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Modern Day Mambo Legend
Eddie Torres," The Mambo King of Latin Dance" has been the driving force for the resurgence of interest in Mambo dancing ("New York Style on 2") since the 1980's. Eddie Torres was part of the Post-Palladium or "second generation" of Mambo dancers who kept Mambo alive. He has inspired thousands of dancers through his studio http://www.eddietorresstudio.com/, the performances of his dance troupe-- Eddie Torres Dance Company and his instructional videos. He is world renowned as a creative, innovative Latin dance teacher, performer, and choreographer. After taking a series of his classes, I was able to spend some time interviewing Mr. Torres about his perspective on Mambo dancing.
what was distinctive about the styles of some Palladium era dancers such as Freddie Rios and Augie and Margo. How were they different from each other?
Freddie Rios was part of the group “Cha Cha Aces” . He had very sharp, quick and well defined steps. His footwork was very clean. He also had a very nice sense of choreography particularly the way he would lay down his moves to the music. His moves would coordinate beautifully with the music. That is one of the things that impressed me about Freddie. I used to watch him all the time at a nightclub in New York called the Corso.
How was the Corso NIGHTCLUB different from the Palladium?
After the Palladium closed down in 1965, all the dancers started to think "Okay the Palladium is gone. Now where do we go?” A number of clubs tried to draw the dancers but many people ended up at the Corso. But when I went to the Corso, all the dancers there said that nothing took the place of the Palladium. The Palladium was a spacious room with a very special vitality and energy. I think one of the things that brought energy to the room was all the movie stars and other celebrities that came there.
What about the dance style of Augie and Margo, a well known Palladium dance couple? You mentioned that they were instrumental helping you develop your appreciation and passion for Mambo. How were they different from other couples?
Augie and Margo were very unique because they separated themselves from other street dancer or club dancers. They pulled themselves out that. They developed a more classic stylized performance . One of the things that I loved is how they created a flamenco mambo fusion. They would integrate flamenco moves into their mambo so that the Mambo had a completely different look. They also developed a blues act. They were from the Palladium but this was a team that said that they were not going to make any money dancing at nightclubs. They figured out that they could not do anything with their careers just hanging out at clubs. They decided let’s pull out of the club scene, take classes, prepare an act and see if we can sell it. Their act became very successful. They probably accomplished much more than any other dance team.
Where would they perform? Did they perform in front of bands? How did they make a living dancing?
Whenever they could, they would perform with live music because they had their own charts ( i.e. sheet music) . I believe they were a warm up act for performers like Sammy Davis Jr. They got an opportunity to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show and for different Presidents. They really got around. They became internationally known. They must have had a great agent to arrange bookings for their appearances. I saw them perform at the Roseland Ballroom in front of the Tito Puente Orchestra. An amazing show. They knocked me out.
I have been particularly surprised by the unique structure of New York style Mambo. Has it always been a “slot dance”?(like hustle or West Coast swing)
When I got into this dance in the early 60’s, Mambo had already developed into a slot dance. The cross body lead was there. The back and front attitude was there. Connecting dancing styling with the music was already there.
Can you tell a little about June LAbertA, one of your early partners. Several WRITERS mention her as an important influence on your career. What did you learn from her?
June Laberta was an Italian American woman who would go dancing at the Corso every Wednesday night. She would watch other dancers perform and she would put on shows herself with a guy named Eddie Dorpher. She was never actually a dance partner of mine. When I saw her dancing at the Corso, I was really impressed because she had her own unique mambo-jazz styling. She had been greatly influenced by another dancer whom I also admired named Jo Jo Smith. Jo Jo was a dance teacher who brought in a lot jazz influences into his club dancing. I used to be one of his biggest fans. I picked up a lot of ideas -- learned about his movements and stylings by just watching him. I never studied with him but I watched him a lot. He would always be at the Corso.
So June and I hit it off and we would dance regularly at the Corso. Then at one point she asked me to teach at her studio on 47th St. So I went to her studio and started teaching. But I did not know anything about teaching with any kind of theory, structure or musical understanding. So she was totally responsible for helping me learn that. I was just a street dancers like many of us who did not know anything about dance or music theory. There was no one out there teaching us theory for street dancing. So we were just doing what we thought was cool. So I would just conduct a class with my own approach to teaching without any special technique or theory behind it. I would just explain things and get people to understand and learn it.
But she used to tell me “ You should learn about
timing, music theory and phrasing. This knowledge would make you a better
teacher and choreographer. You’ll be able to do a lot more with your dancing
in the future.” But I fought her for a couple of years until I finally gave
in and I let her teach me music theory. She was so right and that’s why I
praise her so much even today. She was really trying to put me on the right
track. It’s like the difference between a person who reads music and
someone who doesn’t.
It’s similar to how a musician would learn to play a percussion instrument. Now I know what it means when the person dances within what they call the concept of clave. I recognize that written music has a certain structure with bars and measures. There are quarter beats, eighth beats. When I dance, I don’t step on anywhere, I step within the concept of the music. I also studied music in general later on because I got so inspired. So now I understand what I was lacking. I had the natural knack for dancing. I could put together steps, patterns and turns for choreography. But I did not know anything about the music side. This is what June was always telling me—“Eddie, you have to learn what it means to dance “on 2”—what it means to dance within clave. You need to learn how to break down your steps with timing structure. You need to start naming your steps so that you can create a syllabus.” She was the one who turned me on to that approach because she was a ballroom teacher. She basically helped me learn what she knew about ballroom technique. She was also a fine mambo dancer. She said “I can’t teach you anything about the movement because you already have more with you in your natural way of dancing than I can teach you. But I can help to educate you about the scientific side of your work. So now you know that you are dancing “on 2”. So that now when you teach a step, you can explain if is on quarter beats or eight beats or within 2 bars. She told me that there was more than one kind of clave. I understand now this is why the dance has evolved and spread so quickly. There is now an academic basis by which people can understand what they are doing with their feet and their hands to the music.
I am sure you must remember the time when there were no teachers in the nightclubs telling you that this step is on “2”, this step in “6”. People used to just show you steps without being able to explain it. They would say “you take your right hand, you put it up here” and that was it. That’s the way we used to teach years ago.
I also interested in your memories of Palladium era dancerS. You mentioned the fluidity and elegance of the hand movements of the women. Can you talk a little more about that?
From the dancers that I saw in clubs and from the film footage I have seen, the ladies used to do a lot beautiful, different styling with their hands, making various designs—graceful, sensual and very creative. I started to wonder why these ladies looked so superior and elegant. I really believe that because in those days unlike today there was not as much partner work going on there was an opportunity to always be in “open position” . The guy would finish a turn pattern and let the girl go. Then the guys would do their styling. The guys back then were very sharp in their arm patterns and footwork. So I think they liked the idea of showing each other off and dancing in front of each other. So there was a lot of opportunity for that kind of open dancing since there was not that much contact between the two people.
You have danced with Maria (his wife) for A long TIME. What makes Maria special as a partner?
When I met Maria, she did not know anything about the dance. So I basically trained her in the style that I slowly developed from scratch. So she connects with me because she comes directly from everything that I taught her. She knows all the little details that make the difference when two people come together and really flow. Your arms and your feet are in sychn. She has been with me 23 years. She danced with me in front of Tito Puente before I formed my group. For about 5 or six years it was just her and I.
So Maria and I spent a lot of hours in the nightclubs and the studios making a connection as partners like Augie and Margo. That is what made it special. First of all we were involved personally. It was not just a team on a platonic level. Maria and I came together and we were a couple right from the beginning. In some ways that made it easier. For example when I dance with Maria, I do all these sexy things that I would not normally feel comfortable doing with just anyone else. People see that and they often say that why you and Maria are so special. If you( Eddie) grab her by the butt, it is not something that you are being fresh. You are just being sexy with your wife. Maria and I have a special chemistry. We have also spent a lot of hours working out the coordination, the rhythms, We really have chemistry. We really click on the floor. Maria did not come to me with 10 years of experience dancing with someone else or her own technique. She came to me without knowing anything. When you train somebody right from the get-go, they really understand your work. They are able to catch on a lot faster. The phenomenon of Maria is that after 6 months of training with me and learning 2 dance numbers that I had choreographed to Tito Puente’s music, we were dancing for Tito Puente. I had been working for almost 15 years in preparation for the opportunity of working with Tito.
So it sounds like opportunity and timing were important in your dance relationship with Maria. In addition to her ability to be able to absorb so much over such a short period of time.
One of the interesting things at that time she knew these 2 choreographed numbers but she did not know much about social dancing. So the guys would take her out to dance but she clearly could not keep up with them. So they would say, “Eddie I don’t understand this. You guys can blow everybody away on the stage. But Maria is nowhere to be found in the social setting.” But she was not trained as a nightclub dancer. Maria can to me and I taught her to dance to El Cayuco, she got on stage and danced and that was it. We did things kind of backwards. Usually you meet somebody who is a great social dancer and you feel that she has the potential to become a pro. But Maria’s social dancing got good after 2-3 years of going to the nightclubs where she got that experience that we all get.
HOW has Mambo changed since when you started dancing in the 60’s and 70’s?
Now one thing that is really different is now mambo is a youth dance. A lot of youngsters are coming into the dance scene. This is a good thing since I hope that the youth will be doing this dance for the next 50 years. But the one thing that I notice that is that they are changing traditions of what Mambo had been. Palladium dancers used to do a lot of open work. The second generation of where I came from we started to develop a lot of partner work. But now the youngsters who are coming to Mambo are influenced by hip-hop and reggae. They are starting to put a lot of those elements in Mambo. I am just a little concerned that if Mambo is changed too much it might lose its roots and traditional look—the classic look.
Right now I see the new dance groups performing using a specific storyline. This is something that I started doing many years go when I brought in swing influences, zoot suit looks and Charleston into my performances. I did this to make the routine more entertaining. I look around now I see a lot interesting gimmicks but which are cute, but I hope that they don’t become too corny. Traditional Mambo is a beautiful form of dance on its own. It is just a guy and girl on the dance floor, conversing together and having a really good time without it being too corny. This stuff now that makes me wonder if in the future you won’t see the traditional form of the dance anymore. You will see a lot of “theatrical” dancing that has moved away from the real honest style of Mambo.. Now you see a lot of hip-hop/salsa performances. At the Salsa Congresso performances, you hear more music where they are mixing hip-hop, reggae and other types of music in with what we call Salsa. My concern is that it might get to the point where you see less and less of the traditional form of Mambo and they will eventually turn it into something you won’t be able to recognize.
Concerning other dance influences, can you comment on the impact of Hustle on the development of Mambo?
Hustle had a lot of influence on the “adagio” section of Mambo. So a lot of people added that to their mambo dancing. For example I hear that when you go to clubs in L.A., the dancers barely touch the floor. They are all in the air. People are doing a lot of adagio tricks (a.k.a. aerials) and that comes directly from Hustle. You know from the 70’s and 80’s if you watched the TV shows “Star Search” or “Dance Fever”, hustle dancers were doing these phenomenal aerial tricks. So if you see those lifts and tricks, everybody says “Wow!” I believe that style belongs on stage for entertainment—it is right for that setting. But now you go into clubs, they are bringing “stage dancing” into the clubs. So now you walk into club and you don’t know if you are walking into a nightclub or a floor show.
I completely agree with what you are saying. For example, when you learn tango the instructors say there is a difference between “performance or “stage” tango and social or club tango. They specifically say that they will not be teaching the type of moves that you see on stage. It is not appropriate. But they will teach you moves and floor craft that will work well for dancing in clubs. They make a very clear distinction that the two forms should not be mixed.
One last question. What would YOu suggest for dancers who want to a understanding of concepts such as clave, musical structure and phrasing.
The big question is what resources are available where you live. In New York City, of course I would send you to Boys Harbor where a lot of Latin musicians from the top bands teach. There you can learn a lot about music theory. Outside of New York it might be harder to find. For that reason I put out a cassette that is a basic tool that the students use to learn about timing. On the cassette, I explain the exercises before I demonstrate them. A lot of students have said it has helped them tremendously in understanding timing and knowing how to work with timing. A few people in California (e.g. Mike Bello ‘s Timing CD) are doing the same thing. Nearly every teacher in New York owns my cassette called “It’s all in the timing”. I think that the teachers are beginning to understand that is important to teach people not just the motor skills of dance but to teach people the theory of dance. So I think teachers now are getting to the swing of taking music lesson and trying to learn more on the theory side. I know that the more academic background and foundation you have as a teacher, the better you will be able to impart that understanding to a student.
So suppose a student comes to you and asks “How do I to pick up the “one” in this music?” I usually tell people that from my music studies I know only one instrument by listening to it can guide you to the “1”. It is not the chorus, it’s not the trumpets. It is the piano because the piano is playing the guayeo montuno which repeats over two measures. It almost like a musical sentence. Before you know it, the students are out there looking for more information. There is stuff sold by music stores like Casa Latina for understanding Latin rhythms. You can point people in the direction of where to get this basic understanding. Of course if you can go to a music school that offers courses that teach Latin rhythms, with teachers who know about playing congas and timbales for Latin music. That would be the best advice you could give a student.
ANY MORE ADVICE FOR OUR SALSA/MAMBO DANCERS?
I like to close with the thought that dancing is something that should be a fun experience for people. It is like going to out to eat a plate of rice and beans without having to “stress” about it. You should always enjoy it. There is a lot of competition and bad blood that is developing now. Before it was just the Eddie Torres Dance Company. Now there are a million dance companies all striving to become stars. Everybody wants to be an aficionado of the dance. But there a lot of animosity that is developing. But I always tell these guys. There is enough here for everybody. You can be who you are and you can be as great as you want to be. But you should not take bad blood into the clubs. It’s almost like there are “dance gangs” developing in the clubs. This dance clique stands here, this clique stands there. Everyone is competing against each other. That is what I see as the negative side of what is developing in the dance community. It is like a poison, a disease that is developing along with the beauty of the dance. It really bothers me. I hear too many stories about people getting competitive in a very negative way out there. I tell them “Let’s cut the crap”. Sometimes I would almost rather go back to a time when people knew nothing and went out and had a great time.