MIAMI - Pedro “Cuban Pete” Aguilar, an emblem of Latin dance and the mambo era, died Tuesday morning in Miami. He was 81.
Aguilar had tickets to Friday’s concert tribute to Machito and Tito Puente, the bandleaders whose music inspired Aguilar when he was the hottest thing on the dance floor of New York’s Palladium, the famed 1950s nightclub.
“Machito said to Pete, ‘You’re a great dancer but you gotta dance on the clave,’ ” said Barbara Craddock, Aguilar’s dance partner of the past 11 years. “The first time he hit it at the Palladium, he jumped up and down and said, ‘I got it! I got it!’ “
Clave refers to a musical pattern that repeats and keeps band members in time. It is the part of the music that locks dancers into a measure of music and indicates when one sequence of moves ends and another should start.
Aguilar succeeded so well that Desi Arnaz dubbed Aguilar “Cuban Pete,” after the title of one of Arnaz’s songs. Aguilar’s style, intensity, inventiveness - he came up with a host of new steps, adding hand and upper body movements to Latin dance - and rhythmic verve earned him celebrity and the respect of Latin musicians.
Aguilar was a black Puerto Rican born on the island and raised in the New York barrio. His most famous partner in the 1950s and 1960s was a white woman, Millie Donay. He was featured in Life magazine and performed at the White House for Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, on “The Jackie Gleason Show,” at Madison Square Garden and with top orchestras across the country.
“When you watched Pete dance you saw the music,” Craddock said. “He could cut the clave with his feet. He would get so lost in the music it was literally thrilling.”
“Guys like Pete are great artists, but they’re not always looked at that way,” said Edward Villella, artistic director of Miami City Ballet, who tapped Aguilar to bring authenticity to his “Mambo No. 2 A.M.” in 2000.
That project was one of many during a late 1990s career renaissance, which Aguilar thoroughly enjoyed. “It’s something else to watch yourself come back to life,” Aguilar told The Miami Herald then of the Miami ballet project. “I’m in my glory, baby - I’m 72 - and I’m on top of the biz working with this man and these people.”
He was a consultant on the film “The Mambo Kings” and made the rounds at dance conferences, schools, contests and workshops; teaching, performing, speaking and accepting awards. Filmmakers from Bravo, Univision and more sought him out for documentaries on Latin music.
He was also passionate about building respect for Afro-Cuban and Latin music and dance. “He believed that Latin music and dance has a history and culture that doesn’t receive the respect that it should,” Craddock said.
As sharp in his dress as he was in his eye for whether people were dancing to his exacting standards, Aguilar would walk away in disgust from anyone not on rhythm.
In the late ‘90s, he was a regular at Starfish, the South Beach club that was the center of the Cuban-style salsa known as rueda.
“He loved seeing a whole new generation of dancers,” recalled Debbie Ohanian, Starfish’s owner. “To him, that was really thrilling. He would stand on the side and tell me, ‘That’s not how it’s done, they’re not dancing right, but at least they’re dancing.’ “
Aguilar is survived by his children Denise Girard, Petrina Aguilar and Sean Peter Aguilar, and by two grandchildren.