The Billings Outpost

Speaker asks why some can’t samba

By JANE WHITE - The Billings Outpost

The sound was “skin on wood,” the spank on which a palm inspired the sound of the African conga drum, which in turn gave birth to Latin dance called salsa.

Dance dominated two lecture slots on the Western Heritage Center’s schedule last month. At the WHC’s High Noon Lecture Series, Mark Matthews presented a pictorial and audio history of social dance ranging from about the turn of the century to now.

Writer and dancer Matthews, 42, from Missoula, said he was on his way to Bozeman to teach contra dance, which he said was just like walking in a line, only more fun.

Tall, slender, blond and dressed in black except for a gray tie, Mark Matthews delighted about 20 people in the audience, only a few of whom were male. Mr. Matthews focused on the qualities of social dance that contributed to social interaction between blacks and whites.

Iconic Latin star Desi Arnaz said he thought the best way for people to get to know each other was through music and dance. Performing “Babalu,” he featured a conga line that many said promoted community via its simple steps and line format.

“Music and dance are what make people get to know each other,” said Desi Arnez. Matthews built on Arnaz’s wisdom by describing the history of social dance in America in two one-hour lectures, entitled, “Why White Men Can’t Mambo,” and “Jitterbugging on the Dance Floor - Social Change in America.” At the second lecture, he also taught a community swing dance called “The Big Apple Dance.”

He said Izzy Romero spread the salsa craze in the 1950s through the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo and Cuba. Adding that several salsa crazes have ignited throughout the years, he showed a photo that highlighted the spirit of sensuous salsa dance: a beautiful, curvy woman in a skimpy bikini made entirely of black feathers. The model, he said,  represented the height of chic during the Latin dance phenomenon during the ’50s. Mr Matthews told the story of how Latin dance was the first social experience that invited blacks and whites together to dance on the same dance floor, eradicating many cultural barriers that divided them.

Continuing on, he said rumba in 1931 became a staple of Brazilian dance. Later on in 1949, Perez Prado burst on the dance scene as an expert rumba dancer in New York City. New York then became the epicenter of dance and especially of Cuban rumba fests. Further, the United Services Organization hosted rumba clubs for soldiers traveling during wartime. Another dance from Brazil that excited the continents was samba.

Local dance teacher Steve Gillis, from Greeley, Colo., who has taught dance in Billings since 1973, said everyone experiences different dances in different ways and then makes them their own.

“Mambo is the studio version of street dance called salsa,” he said. Students ask me if I teach different kinds of salsa, and they ask about New York, Miami, Los Angeles and casino salsa ... . You get an American version of Latin dance when the cultures mix ... and remember Latins have grown up with dancing since they were young children.”

He also said he teaches nine different kinds of swing dance, including West Coast swing. Mr. Gillis can be found every Thursday from 8:30-10 p.m. teaching free dance lessons, including cowboy jitterbug, cha-cha and various kinds of swing dance at the Wild West Saloon at 1516 Fourth Ave. N.

Samba schools, said Matthews, were often situated on the outskirts of slums in Brazil, called favelas, and Brazilian samba schools celebrate Lent and Mardi Gras in the community via a multitude of street parades and parties called Carnevale. He said samba schools compete viciously in the sumptuous street celebrations that can draw people to party for up to several weeks in Brazil. Some Brazilians even quit their jobs to perfect their samba skills, make an elaborate costume and participate in that important samba dancing event. Mr. Gillis said, “The samba clubs get huge reputations based on how they party ... . The whole attitude is ‘Let’s have a great time and celebrate.”

Mr. Matthews said spot dances, like the various Latin dances except for conga line, could be danced on a crowded floor. He said the Italian Mafia ran many dance clubs, especially Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, who combined the two most infamous organized crime enterprises ever to exist. Finally, he said, emigration from Cuba and Puerto Rico filled the clubs with skilled Latin dancers with gyrating hips. Where did they get that rhythm?

He said the complicated patterns of rhythms came from drumming on African slave ships, among other things. Sailors played fiddles to get the slaves to exercise while on board ship en route to various auctions and ports. These complicated percussion patterns also paved the way for rock ’n’ roll. For further information, check out


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