Architects of Excitement
By Alan Feuerstein
They met dancing - were born to dance. When they danced, those who watched held their breath, quickly swept into the spell created on stage. Their dancing set them apart, and they set the standard for beauty, movement and sensuality in Latin Dance.
THE HOME OF THE MAMBO
FROM THE CATSKILLS TO MAMBO KINGS
WHAT SET THEM APART FROM ALL OTHERS
A.F.: When did you first feel you could dance?
MILLIE: I knew that as long as I can remember, I went to the movies a lot and musicals were very big then. Each time I went to a musical, I would walk home dancing. Another influence was that my sisters were very good ballroom dancers and I copied whatever they did. I went to all the "street" dances in the local parks and became very good in the Lindy Hop.
A.F.: When did you know you would be a dancer?
MILLIE: I never really knew, it just happened. At that time, the Palladium dance hall was in full swing and I would go there to dance. The late Killer Joe Pirot, then master of ceremonies, saw me dance and told me to come up the next week and enter the dance contest. He got me a partner (not Cuban Pete) and I won the contest. Cuban Pete saw me and asked me to dance the contest as his partner the following week.
A.F.: How old were you Millie?
MILLIE: I was fifteen.
A.F.: Go ahead.
MILLIE: Well, Pete and I won, and he asked me to dance the next week. It was great, I thought, I would pay no admission, and leave with $12.50, my winnings. That was a lot of money! Pete and I became very close and later moved in together and got married.
A.F.: Ok, here's this dance team that's winning dance contests for $25. How did you make the transition to professional performers?
MILLIE: Pete knew the clubs, which would give us some money to do exhibitions. We would get paid about $50. But this allowed us to substantially improve our dancing. The more we performed, the more we rehearsed, the better we got and we knew we had something to sell. Pete became more and more innovative in his choreography - he taught me how to work an audience, create a feeling and bring the audience into that feeling. He was very creative, and explained to me why this or that move would cause audience reaction. I told Pete that we should end the contests at the Palladium, and either be hired as an exhibition team or not dance there at all.
A.F.: And so you began to think professionally.
MILLIE: Yes, we designed costumes for ourselves. Pete wore a gold lame jacket and my outfit was of the same fabric. We were ready for the resorts in the Catskill Mountain area, which were promoting the Mambo as a big thing. We became the resident dance team at a place called the Waldemere Hotel.
A.F.: Then you performed at a place called the Kenmore Lake Hotel.
MILLIE: Yes, working out of the Waldemere, we performed at so many of the small places...and we were the only dance team getting paid at the time. The others, some really good teams, were doing it mostly for exposure - to sell dance lessons.
A.F.: I was working next door at a small place called the Parkston House as a lifeguard and swimming instructor. One night I went across the road to the Kenmore, and there you were performing "Love for Sale" with Cuban Pete. Later, I went back to our hotel's dance team and asked them to teach me to dance that dance; it was the Guajira. So we all went up to watch your next performance, and they said they would teach it to me. I traded them dance lessons for swimming lessons, and that's how I got started. That changed my life.
MILLIE: Oh my god, Alan, all these years I knew you, I never knew that! You never told me till now that we inspired you.
A.F.: Yes, and it's no wonder that most of the Latin dance teams of the time, and today, have been using your, and Pete's styling. It's no wonder to me that Cuban Pete was chosen as dance consultant for the movie "Mambo Kings" and that once again, to make the movie authentic, you were his partner. But let's get back to the progression of your work.
MILLIE: Well, we did a film called "Mambo Madness" and Life Magazine ran a picture of us performing. That led us to work in places such as Carnegie Hall, The Palace Theater, The Waldorf Astoria and Television. We were all over the country.
A.F.: You were doing great things now, what was the most exciting to you?
MILLIE: It was Carnegie Hall with Tito Puente, The Palace Theater with Tito Rodriguez, and the Apollo Theater with The Platters.
A.F.: How many years did you and Cuban Pete work as a team?
MILLIE: From 1950 to 1955.
A.F.: In five year you went from dancing in the streets in New York's lower east side to all that recognition - that must have been in incredible experience. But now, at the height of recognition, you and Pete stop dancing together. Tell us a little about that - where did that leave Millie?
MILLIE: Well, I did nothing for a year, then I started working with a woman named Marilyn Winters. We did side-by-side dance routines, which were very well, received by audiences who had a seen me before. I had the same successes with Marilyn as I did with Pete.
A.F.: You danced with Marilyn for about two years, then you went your separate ways. What happens to Millie now?
MILLIE: Perez Prado asked me to sing and dance in front of his band as part of his group, so I grabbed the opportunity and joined him in Los Vegas. I was a soloist with him for about two years. Then, I went back to the Catskill Mountains. But first, I performed at the Palladium for the first time as a soloist.
A.F.: This is the first time New York ever saw you as a solo act - it wasn't Cuban Pete and Millie, it wasn't Millie and Marilyn, it was just Millie. Were you apprehensive about how they would receive you?
MILLIE: I think everybody was more nervous than I was, but it turned out great.
A.F.: I know, I was there, you stopped the audience was cold - now everybody wanted to see "Millie".
MILLIE: Coming off that reception, I went back to the Catskill resorts.
A.F.: There's a funny story there - do you want to tell it, or should I?
MILLIE: Well, the guy that was booking the dance teams for Mambo shows wanted to pay me half of what he paid a dance team because I was a solo act. He told me, "Why should I pay you what I pay a dance team when you're only a solo". I told him, "Not only are you going to pay me as a dance team, you have to pay me what you would pay a trio. I will do the first show for nothing. If you want me back you'll have to pay me as a trio." He said, "I don't understand the logic." To which I replied, "Why? Does a trio dance longer than me?"
A.F.: Now you get another agent and?...
MILLIE: I started doing shows all over; clubs, back to Los Vegas, resorts - all as a solo act.
A.F.: Then when did you stop?
MILLIE: My second husband and I had a child. When I became pregnant, I stopped dancing.
A.F.: You never started again, did you?
MILLIE: No, the dancing was kind of dying down and I had two children. I became a parent - doing normal parenting things. I was a volunteer for a hospital auxiliary, then became president of that auxiliary...
A.F.: Did you miss it at all?
MILLIE: Yes, very much, but there wasn't anything left - the hotels were losing business, burning down, times were changing. Latin dancing seemed to have stopped.
A.F.: What are you doing now Millie?
MILLIE: I manage a business.
A.F.: But it's never really over, is it? People never forgot you. A novelist names Oscar Hijuelos writes a book; it wins a Pulitzer price and "Mambo Kings" is made into a movie. There you were on the set - a recreation of the Palladium - dancing with Cuban Pete. Why, because it made the movie authentic. Tito Puente said, "Without the dance, the music will not live on." You, the both of you, made the Mambo come alive over forty years ago and continue to influence its movement. There can never be a discussion of the Mambo without talking about what Cuban Pete and Millie Donay did for the dance. Thank you so much for your time, Millie. Do you have any thoughts for the dancers?
MILLIE: Yes, on Salsa vs. Mambo. Where as Mambo had many variations - slow, medium and fast - so you could really get into many expressions of the dance, Salsa music is all fast, no variation, and the young people dancing it, although excellent dancers, are missing out on the opportunity to fully express themselves, to create the many looks onstage possible with the many variations of Mambo.
A.F.: Thank you Millie.
A.F.: Where did it begin for you Pete?
CUBAN PETE: I was born Pedro Aguilar and we (three children) were brought up in New York's "El Barrio". My uncle asked my mother and father if I could stay with him for a while, he owned a barber shop in Washington, D.C. When they when to work each day, they would leave me with a baby sitter who knew how to tap dance. She would teach me to tap dance to the sounds of "The Peanut Vendor," a popular rhumba at the time. I still have a copy of that number, and that's where I began to feel a rhythm. Now on Sunday's my aunt would put me up on an orange crate and I would tap dance on the box.
A.F.: Did you grow up there, in Washington?
CUBAN PETE: Unfortunately, things didn't work out with my uncle and aunt, or my parents, and we were sent to an orphanage. This happened when I was six years old. They later sent me to a foster parent home and, needing an outlet for my anger, I learned how to box. After I was released to my parents, I became a golden gloves fighter, having been trained at Grubs gym in New York where Sugar Ray Robinson and other boxing greats worked out.
A.F.: How did you do?
CUBAN PETE: I turned pro and although I got whipped, I had some sixty fights. I lost two fights, the first and the last. The great musician Miguelito Valdez, who saw me fight, told me I should get out of the game.
A.F.: How did you go from fighter to dancer?
CUBAN PETE: Well, on the weekends my mother would teach me the many forms of Latin dance - the danson, the guajira and others - and one day, I walked into the Trocadero Ballroom in the Bronx and the late Miguelito Valdez saw me all cut up. He told me to get out of the fight game. At the same time the owner of the Trocadero saw me dance Mambo and said that I should become a professional dancer. I laughed at the time but agreed to enter a dance contest at the downtown club called La Clique, where Desi Arnaz met Lucille Ball. There was a thousand-dollar dance contest and I won it dancing with a woman named Ida Gonzales. I decided that "this was for me".
A.F.: How did you develop as a dancer?
CUBAN PETE: That's interesting. First I developed a better feel for the music. Through a woman I was seeing at the time, I became friendly with Raoul Batista, the President of Cuba's nephew and I would go to Cuba often, listening to the rhythms of Guajuanco, Yanyigo, and Rumba, and would watch them dance. That was a big influence on me. When I got back to New York one day, I heard about a new dance hall called the Palladium. I went there, danced in the contest, and came in second. I eventually won first prize.
A.F.: Did you have the name Cuban Pete then?
CUBAN PETE: No, I danced under the name "Pete". There was a juke box number in those days called "Cuban Pete". A La Conga club, Desi Arnaz introduced me in a contest as Cuban Pete, and the name stuck. So there I was, a Puerto Rican with the name Cuban Pete.
A.F.: What happened next?
CUBAN PETE: Well, I teamed up with two of the greatest dancers ever, Augi Rodriguez (of the great dance team Augi and Margot) and Tommy to become the trio called the Mambo Devils - Los Diablos Del Mambo, so I taught classes at a studio and did shows. It was great; we worked with Machito, and at the Long Beach resorts. Then we needed girls, because the club owners wanted us to dance with girls.
A.F.: Then came Millie.
CUBAN PETE: Yes, there was this girl who came up to the Palladium and she was a Lindy Hop expert. She wanted to learn to dance Mambo and I immediately recognized that she had enormous talent. She would take me to the lower east side of New York where she danced in Lindy contests and won. I asked her to become a team, and she agreed. I said I wanted to do the Latin dances, not Lindy Hop to which she also agreed, and that's when it all began.
A.F.: You mentioned that some of the great musicians of the time helped you a lot?
CUBAN PETE: Yes, Machito, Bobby Escoto, Jose Borbuello, and Miguelito Valdez helped understand that you must not dance to the music, but inside the music. They taught me the clave (core rhythm instrument) and timing. So they were teaching me and I was teaching Millie.
A.F.: Did you have any formal training?
CUBAN PETE: Yes, I studied at Katherine Dunham's for Afro-Cuban rhythm and Millie and I won a scholarship to The New Dance Group.
CUBAN PETE: I put that all together into some choreography for us and Millie designed the costumes.
A.F.: Let's talk about your choreography Pete, because that and both your dancing talents put you head and shoulders above most of the dance teams of the time. What is it that created that magic...what did you have in mind?
CUBAN PETE: I wanted to tell a story on that dance floor. We used "Love for Sale," a very sensual number to tell that story. We really got the audience into it on that one.
A.F.: Then you were ready for the big clubs?
CUBAN PETE: Yes, we did the Latin Quarter in Boston, we worked in Philadelphia, Chicago at the Southerland Hotel and The Palmer House and Robert's Show Lounge, The President in Philadelphia and The Elegant in Brooklyn. Then we worked every resort in the Catskill Mountains - "we were cookin'." We worked every evening and every weekend. In Canada we did the Chez Paris, The Downbeat and Copacabana - like that.
A.F.: Amazingly, during this period your daughter Denise was born. Now you and Millie had a child, then you came right back and did The Apollo Theater with The Platters. How did that happen?
CUBAN PETE: Well, Sugar Ray Robinson, the great fighter, put on a tap dance show and he didn't like the size of the ovation we got before he came on, so we got fired. Frank Schifflin, the owner told us, "Don't worry about it, I'll bring you back. "Two weeks later, he brought us back with The Platters.
A.F.: It's a good thing you didn't get in the ring with Ray.
CUBAN PETE: (Laughs)
A.F.: How about TV, got a memorable story?
CUBAN PETE: Yes, after we did Jackie Gleason, Nat King Cole was doing the Cerebral Palsy telethon and sent a car to the Apollo to pick us up. There, we performed "Love for Sale," and it was the first time a television audience saw something so sexual and sensual. Our agent flipped, but our audience loved us. Then Jinx Falkenberg had us on with Ertha Kitt.
A.F.: Then you and Millie broke up. What did you do?
CUBAN PETE: I did shows with Carmen Cruz and Nikki Rossi. Out in California I worked in Virginia's with Josie Powell, well known today for her work and dancing skills. I also worked on several films doing bit parts. Later, I went to live in Florida and about that time the Mambo craze had ended. Nothing much happened in dancing after that until the movie Mambo Kings began development.
A.F.: Tell me about that.
CUBAN PETE: I called the producer, Anna Reinhardt and got the job teaching Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas before they went out to California. I taught them at the Pace Gallery which Arnold Glimscher, the movie's director, owns. I was teaching them with my daughter, Petrina. I gave them a sense of feeling for the music. "Mambo Kings" was going to be produced in New York, but because of union problems they moved the work to California. And so I helped them with the interior designing of the Palladium set and the type of clothing the dancers were wearing during that period.
A.F.: So you're responsible for that big zoot suit they put on me.
CUBAN PETE: Yes. (Laughs)
A.F.: What did this experience do for you spiritually? I mean, there you were in sort of a time capsule, dancing in the Palladium with Millie to the live music of the great Tito Puente.
CUBAN PETE: It made me reach back in time. I realized that many musicians had given me a gift to feel the music and maybe I could give some of it back now. For instance, the late Machito had helped me immensely and his son Frank was one of my assignments on the set. When I saw the opportunity to do this, and the chance to go back in time and dance with Millie the way I did - I would have done it for nothing.
A.F.: I think that when they honored you last month at the El Morocco in New York, it said it all. You were recognized for your years of contribution to Latin dance, and when you danced with Millie, every dancer attending, and these were the best dancers in the world, cleared the floor to watch you. It was a rare moment, and everyone stood still to seize it. Thank you, Pete.
Publishers Note: This article was originally printed in LA Salsa in the July/August 1992 issue. We recieved it as a photocopy from Barbara Cradock, Cuban Pete's current dance partner. She obtained it from the archives of Cuban Pete's library. We are publishing here for historical with the permission of the author.
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