A few years ago, the Miami City Ballet’s debut of Mambo No. 2 A.M. was wildly received by the diverse Miami crowd.
In the audience were the native-born Cubans who’d danced the mambo as youths, the New Yorkers who’d danced the mambo in famous dance halls and country clubs in the USA, and all the rest of us who dreamed of being able to dance the mambo – well – anywhere.
The man who was crowned "the greatest Mambo dancer ever" by Life magazine, “Cuban Pete” Aguilar, was in the house that night, having led the ballet company in learning the complicated footwork. When he stepped onto the stage looking dapper in his tux, he practically brought the house down with applause.
The life and times of this dance legend is the focus of “Mambo Man: The Exhibition – a Tribute Exhibit to Pedro “Cuban Pete” Aguilar. It’s at the Southwest Florida Museum of History Foundation in Fort Myers until Oct. 15.
This interactive and educational museum display pays homage to one of the most famous, prolific and intuitive Latin dancers of modern times. The exhibit has spectacular costumes, vibrant music and Mambo Kings movie memorabilia among many other items.
The 1950s and 1960s were a time of discovery and the beginnings of multiculturalism. All over the United States, people heard about Cuba. Americans flocked there to enjoy its tropical splendor and dance to the heady Cuban rhythms.
Here in the States, “Cuban Pete” had introduced the tropical beats via record players and dance halls. It is not hyperbole to say that his signature moves, coordinated hand embellishments and superior timing laid the groundwork for the Latin dance movement today.
In fact, “Cuban Pete” was frequently called the “Maestro of Mambo” in reverence. In the 1990s, Pete enjoyed a victorious run as an elder statesman of Latin dance, serving as consulting choreographer for the hit film, Mambo Kings and writing the Miami City Ballet’s unprecedented Mambo No. 2 A.M.
“Cuban Pete” didn’t do all this alone. He and his partner during the last decade, Barbara Craddock, were given the Latin Jazz USA Lifetime Achievement Awards in 2007. And Barbara helped create this exhibit.
For an idea of how fabulous their dancing was, watch this short video.
The Southwest Florida Museum of History is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located in historic downtown Fort Myers. A bilingual audio tour is available.