[JPL] Pedro Aguilar, Inventive Mambo Dancer, Dies at 81

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Sun Jan 18 17:14:34 EST 2009

January 16, 2009
Pedro Aguilar, Inventive Mambo Dancer, Dies at 81

Pedro Aguilar, whose innovative style of mambo dancing made him a
legend at the Palladium ballroom in Manhattan and a one-man
encyclopedia of Latin dance, died Tuesday in Miami. He was 81 and
lived in Hallandale, Fla.

The cause was heart failure, said Barbara Craddock, his dance partner
for the past 11 years.

Mr. Aguilar, known as Cuban Pete, translated his footwork as a boxer
and his childhood tap-dance training into a rhythmically complex,
visually arresting dancing style that electrified audiences at the
Palladium, the premier showcase for Latin music in the 1940s and
1950s. By his own count he invented 100 signature foot, torso and hand
movements with names like the Porpoise, the Shimmy Shimmy and the

³He had an impeccable sense of timing that allowed him to dance inside
the music,² said Ms. Craddock, who first saw Mr. Aguilar dance in the
1950s. ³He painted a picture of the music with his feet.²

Mr. Aguilar was born in Puerto Rico and moved to the United States
with his mother at 3. While staying with an uncle in Washington, he
was taught tap dancing by a maid who reasoned that if she could hear
him tapping out steps on a box, he was not getting into mischief. His
mother later taught him the danzón and the bolero.

His parents¹ turbulent marriage made his childhood difficult. After he
rejoined them in Manhattan, he and his siblings were placed in an
orphanage and later put into foster care, from which he emerged, as he
put it, ³an angry young man² who worked out his rage in the boxing ring.

Encouraged by the former Cuban boxer and singer Miguelito Valdez, he
entered a dance contest at the Palladium in 1950 and won the top
prize, $1,000. After the bandleaders Tito Puente and Machito helped
him master the mambo¹s tricky clave rhythm, he went on to win dozens
of contests and lasting fame as the mambo craze swept the country. His
partner was Millie Donay, who would later become his first wife.

One night the bandleader Noro Morales introduced Mr. Aguilar from the
stage of the Conga Room as ³Cuban Pete, King of the Latin Beat,² a
reference to a hit record by Desi Arnaz, who was in the audience. The
name stuck.

Mr. Aguilar made a career as a dancer, teacher and choreographer,
working for Warner Brothers for many years. As a consultant on the
1992 film ³The Mambo Kings,² he taught Antonio Banderas to mambo. He
collaborated with Edward Villella on the ballet ³Mambo No. 2 a.m.,²
which had its premiere with the Miami City Ballet in 2000.

He is survived by his sisters, Socorra Blackman, Chickie Masdeu and
Yvette Masdeu; his brother, David Masdeu; his daughters, Denise Gerard
and Petrina Aguilar; his son, Sean Peter Aguilar; and two grandchildren.

In 2003, asked by the Puerto Rico Herald to explain his mambo style,
Mr. Aguilar said: ³I feel it. Whatever is inside me, I let it go.
Sometimes I am hypnotized by what I am doing.²

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