What is the Mambo?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The mambo is a Latin American dance form greatly revered in dance circles. Though music similar to the now recognizable style of the mambo existed as far back as the mid-19th century, the dance itself was not invented until the 1940s. Perez Prado is credited with the invention of the mambo dance, as well as with marketing his style of music as mambo.

Mambo is a Latin American dance.
Mambo is a Latin American dance.

By the 1950s, mambo dance and music had become tremendously successful. Ballrooms in major cities gladly hosted musicians such as Tito Puente, Joe Piro, and The Mambo Aces. Jazz music of the time was certainly influenced by the Latin beat, as can be heard in original works recorded by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, among others.

The mambo dance was invented in the 1940s.
The mambo dance was invented in the 1940s.

The mambo is one of the more difficult dances to master because it does not start on the first beat of the music, but rather on the second. New dancers often make the mistake of moving to soon. Once the rhythm is understood, the footwork of the simplest mambo is not difficult to master, a simple quick-quick-slow.

Perhaps the greatest familiarity people have with the mambo in recent times is through the film Dirty Dancing, where Baby must learn the mambo from Johnny, played by Patrick Swayze. Her frustration in continually stepping on the wrong beat is echoed by many new dancers. However, in the film, and of course in dance schools, students soon learn that the mambo is a sensual dance. As with many dances of Latin origin, hip movements are vital and must be fluid to convey sensuality. Emotion is conveyed not only through the swaying hips, but also through facial expressions, arm movements, lifts and holds.

To be successful in competition, the dance must be as fluid and as sensual as possible, without crossing the bounds of taste. The longing and tension of the partners must be conveyed, however, so body language and eye contact are key. Costuming in dance competitions can be quite skimpy for the female, but still must be tasteful. Men may perform the dance with the shirt open in front.

The recent television hit Dancing with The Stars has fueled public interest in learning the mambo and other ballroom dances. There are DVDs available which can teach one the basic steps. Unless one is an experienced dancer, full proficiency in the mambo is probably better attained at any number of excellent ballroom dance schools.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@Oceana- I didn’t even know that there was a Dancing with the Stars DVD. I will have to get it because I want to learn how to do learn the mambo and salsa dances. The mambo dance steps are a little harder to follow, but if I have a DVD I can practice at home and not worry if I make a mistake because nobody is looking at me.

This is why I won’t take public dance classes because I get embarrassed when I can’t keep up with the music. I makes me feel like I have two left feet.


Cachao Lopez, a Cuban composer and bassist, was considered pioneer of the mambo. My grandmother was a huge fan, and she made sure to tell me all about him.

Cachao had a big effect on Cuban music’s rhythm when he worked with his brother to extend and quicken the Cuban danzón, making it the mambo. They would add swing to certain parts, and Cachao’s springy bass lines of the late 30s grew to serve as modern Cuban music’s foundation. His new rhythms influenced the dance world, and my grandmother was always out there on the dance floor, showing her approval of Cachao’s music.

Cachao’s rhythms were both playful and driving. His unique style involved playing the bass while holding the bow. While his fingers strummed, he would simultaneously strike the bass with the bow for percussion.


I was a huge fan of Perez Prado back in the day. He once described the mambo as “Afro-Cuban rhythm with a dash of American swing.” I remember how he got his start here in America.

Perez Prado got some mainstream radio airplay in the 1950s, after New York and California Latino radio stations had provided Americans with their first listen to his music. He had some hits in the United States with his early music.

His song “Que Rico el Mambo” inspired Sonny Burke, an arranger, when he heard it in Mexico while on vacation. Sonny covered the song and renamed it “Mambo Jambo” for the American audience. This song became a hit, prompting Perez to take advantage of its success by going on tour in the United States.


I have that Dancing With the Stars ballroom dance DVD! I got it for workout purposes, but it's nice that a side effect of using it is becoming familiar with dance steps.

In this DVD, the mambo is quite simple to do, because the instructor tells you exactly when to step and how. I am sure that, if left to my own judgment, I would probably step at the wrong time like other beginners.

The instructor teaches you the basic mambo, as well as mambo stepping to the side and on the diagonal, which is my favorite. You do a quick-quick-slow step diagonally in front of you to your right and then repeat it to your left. You do it four times, and then you do the same backward.

The mambo is probably my favorite of all the dances featured on this DVD. It seems to be the most fluid and instinctual dance.


Very good info on the dances.

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