During my first few years of teaching, I started to watch any Salsa documentary I could find in the internet (not many at that time). I sometimes even bought them on VHS cassettes (remember those?)
During that quest of information, I encountered the documentary “Palladium, Where the Mambo Was King“, released in 2002. Because of this video, I became obsessed in how the dance evolved during that era (1940-60’s), and the participants of that evolution.
Through this documentary and some other footage, I started to learn about the Palladium Mambo Style, and the different dancers that contributed to it. Luis “Máquina”, Earnie Ensley, “Killer” Joe Piro, Mike Ramos, Freddie Rios, Augie and Margo Rodriguez, Aníbal and Mike Vázquez, Elita and Michael Terrace, Barbara Craddock, Millie Donay, and Cuban Pete, among a few others… To me these dancers were like super heroes. I would just fantasized being at the Palladium dancing to “The Big Three” (Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez), while reading about their stories and watching some video footage. I was later so lucky to meet two Palladium dancers at Artistika in Greensboro, NC. They helped me learning about the Palladium Ballroom, and the different styles danced in that era.
A year later, my dance career took me to the dance at the Stuck on Salsa “All Star Dance Cruise” in 2007. I arrived a few days earlier to try the Miami dance scene, since I never had the chance during my past visits. This took me to a weekly social held by one of the local dance companies. People were dressed pretty casual with jeans, t-shirts, crop tops, etc., which is a very common dress code for socials even today. However, there was a couple, who was dressed up as they were part of an award show. They were older, and the dancers would walk by their table recognizing their presence as a sign of respect, but mostly left them to enjoy the night to themselves.
Intrigued by these two personalities, I moved to take a closer look… AND THERE THEY WERE!!! The one and only… Pedro Aguilar, the legendary Mr. Cuban Pete. His partner was glamorously dressed in this beautiful evening gown, she looked like a movie star from the golden era, her name Barbara Craddock. I quickly approached them to introduce myself, and shared what I’ve learned about them, and possibly get some insight. We talked about “Dancing On Clave”, feeling the music, originality, mambo music and dance evolution, the different issues Mambo dancers have now days, the importance to represent (as dancers) Latin culture with respect and dignity, among many other subjects. Ms. Barbara Craddock also shared about the “movie” on the works about Mr. Cuban Pete’s life and dance contributions.
I felt so lucky to have this opportunity, and get information from the source. So very timidly, I got off my chair, bowed to both of them and ask for permission for a dance to Ms. Craddock. She looked at Pete, not for consent, but with surprise instead, and to my luck she accepted the dance. Mr. Pete said, “Let’s see what you got.” As I danced with her, I would remember the pointers I received from Cookie and Margarita. I was nervous, but I kept telling myself “keeping the correct timing“, “have fun”, “feel the music”, “listen to the Clave”, “not too many turns” and “feed off from her energy.”
At the end of the dance, she smiled and politely said, “Thank you, that was nice.” – I was hoping that was a positive reaction. I escorted her back to their table, where Mr. Pete was waiting. I looked at him and smiled like a kid seeking for approval from a grownup. Then he said to me the biggest compliment that you can ever get as a dancer… from him (at least I think so), “Your timing is not that bad.” My heartbeat raised hard and rapidly, it was probably confusing the dancers at the social getting them off beat. I felt in heaven!
We talked for almost the entire social, and it seem like time had slowed down while sitting with them and making mental notes of every single word. As the social was coming to an end, we parted with a big hug. Similar conversations followed in a couple of other encounters, as I shared with Mr. Pete a few of my ideas on how to overcome the missing Clave/Music-Dancer connection, we suffer in this new Salsa Era. He was encouraging, and also very critical, which was a good thing. Until Mr. Cuban Pete’s passing in 2009.
After that, I would only see Ms. Barbara Craddock three more times in different years. During this time, I had developed my “Musicality Workshop”, in which I applied concepts that Mr. Pete had guided me to create. The main objective is for the dancers to develop a familiarity of basic percussive rhythms/patterns in the music, and how to apply them to their repertoire of steps. During the class, we jump from one instrument to the next, new steps and dance styles are being presented, along with some historical and cultural principles.
It’s July 7th 2012, and I was teaching my “Musicality Workshop” at the Orlando International Salsa Congress with my very talented partner, Adriana Dwyer. I had gone over the Clave, its importance and where it came from. The Congas, how to follow the Tumbao during Chacha, and how it evolved from Mambo and Son. How the Bongocero’s Bell carries the rhythmical Montuno section. Using the Bongos, I explained how adapt the timing of steps depending on the syncopations. I finally got to talked about the Güíro, and how we can use it to dance to Charanga music doing Pachanga Style. During this part of the class, I usually talk about the Palladium, and the dancers from that era who paved the way.
The students were loving the class, the room was packed and full of energy. When for some reason from the corner of my left eye, I caught a glimpse of a bright red head. IT WAS MS. BARBARA CRADDOCK! I immediately paused the class and recognized her presence to the attendees right away. Everyone gave her an ovation as a sign of respect and admiration. She got up and started walking towards the small stage, where Adriana and I were teaching. Being in her 70’s, she approached very slowly, which felt like an eternity to me, probably because of my nervous anticipation. She reached for my hand, pulled me down and said, “Pete would be very proud of you.” I almost lost it, but Adriana quickly placed her hand on my shoulder helping to regain my composure. Then she said, “I have not seen that style of Pachanga since the Palladium.”
After that she went back to her chair, and I can’t remember what happened next to the class, since I was on cloud 9! We talked a little bit afterwards, and she confessed that she had only come this early (Saturday morning) to Orlando to watch my class. Also to get in touch with her, because she wanted to help me “spread the word.”
She passed away a few years later, 2015; however, I am still trying to live up to their expectations, and continue “spreading the word”.