The Sexy, Hip Shaking Mambo Dance

More about the dance origin, its rise to popularity and its characteristics

Professional dancers performing the mambo.

 Yale Joel / Contributor

Originating from Cuba in the 1930s, Mambo is enjoyed throughout the world at both the social and competitive dance levels. The mambo is a favorite of ballroom audiences because of its high energy level and infectious rhythms. 

Reinvigorated in recent years by crossover pop singer Ricky Martin and by Lou Bega with "Mambo No. 5," mambo dance is fascinating and diverse. Today, the dance is making a comeback and is performed in ballroom competitions.

History of Mambo

The Mambo dance originated in Cuba as a mixture of Afro-Caribbean and Latin American cultures. The word "mambo" denotes an African origin, particularly from the Congo region. The mambo is believed to have been named after the voodoo priests who thought they could send dancers into hypnotic states. Initially condemned by churches and restricted by authorities in some countries, with time the mambo gained popularity and became the favorite dance style that it is today.

Mambo in New York

In the 1950s, various publications in New York City proclaimed there was an emerging "mambo revolution" in music and dance. Recording companies began to use "mambo" to label their records and advertisements for mambo dance lessons were in local newspapers.

New York City had made mambo a transnational popular cultural phenomenon. By the mid-1950s mambo mania had reached a fevered pitch. In New York, the mambo was played in a high-strung, sophisticated way that had the Palladium Ballroom, the famous Broadway dance-hall, jumping. The ballroom soon proclaimed itself the "temple of mambo," for the city's best dancers.

Mambo Characteristics

The feel of the mambo is based mostly on forward and backward movements. The basic components of the dance include rock steps and side steps, with occasional points, kicks, and flicks of the feet. Important to Mambo is the distinctive hip movement, hence the unofficial meaning of the word "mambo" means to "shake it."

Mambo Action

Some say the mambo is a flirtatious, sensual dance, sometimes almost raunchy. Mambo dancers appear quite passionate and seem to express that passion with the movements of their hips. Exaggerated hip movements combined with long, flowing movements and sharp, quick steps contribute to the sensuous feel of the mambo.

Distinctive Mambo Steps

The mambo uses a 4/4 beat and is similar in rhythm to the slower bolero. The basic mambo combination is counted as "quick-quick-slow," with the foot moving on the second beat. On the third beat, the weight shifts to the other foot, returning to the original foot on the fourth beat. Dancers swing their hips through each step, creating a fluid motion and a sensuous atmosphere. A few distinctive mambo steps include the following:

  • La Cucaracha
  • Manita a Mano
  • New York
  • New York Bus Stop
  • El Molinito
  • The Liquidizer
  • El Mojito
  • Los Giros Locos

Mambo Music and Rhythm

In Mambo music, the rhythm is set by a variety of percussive instruments, including maracas and cowbells. Beginners may be confused by the variety of mambo rhythms, but variety is what gives mambo its spice. The tempo of mambo also varies between musicians, with a wide range of 32 beats per minute to a challenging 56 beats per minute. In the past, Mambo bands would hold friendly competitions to see who could create the best mambo rhythm.