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''Cuban Pete'' Aguilar: Mambo Dancer Is Legend Worldwide


July 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

For someone who spent eight years of his childhood in an orphanage, Pedro ''Cuban Pete'' Aguilar has come a long way.

And no one is more in awe of his fame than the 76-year-old dancer, who has become legendary worldwide for his passionate and impeccable performance of Latin dances, particularly the mambo.

The Hallandale Beach dancer gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II of England, White House performances for Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, a performance at Madison Square Garden for Prime Minister Ben Gurion of Israel, had his picture on the cover of national magazines, and has appearanced on TV programs and in movies.

And that's just his past. Today, he and his longtime partner, Barbara Craddock, a 63-year-old professional dancer from North Miami-Dade, are gaining even more international stardom.

In September, the couple will be the guests of honor at a salsa convention in Oslo, Norway, and will be presented with lifetime achievement awards from the Norwegian government and the Norwegian Dance Association for their artistic contribution to Latin dance.

In October, the couple will teach and lecture on the Mambo/Salsa Connection on a tour being sponsored by SUNY Morrisville, part of New York's state university system.

And in the same month, they will travel to Washington, D.C., to do the music, choreography and conceptualization of a Latin ballet to be presented Dec. 11.


Also in October, a replica of the first satin and silk dance costume made for Aguilar by his mother, plus a pair of his dancing shoes will go on display in a History of Latin Music exhibition at a museum in New York.

All of this follows other recognitions, such as the mayor of New York proclaiming Cuban Pete Day to honor Aguilar's cultural contributions to the city and the presentation to Aguilar of a Living Legend Award during the 2003 Salsa Congress in Chicago.

Between such tributes, Aguilar and Craddock reaped standing ovations at their sellout public appearances, their coast-to-coast dance workshops, and for their performance as storytellers in a TV documentary about when mambo was the rage at the Palladium Ballroom in New York.

''I guess I'm leaving a legacy,'' Aguilar says. ``But to this day, I still can't believe I'm No. 1.''

What's his secret to becoming the mambo icon?

Aguilar attributes it to his ability to feel and interpret the clave, the rhythm foundation of much Latin music, tapped out by two polished sticks.

''The clave is a beat,'' he says. ``You have to feel it inside yourself, internalize the rhythm. I feel it. Whatever is inside me, I let it go. Sometimes, I am hypnotized by what I am doing.''

His dramatic and proficient movements to the clave are what earned him the title ''King of the Latin Beat'' in the 1950s, an outgrowth of Desi Arnaz's hit song of the period.

Aguilar never started out to be a dancer. Born in Puerto Rico, he came to the mainland United States with his parents as a small child. When he was 3, his mother left him with his uncle while she went to work. ''My uncle owned a barbershop,'' Aguilar recalls, ``and when he went to work, he left me with the maid. She taught me how to tap-dance to keep me quiet. I used to dance to the music of the peanut vendor.''

When he was 6, Aguilar and his three brothers and sister were placed in an orphanage because of family difficulties. He was there until he was 14, when he returned to his mother. ''We lived in Manhattan in a neighborhood known as Little Puerto Rico, the barrio,'' Aguilar says. ``All you heard was music. You couldn't walk a whole block and not hear music coming from the windows.''


Although he did a little dancing in those days, Aguilar says he was an ''angry young fellow'' and took up boxing. ''One night, Miguelito Valdes, a bandleader and singer who was famous for the song Babalu, came up to the ring and told me I ought to be a dancer,'' Aguilar said. ``I didn't pay him any mind, but then I got beat bad boxing. So he put me in a dance contest and said to let him know what happened. I won $1,000 in the contest.''

From there, his new career skyrocketed. The Palladium, the Waldorf, the Apollo, the Carnegie Palace, the Jackie Gleason Show. Eventually, Aguilar went to California, where he did some acting, dancing, choreography and coached Antonio Banderas in the finer nuances of Latin dancing for the actor's role in the movie The Mambo Kings.

In 1982, he came to South Florida to be closer to his daughter, Petrina. Here, he met Craddock, who became his dance partner and manager.

Craddock has been a professional dancer since she was 15. She specialized in Latin dancing and, before she met Aguilar, had danced with Kiko Fernandez in New York and New Jersey.

In 1998, she went dancing with friends at a club in Broward County. Aguilar was there.

''I had run into him from time to time,'' Craddock recalls, 'and he remembered me. He asked me to dance, and we took two steps and he said, `I want you to be my partner.' ''

At his apartment in Hallandale Beach overlooking a golf course, ''Cuban Pete'' looks at his voluminous collection of music, all Latin except for Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

''I haven't slowed down,'' he says. ``I don't see why I should. I like what I'm doing. I like the applause.''

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