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Ernie Ensley and Dottie Adams at the Corso Club,NYC in the 1960's
I was fortunate enough to interview Ernie Ensley, one of the original Mambo dancers from the Palladium Ballroom. In the 1950s, Manhattan's Palladium Ballroom was one of the most famous dance halls, attracting art and literary figures, Hollywood stars, and die-hard Mambo dancers from all over the country to enjoy the music of the legendary orchestras of Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez. Here are some of Ernie’s recollections about the “Golden Era of Mambo”.
HOW DID YOU LEARN TO DANCE MAMBO?
I started going to the Palladium after my friend Ramon Lewis taught me the basic steps. I just watched other people dancing socially and in the Mambo floorshows. After awhile Dottie Adams, the African American woman who became my partner, asked me if I wanted to dance in the floor show at the Palladium. At that time she was the bookkeeper for Max Hyman, the owner of the Palladium. So I agreed to dance with her in the show. I remember that sometimes we wore red outfits and she had one outfit that was covered with fringes. She used to get out there and really shake her body. Oh, the people really loved her! I danced with her until she retired about 10 years ago. Now she is living in Miami. My other partners were Anna and later Carmen Cruz. I first started going to the Palladium in 1952. I became a professional around 1956 and I danced every Wednesday night at the Palladium until about 1965.
HOW WERE THE DANCES CREATED FOR THE PERFORMANCES?
I made up the steps and the routine for the couple pretty much stayed the same. But the solo parts were always different and spontaneous. You would dance according to how the music made you feel.
WHO WERE SOME OF THE BEST PALLADIUM DANCERS?
There was the Mambo Aces who were really smooth—they made it look like one person was dancing. I think I was really influenced by the Mambo Aces and their smooth style. They were really the models I used for my performance work. Also the Cha Cha Aces and “Cuban Pete and Millie” were very popular. There was a dance team “Marilyn and Millie” who were Marilyn Waters and Millie Donay (who used to partner with “Cuban Pete”). They were the first all women’s performance group to dance at the Palladium. They were performing around 1964 or 1965. Another couple, Margo and Augie, had a dance style that reminded me of ballet—a more ballroom style mambo. They did a lot acrobatic lifts. Augie was the first one to perform a move where he would spin her while she was crouched down and balancing on her heels. That’s a move the kids are still doing today. Mike Terrace was another one with a very, smooth ballroom style Mambo.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE TYPICAL NIGHT AT THE PALLADIUM?
The place would open around 8PM. Killer Joe Piro would give Mambo lessons and Cha Cha lessons until 9Pm and then the band would come on. The band even played for the lessons. Nowadays they play recorded music for the dance lessons. But back then I don’t think they had DJs playing in between the bands. I remember waiting for the bands to come on. There were benches along the left hand side of the club for audience to watch people dancing. You would be right in the middle of the action with people dancing in front of you.
Every night there would be two bands and each band would play two sets. So the bands would start playing at 10PM and the club would close at 4 AM. On Wednesday nights at 11 PM they would have a Mambo contest. Dottie and I were among the sets of couples that were in the Mambo contest. We would dance with numbers tacked on our backs. People from the audience acted as judges and these audience members would select who they thought were the best dancers. We were paid every Wednesday and if you won, you got an extra $5.00. We weren’t really amateurs. We were just part of the show. The Wednesday night show was very popular. I met lot movie stars at the Palladium including Marlon Brando, James Dean and Sammy Davis Jr.
DID ANY OF THE SOCIAL DANCERS JOIN THE MAMBO CONTEST?
A few of them tried but they didn’t do well. They danced great on the sides but when they got in the show they did not fit in. A lot of them were very good dancers but they just did not have that special style that was right for the Palladium show. For the show you had to do things that nobody else had done.
DID YOU KNOW AHEAD OF TIME WHAT MUSIC WOULD BE PLAYED FOR THE SHOW?
No, we did not always know what music would be played. Both Machito and Tito Puente played often played “Mambo Inn” and many times Tito Rodriguez’s band would play “La Manuela”. But most the time the music would start and we would just get out there and dance.
HOW MUCH TIME DID YOU SPEND REHEARSING FOR THE SHOW?
I think Dottie and I rehearsed three or four times in the beginning and after that we did not rehearse anymore. Then we danced together for the next 20-some years. We basically had the same couples routine but when we soloed it was always different.
We got paid about $15 a piece. Do you know that we had to pay taxes on that little bit of money? At that time $15 or $20 was really a good sum money. Towards the end when the Palladium was closing we made more—maybe $25 or $30 a piece.
WAS THERE A SPECIAL PLACE IN THE CLUB WHERE YOU TENDED TO DANCE?
All the best dancers tended to be in the right side as you came into the club. Even the professional dancers would come over to that area to watch and pick up new dance steps. They wouldn’t dance in that area because we could easily out dances them. That spot became the dancer’s corner. Even today clubs have places where the good dancers to come together. I was recently at “ Nell’s” in New York on 14th St and I saw a lot really great young women dancing downstairs. The guys were so-so but I think some of the women are among the best that I have ever seen. I really impressed by the style and grace that they had. They almost looked like Palladium dancers. Also they were doing steps that I had never seen before.
WHAT WAS UNIQUE ABOUT THE PALLADIUM STYLE OF MAMBO?
It was a very smooth, fluid style of dancing. The man was in charge and the woman totally followed him. The couple mainly danced together. The Palladium style looked more elegant than the dancing you see today. The dancing today with all the spins and turns does not look like or feel the same as the dancing from the Palladium days.
When the club closed, I actually danced at the last show at the Palladium with Dottie my first dancing partner. I audiotaped the last night of performances at the Palladium. The last band to play was Orquesta Broadway. Their last song went for 45 minutes because they knew that once they stopped playing that would be the end of an era. That night a lot bands played including Eddie Palmieri, Ricardo Rey and Bobby Cruz. It was quite a night.
WHO WERE YOUR FAVORITE BANDS?
Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Willie Rosario were among my favorites just to name a few. All these bands played for the floorshow. But Puente’s band was the one that played most often for the show. After the Palladium lost it’s license and was closed down another nightclub, the Corso, tried to take over. They tried to continue the Wednesday night shows but it was never quite the same. Some of the established bands played at the Corso like Puente, Sonora Montacera and Machito. They also had some of the up and coming bands like Sonora Poncena, Louis Ramirez, and El Gran Combo.
THERE IS A VERY WELL KNOW BIT OF FILM FOOTAGE SHOT AT THE PALM GARDENS OF MAMBO DANCERS BACK IN THE 50’s. THIS FILM IS CALLED "MAMBO MADDNESS". WHO WERE SOME OF THE DANCERS IN THE FILM?
Carmen Cruz was the lady in the white dress. Cuban Pete and Millie were also dancing in the show. Maybe Mike Terrace and his partner were there. At the Palladium the typical line-up of dancers for the show was “Mambo Aces”, “Cha Cha Aces”, Carmen Cruz and her partner, Cuban Pete and Millie, Mike Terrace and his partner and you and your partner. I saw one of Carmen’s partner’s—Charlie—dancing last week at the La Maganette in New York (still a very popular Mambo club).
HOW MUCH DID IT COST TO GET INTO THE PALLADIUM?
You would not believe it. In 1958 Jose Fajardo (legendary flautist and charanga band leader) came directly from Cuba to perform. The admission was $2.00. I still have the ticket from that night. That Friday night at the Palladium was the first time Fajardo played in the United States. And it was only $2.00. On a Sunday afternoon it was only 50 cents before 6 pm and then it was one dollar to get in after 6PM. We would come running out the train stations to try to get there before 6 o’clock on Sundays. Sundays was the most popular day for the Black dancers from Harlem and Brooklyn.
WHEN DID THE PALLADIUM HAVE MAMBO?
They had Mambo on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sundays. But they only had the floorshow on Wednesdays.
DID PEOPLE DANCE MAMBO AT THE SAVOY BALLROOM, WORLD FAMOUS HOME OF LINDY HOP?
I think they had Mambo at the Savoy on Tuesday night and also at the Renaissance Ballroom, Roseland Ballroom and the Rockland Palace. There were Black people and all kinds of people going to the Savoy to dance “Latin”. Once a week the Savoy would have both a Black jazz band like Duke Ellington or Dizzy Gillespie and a Latin band. I think it was on Tuesday nights
WHAT KIND OF LATIN MUSIC DO YOU LIKE NOWADAYS?
I love Adalberto Alvarez and many of the Cuban bands. I am a Cuban fanatic. But the new Cuban bands are not playing the old style of music—the music I grew up with. Even in Cuba they are not playing a lot of the older music. I hear that a lot of people in Cuba are very upset about that. I read an article in Latin Beat magazine about a fellow who went to Cuba to see charanga bands. He was there about 2 weeks and he could not find any Charanga music. I have videos of some of the famous charanga bands like Arcano, Orquesta Aragon and Chappotin.
Ernie Ensley continues to teach and perform Mambo all over New York. He has an amazing collection of live recordings of Salsa bands and an archive of videos of Salsa/mambo dancers, which he has been collecting for over 40 years. If you are ever in New York City on a Wednesday night, go to La Maganette for mambo dancing. You just might see Ernie there.
Photo by Martin Cohen from www.congahead.com