck! Now we had the luxury of knowing two different styles to dance to “Salsa” music.
Back then Cha-Cha and Merengue style of dance was also very popular as it is today. But its unfortunate the dancers of today lack knowledge in Cha-Cha dancing due to today’s musicians playing less of it like the bolero, the ballads. A dancer who understands Latin music is able to dance either on 1 or 2. My knowledge of Latin dancing was a natural process for me.
Learning to dance to Latin music did not take place in a dance studio, but from listening to it all my life. Social dancing further enhanced my understanding of how the music inspired us to be creative on the dance floor. I had no basic knowledge of Latin music as the musicians did. But my desire to gain this knowledge I decided take one step further in researching this knowledge by going deep into its roots.
RITA: SO THE PEOPLE WHO KNEW HOW TO DANCE ON 2 WERE THE ONES FROM THE PALLADIUM DAYS WHO KEPT IT GOING?
Mambo style of dancing during the Palladium era is not the Mambo you see today. In my recent chat with a veteran Latin dancer of that era, Millie Donay, had confirmed to me the Mambo style they dance then was really on “one” (Perez Prado, Xavier Cugat) style. The “on 2” originates for a Son Montuno style, slower pace of dancing, accompanying the clave beat within the conga rhythm pattern.
NYDIA: We danced in the hottest Latin nightclubs in New York! (The Cheetah, The Corso, Casa Blanca) to name a few. The Corso nightclub was one of many popular Latin Dance nightclubs in New York City, where the best dancers gathered. The others clubs were La Mancha, Psycho Room, Cheetah, Casa Blanca, Barney Googles, Ochentas, Tower Suite, to name a few. Back then, it wasn’t about how many spins dips or cartwheels you did on the floor. It was about the Latin Rhythms that flowed from the bands that inspired us to be creative with our bodies and to move smoothly in sync on the dance floor without bumping into anyone. Oh those were the days when you knew you’d go home happy from dancing all night without a stomped toe a black eye or a broken rib! These days you have to first learn self-defense on the dance floor before learning to dance!
RITA: DURING THE DAYS OF FANIA ALL-STARS?
NYDIA: The days of the Fania All-stars. I remember it well. I was part of that historical moment. (click here for more on the legendary Fania All-stars). I was at the Cheetah nightclub (7/72) during the filming and without my knowledge, was one of the many who had a cameo appearance in the film! No one can say I wasn’t there! (smile) I felt so honored being including in such an historical time where our music as well as the musicians was at its peak! And, in 73 I was invited to Fania’s first concert performance in Yankee stadium and in the Yankee dugout with all the Fania All-stars.
But what topped that experience was my first concert performance at Madison Square Garden accompanying the Fania All-stars. I, along with a female friend of mine was hired by Jerry Masucci and music promoter, Ralph Mercado to dance on stage with the Fania All-stars. An unforgettable experience,one I will treasure always. Afterwards, all future Fania All-star concerts were held at Madison Square Garden. I never missed one! I was also was a regular participant of Izzy Sanabria’s “Salsa TV Show” taped (73’) at the Cheetah. Izzy’s website has taken me back to a time I lived through! I would be great to get copies of those! (click here for “www.salsamagazine.com” by Izzy Sanabria)
RITA: YOU MENTIONED THAT THE IMPROVISATIONS AND UNIQUE STYLES OF THE MUSICIANS INSPIRE YOUR STYLE OF DANCING. BESIDES FANIA ALL-STARS, WHAT OTHER BANDS WERE HOT?
NYDIA: I strongly believe that to be a natural Latin dancer, you must be one with the rhythm and tempo of the music. Music in general inspires creativity in us all, regardless what your specialty is as an artist. It’s a spiritual evolution that brings us closer to the truth about ourselves. We become free and unencumbered to express the inner dancer in us. To be a natural Latin dancer, you must first learn to understand the Latin music, be in tuned with the beat as a musician is. Taking Latin dancing to its true art form. Unfortunately, not every Latin dance instructor of today has this knowledge or experience. Thus the outcome of his or her teaching others produces underdeveloped dancers with no concept of or understanding of Latin music. Counting, shines steps, turn patterns, spins, cartwheels instead of feeling or listening that Latin rhythm first is what is taught today. It’s a pathetic sight to see what dancing today has evolved to. Its like leaving out the condiments (the salsa & spices) of a Latin food.
There were many great Latin bands and/or Orchestras actively playing in NYC during the late 60s and throughout the 70s. They are: Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, featuring songstress, Celia Cruz and La Lupe, the Palmieri brothers, Eddie & Charlie, Ricardo Ray, Ray Barreto, the unforgettable sabroso sound of Johnny Pacheco with the late great Pete El Conde Rodriguez, who’s music then is still hot today! Willie Colon with Hector Lavoe, Ruben Blades, Tipica 73, Larry Harlow with Ismael Miranda, Cheo Feliciano, Joe Cuba, Machito and Mario Bauza, who I had the privilege of performing with his Orchestra at a concert in Albany sponsored by the Caribbean Cultural Center, NYC.
Throughout my life I grew up surrounded by all the above talented musicians and then some, which left in me a deep understanding of our music, its culture and roots. Latin music in the late 60s and 70’s was magical time, a dancer’s dream for many of us who lived it.
RITA: YOU’VE BEEN DANCING FOR QUITE AWHILE BEFORE YOU TAUGHT MAMBO SOCIETY?
NYDIA: Oh yes. On my website http://www.nydiaocasio.com/bio.htm there is a brief description of my dance experience since the early 70s up to the present.
RITA: CAN YOU SEE THE PARALLELS IN MOVEMENT IN THE 3 DIFFERENT STYLES OF DANCE SINCE THE ORISHAS (YORUBA DEITIES) ARE SHARED BY ALL THOSE CULTURES?
NYDIA: Yes, the dance body movements of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil as well as other Latin American countries have great similarities, Africa! We all share similar spiritual and cultural backgrounds, namely African, Native American and Spaniard. All wooden percussion instruments like (bata drums/congas/bongos/ tumbadoras/quintos/clave), is traditionally known as the talking drum (El Hablador) which invokes the forces of nature and communicates to our inner soul. And, from this invocation, the dance was born. The dance is a series of rhythmic and patterned bodily movements usually performed to music.
An excerpt from www.batadrums.com:
“The clave beat, which lies at the heart of not only Latin music but also so much popular music around the world today, was brought in various forms from West Africa, including the area now known as Nigeria, preserving an ancient musical foundation. Clave is also fundamental to one of the best-preserved, ancient musical genres of Africa that of the batá drums”.
The folklore dance movements of Puerto Rico Cuba and Brazil have strong similarities. All the body dance movements of the Bomba and Plena folklore dance of Puerto Rico has strong African/Spanish influence similar to Cuba’s folklore. The style of dance is a “call and response” between dancer and drummer. In Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo where samba is more prominent, you see strong similarity as well, both in the music and in the dance of religious and folklore origin.
RITA: WHAT WOULD YOU SUGGEST TO DANCERS WHO WISH TO TAKE DANCING TO THE NEXT LEVEL OF TEACHING?
NYDIA: Dancers who wish take the next level of teaching the “Art” of Latin dancing, should first learn to understand Latin music from its origin to the present. It’s extremely important for dancers to have this knowledge, but most importantly, to experience it. Dance is an art form inspired and created by all forms of music and should be honored and respected as such. It is our responsibility as dancers and I specifically address those who wish to teach this art form, to know their craft well. To truly be a considered and respected as a “Latin Dancer Instructor” of this art form is to have extensive knowledge and understanding of its music. Without this knowledge, you are simply a charlatan.
RITA: WHERE SHOULD ONE LOOK FOR REFERENCES ON THE MUSIC AND BACKGROUND ON VARIOUS MUSIC AND STYLES OF DANCE OF PUERTO RICO, CUBA, BRAZIL, ETC.?
NYDIA: Now the Internet has various websites with extensive knowledge on all of the above and more. Here are a few I recommended highly: Salsaroots.com, descarga.com, afrocubanrhythms.com and batadrums.com. These sites offer links to other websites to further expand your knowledge in the history of our Latin music and its dance.
RITA: ANY CLOSING THOUGHTS FOR TODAY’S LATIN DANCERS AND INSTRUCTORS?
NYDIA: My suggestions to all Latin dancers-- Instructors, performers, and social dancers-- remember that knowledge is power and a sense of freedom. Keep in mind when you’re taking your first lesson, the process of learning to dance to Latin music is to learn how to listen to its rhythms. Don’t get to caught up in the counting. It will only confuse you more. It is a challenging process, but not a difficult one. Select your Instructors wisely. Do your research on their background so that you can get the best out of your learning process. Your goal should not be to look like your teacher, but to develop your own style. The way you dance should truly say something about you, who you truly are inside. May your search in this field be one of knowledge and inspiration. Peace!
currently teaching at the Lafayette Dance and Art Studio