Pedro “Cuban Pete” Aguilar, one of the leading mambo dancers of the 1950s, has died. He was 81.
The mambo legend passed away Tuesday at the Sinai Plaza Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Miami, said Barbara Craddock, his longtime dance partner. Craddock described his cause of death as heart failure but said it could be related to his diabetes.
He performed for presidents and foreign leaders and was hailed as one of the greatest mambo dancers by LIFE Magazine and mambo percussionist Tito Puente, according to his Web site.
Aguilar was born in Puerto Rico in 1927 and grew up in the New York barrio. 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 himself 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. 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 movie, “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.”
Craddock said Aguilar came out of retirement and began dancing with her in 1998.
“He said he knew I was right for him at the first step,” Craddock said, referring to when they first met at a South Florida dance club. “I went right out with him like water.”
Besides countless performances at many high profile venues over his career, Aguilar performed twice at the White House, once for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and again for President Lyndon B. Johnson. He also performed for Queen Elizabeth of England and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.