Leading ‘50s mambo dancer

Associated Press

Pedro “Cuban Pete” Aguilar, one of the leading mambo dancers of the 1950s who performed for presidents and other world leaders and was featured in Life magazine, has died. He was 81.

The mambo legend died Jan. 13 of heart failure at the Sinai Plaza Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Miami, said Barbara Craddock, his longtime dance partner.

Aguilar was born in Puerto Rico in 1927 and grew up in New York City and Washington, D.C. His mother taught him the basic Latin dance steps. He picked up the nickname “Cuban Pete” in 1949 at the Palladium Ballroom in New York. The nickname referenced a Desi Arnaz song, and Arnaz later endorsed Aguilar’s use of it.

Aguilar had a unique ability to get inside the music when he danced, Craddock said.


“He was definitely a rhythm technician,” she said. “His feet and hands became another instrument with the orchestra. It was a privilege to be his partner.”

Aguilar first rose to fame by winning scores of dance competitions in the 1950s with his partner Millie Donay, whom he later married.

He continued to dance professionally for nearly his entire life, whether he was teaching lessons, hosting workshops or judging competitions.

Aguilar was a choreographer and consultant for the 1992 film “The Mambo Kings,” starring Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante. Aguilar and Craddock served as choreographic consultants and instructors for the Miami City Ballet’s “Mambo No. 2 a.m.”

Besides countless performances at many high-profile venues over his career, Aguilar performed twice at the White House, once for President Eisenhower and again for President Johnson.

He also performed for Queen Elizabeth II and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.