Bitten by the Dance Bug

by Pedro Juan Hernández
Translated by Victoria Álvarez

As soon as he had the chance, Carlos began looking for places where Puerto Ricans and other Latinos were dancing la rumba, a type of music whose rhythm was so catchy he was barely able to keep his feet from moving. An incidental encounter indefinitely changed his life’s path. At the Park Plaza on 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, and at Club Obrero Español on 102nd Street and Madison Avenue, he could see stars from Latin America, such as the great Cuban musician Machito, the musicians Julio Andino and Marcelino Guerra, the group Alforana X and the Conjunto Capaceti. Although entering these places was prohibited for minors, being in close proximity and catching a glimpse of these stars of entertainment was both stimulating and encouraging. At times he could hear live music that was blared into the street, where he practiced and improvised dance steps he one day hoped to use on the dance floor. On other occasions he found ways to sneak into the club, masquerading as an adult by wearing a fake mustache, hat, and dress-shirt. Once inside on the dance floor he always managed to draw attention to himself, quickly becoming the focus of onlookers who cheered him on as he moved to the beat of the music. He and his spectators were frequently broken up by security guards, who insisted on removing the minor despite the crowd’s enthusiasm.

Carlos Arroyo at 21 years When he was finally of age, he felt liberated because he could finally enter the temples of music and dance he had so often dreamed of. The only thing left to find was a partner in crime. At the Savoy Ballroom, Carlos and his partner Ramoncilla started monopolizing the dance contest championships with $25 prizes, until Bob Buchanan, the owner of the club, prohibited them from competing. Instead he hired them to do a dance routine that the audience thoroughly enjoyed. Arroyo’s next goal was to dance on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at the most famous of all the Latin clubs, where Federico Pagani, a show promoter, had established mambo dance competitions. Arroyo’s first partner was the African American Dottie, and later Puerto Rican Carmen Cruz, with whom he won many competitions and with whom he was anonymously immortalized in the film Mambo Madness. Cruz was also his dance partner in performances at el Teatro Puerto Rico, Hispano, Triboro and at Mount Maitre in Canada, among others. His professional representation was initially handled by Charlie Raab; later his manager was Fred Landers, who also managed Tito Rodríguez. Finally, Arroyo was living his dream; what had started as a hobby had turned into his passion and his livelihood.

Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies
Image Credits: Carlos Arroyo Collection | All Rights Reserved