What is Mambo?

Mambo is a style of music and dance that originated in Cuba in the 1940s and popularized in New York City. It is also sometimes used to refer to New York-style salsa and is also a category in Ballroom dancing.

Like the word “rumba”, mambo is a term that has come to mean different things in different contexts because it evolved organically over time with little formal organization.

What does Mambo mean?

The word “mambo” means “conversation with the gods” in Kikongo, which is one of the languages spoken by Central African slaves who were brought over to the Caribbean.

The History of Mambo

Mambo traces its origins to Havana, Cuba. It shares many similarities with other earlier forms of Cuban music such as danzón, but with a quicker tempo. Israel López Valdés, aka Cachao, is often credited as being the first creator of mambo. The dance steps also borrow many movements from earlier Cuban dances, as well as Swing dancing which was popular in the 1940s.

One of the most well-known mambo musicians is Pérez Prado, who is known as the “King of Mambo”. Pérez helped to bring mambo from La Tropicana in Havana to New York’s Park Plaza Ballroom, and his hit songs such as “Mambo No. 5” and “Mambo No. 8”, helped mambo gain popularity across the US, kicking off the “mambo craze” of the 1940s and 1950s, and helping to spread the popularity of mambo around the world.

Mambo and the Palladium

The fabled Palladium Ballroom in New York City is where mambo music and dance really exploded in popularity. The most well known musicians who played at the Palladium were Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito (Francisco Grillo) who were known as the “Big Three”.

The Big Three, along with other well-known musicians such as Charlie Palmieri and Ismael Rivera, helped to develop not only mambo dance, but cha cha cha, and later salsa music, which in many ways was just a rebranding of mambo and Cuban son.

Many of the salsa steps that are danced today were developed during the Palladium era by dance groups such as the Mambo Aces and featured Palladium dancers such as Cuban Pete (Pedro Aguilar) & Millie Donay and Augie & Margo, who incorporated tricks and acrobatics into their dancing.

Social dancing at the Palladium went all the way until 4am, and fans of mambo, known as “mamboniks”, helped to build the burgeoning Latin dance scene in New York.

Cuban Pete & Millie Donay

Augie & Margo

Mambo vs Salsa

In many ways salsa is an evolution of mambo, as many of the steps and movements are the same, and early mambo music by artists such as Tito Puente have been rebranded as “salsa” in recent years. Mambo was typically danced on on2 timing, which is why New York-style salsa (which is danced on2) is also sometimes referred to as “mambo”.

Many dancers have also begun to incorporate classic mambo steps and styling into their salsa dancing, with some of the most well known including Eddie Torres (also known as the “Mambo King”), his son Eddie Torres Jr., Adolfo Indacochea, Rodrigo Cortazar, and Benny & Brandon.

Learn more in our article on Mambo vs Salsa.

Eddie Torres

Adolfo Inacochea & Latin Sould Dancers

Benny & Brandon

Mambo in Ballroom Dance

Mambo is also the name for a style of dance in Ballroom dance competitions. It is one of the five dances included in the American Rhythm category, along with cha cha, rumba, East Coast swing, and bolero. Is is also occasionally included in the Latin Nightclub category of dance.

Confusingly, mambo dancing in Ballroom is often danced on1 rather than on on2 timing, and is typically danced to salsa music.