New York City: Dancer's Delight
The days of New York City's legendary ballrooms may be long gone, but every season, the outdoor dance floor at Midsummer Night Swing brings a rich sampling of the dance and music worlds that were forged in the newfound connections between the city's evolving communities. These include a long succession of dance fads that either originated or became popular in New York, springing forth from the combination of African social and circle dance traditions and European partnered ballroom dancing.
When the Statue of Liberty greeted peoples from countless nations, she welcomed musicians, artists, and lovers dance who perhaps brought few material possessions, but a plethora of tunes and rhythms in their hearts. Adapting to the new environment included experiencing the rhythms, beats, and moves of other cultures; as the music grew freer, so did the dances, and in the first half of the 20th century, it was all about jazz.
In New York City, the music and its accompanying dances emerged out of a series of interactions and intersections between Cuba and Puerto Rico and Harlem. In the decades prior to the '40s, the music had already begun migrating—Latin American melodies and dance rhythms going northward into the United States, and North American jazz spreading south through the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Cultural Anthropologist and Curator Derrick León Washington, Ph.D.—who presented a Midsummer Night Swing pre-season symposia earlier this year entitled "¡Urban Stomp! The Cultural Connections Between Swing, Mambo, and Salsa"—notes that we sometimes forget that this music was created to enliven spaces. New York City's clubs and ballrooms were the original stomping grounds where the century's most popular dance crazes were born.
In the earliest part of the century, Dr. Washington explains, the famed Harlem Hellfighters (soldiers and musicians), founded by renowned African American composer and innovator James Reese Europe, included eighteen Puerto Ricans. This was an early example not just of the sharing of rhythms but also of the connecting of communities, which created new popular forms of music.
New York City from the '20s onward provided the perfect musical conditions for the emergence of Afro-Caribbean music and dance styles. In the 1930s, rhumba (also known as ballroom rumba) combined American big band music with Afro-Cuban rhythms, created in the wake of the mega hit "El manisero" (The Peanut Vendor), recorded by Don Azpiazú and his Havana Casino Orchestra.
In the very same period, the Spanish-Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat and his orchestra had a residency at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel that would last into the '40s. Chick Webb had an extended engagement at the Savoy Ballroom in the heart of Harlem, the "home of the happy feet" and the place where the Lindy hop became famous. His orchestra included Benny Carter, Louis Jordan, Don Redman, and, as musical director, the Cuban-born trumpeter Mario Bauzá.
Bauzá proved to be a key figure in the fertile cross-pollination that resulted in several Latin music genres and their corresponding dances. During his time with Webb, Bauzá met fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and introduced him to percussionist Chano Pozo, with whom Gillespie co-wrote several legendary compositions such as "Manteca" and "Tin Tin Deo." At a later point, Bauzá also worked with Cab Calloway's band.
All of these developments laid the foundation for the fusion of jazz and Cuban music, a process inaugurated in 1940 in New York City with the establishment of the Machito and the Afro-Cubans orchestra, under the musical directorship of Bauzá. Machito became one of the most influential and popular big-band leaders of the time, and his band was a crucial link between Latin dance music and the innovations of jazz. And, in 1942 Bauzá brought in a young timbalero named Tito Puente—son of Puerto Rican immigrants—later to be a part of the Fania revival of salsa!
Indeed, Puerto Rican musicians were among the first Latinos to record and perform with African American jazz bands in New York City's clubs and theater orchestras. Juan Tizol Martínez, a Puerto Rican trombonist and composer, is renowned for his role in Duke Ellington's band, and as the co-writer of the jazz standards "Caravan," "Pyramid," and "Perdido."
Latin music and dance grew steadily in popularity during the interwar period, and in 1948, in New York City, the Palladium Ballroom opened on the second floor of a building on 53rd Street and Broadway in New York City. Its tremendous success was due in great part to it being the first downtown dancehall to offer Latin music, and its willingness to welcome African American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban patrons in an area that was previously highly segregated.
As the music evolved, dancers forged different styles of movements to complement it. Legendary Puerto Rican dancer Carlos Arroyo's steps graced the dance floors at both the Palladium and the Savoy, where he and his partner Ramoncilla won so many dance contests they were forbidden to compete and were instead hired to perform. At the Palladium, Arroyo also competed—his first partner was an African American dancer named Dottie.
As Latin immigrants arrived to New York City, explains Dr. Washington, they danced in ways that reflected their roots, while adding vernacular African American jazz movements that resonated with the African roots of Caribbean dance.
Beyond New York City, Hollywood had a hand in spreading the latest dance crazes. In addition to Cugat, Desi Arnaz was one of many Latin entertainers featured in 1940s Hollywood musicals. With his wife Lucille Ball, Arnaz created the long-running television comedy I Love Lucy, featuring Arnaz as New York–based Latin bandleader Ricky Ricardo. The hit show helped make mambo and cha-cha-cha the toasts of dance floors around the world.
The '50s roared in, and New York City bandleaders Tito Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodriguez popularized a new style of big band mambo. The city would also give birth to Cubop, a fusion of bebop's brass and Afro-Cuban percussion, born of collaborations between jazz and Latin musicians in Harlem and downtown clubs.
Mambo madness peaked in the 1950s, but through the '60s and '70s, New York would continue to bring forth musical and dance movements, such as the pachanga dance craze a decade later—started by Johnny Pacheco, later part of Fania and New York City's legendary salsa scene—which accompanied the music of charanga. Shortly thereafter, boogaloo and salsa would emerge from the same rich and textured musical conversations between Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Harlem, also marked by the infusion of beats from other islands such as the Dominican Republic... but that's the next chapter of the story.
Catalina Maria Johnson is an international radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, and music curator. She hosts and produces the radio show and podcast Beat Latino, and is a frequent contributor to NPR Music, Bandcamp Daily, and Billboard.