Today’s La Vida En Black History Month message hails from Bayamòn Puerto Rico… A Boricua who influenced ballroom dance so much that his signature moves are now Latin dance competition standards, Pedro “Cuban Pete” Aguilar was the original Mambo King. Crowned in 1952 as the “greatest Mambo dancer ever” by Tito Puente and Life Magazine, Cuban Pete launched a nationwide Mambo Craze with his Afro-Cuban dance style that was all the rage.
This story is one of triumph and tragedy and Pedro “Cuban Pete”Aguilar was always its star. A showman from the start; he emulated Bill Robinson, tap dancing to the music of El Manisero when he was just a toddler of three. Pedro was a natural born dancer. Wrenched from his mother’s side as a five year old, Pedro & his siblings were mandated to an orphanage for the rest of their childhood. As a young man in the 1950’s he catapulted to international fame on the dance floor of New York’s Palladium Ballroom. Pedro’s dancing mesmerized the world with his originality, grace and instinct sense of rhythm. Dancing made him the popular one. Dancing gave him freedom. Dancing brought him love.
Coming out of an institutionalized childhood at 18, with a serious axe to grind; Pedro tried his hand at boxing. Beaten viciously in a match; famed singer, Miguelito Valdes told Pedro he should be dancing. Aguilar took his advice and entered a contest, winning a thousand dollars his first time out. He was so proud! He had never seen that kind of money in his life! From that day on, Pedro never stopped dancing.
The original king of the Mambo; Cuban Pete created steps that are standards in today’s Latin dance competitions. Machito, Tito Puente & Tito Rodriguez, played rhythms specifically arranged with Pete’s dancing in mind. He set the Palladium dance floor on fire with his moves, becoming the root of the national 50’s mambo craze. And in 1951, Pete broke the color line in on stage by dancing with his Italian wife, Millie Donay to the very sensuous “Love For Sale”.
In 1954 the couple broke the color line nationally, appearing in a spread for Life magazine about the Mambo. The dance team of Cuban Pete & Millie created magic, enchanting audiences clear across the country. Their impeccable style is still revered in the dance community. Cuban Pete, honored in several museums, received numerous awards and accolades for his contributions to Latin dance, its culture and history.
In 1991 Pete was contracted by the movie producers of “The Mambo Kings.” He was the image consultant to Antonio Banderas & Armand Assante; entrenching them both, with the 1950’s Palladium attitude. He choreographed dance scenes and consulted on set designs; bringing authenticity to the film.
In 2000, Aguilar, with then dance partner, Barbara Craddock, was choreographic consultant to the Miami City Ballet’s innovative “Mambo No 2 a.m.,” under the direction of Edward Villela.
Pete has danced before Presidents Eisenhower & Johnson, Prime Minister Ben Gurion and given a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II. Yet no one was more in awe of his fame than the legendary dancer himself.
A humble soul, a tender giant, Pete was unaware of the genius he emitted on the dance floor. His is the story of a great American dream, Pedro “Cuban Pete” Aguilar was an icon symbolizing the clave-based Afro-Latin Dance, exactly like Tito Puente is an icon symbolizing the Music. Cuban Pete was a hero in which we can all take pride, for his steps, his accomplishments…his life “en clave.”