Mambo dance master Cuban Pete had the magic feet. But in the last decades of his life, it was dance partner Barbara Craddock who gave him his lift.
Craddock, who died at 74 in Pembroke Pines on Jan. 20, officially teamed with Pedro “Cuban Pete” Aguilar in 1998 after she went dancing with friends at a club in Broward County. As a professional ballroom dancer since age 15, with a specialty in Latin dance, Craddock had run into Aguilar over the years at international dance events, going back to the late 1950s when she vacationed in Miami Beach and the couple danced into the wee hours at North Beach clubs.
“North Beach was the mecca of mambo,” Craddock said of those early days in a 2002 Miami Herald article. Later, the area still held sway. “We’ve adopted it as our home because of its devotion to the mambo.”
During the big band era, and before Dancing with the Stars put the syncopated dance form back in view on television, mambo, which originated in Cuba in the 1940s, was king from Manhattan to Miami.
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“We had the Cypress Key Club, the Boom Boom Room in the Fontainebleau hotel. Every major hotel had a dance studio that taught Latin dancing when mambo was in its craze,” Craddock recalled in a 2005 Miami Herald article.
Craddock, who earned a degree in interior design from New York School of Interior Design, became one of the dance’s leading ambassadors. She was paired in the 1960s and ’70s with Kiko Fernández in nightclub-styled performances in New York and New Jersey. She continued into the 1980s in South Florida in her two-woman revue, Invitation to the Dance, with Marilyn DeLee and Olga Suárez.
Through the years Craddock, born Barbara Miller in New York on May 18, 1940, conducted workshops and lectures on the history of Latin dance, judged competitions and built a reputation as “the grand dame of mambo.”
But that 1998 meeting with Aguilar was fortuitous for both of them and led to their induction into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame. The pair also earned the Latin Jazz USA Lifetime Achievement Award in Miami in 2007 — the first time Latin dancers received that award — and in 2003 were presented with lifetime achievement awards from the Norwegian government and Norwegian Dance Association for their artistic contribution to Latin dance.
“I had run into him from time to time and he remembered me. He asked me to dance, and we took two steps and he said, ‘I want you to be my partner,’” Craddock said in a 2003 Miami Herald story on the eve of the pair’s guest of honor performance at a salsa convention in Oslo, Norway.
Since that night in 1998, until Aguilar’s death in 2009, the dynamic dance duo helped make mambo hot again.
Craddock and Aguilar helped choreograph Mambo No. 2 a.m. for Edward Villella’s The Neighborhood Ballroom, a tribute to four decades of American dancing for Miami City Ballet in 2003. The dance partners taught and lectured on the Mambo/Salsa Connection tour on behalf of the New York state university system and conceptualized a Latin ballet in Washington, D.C.
The couple’s footsteps were also immortalized in paint for an exhibition in Miami Beach in 2002 when they danced on a paper canvas inside the Byron-Carlyle Arts Center for International Latin Music Hall of Fame artist Erich Padilla.
Padilla recorded their steps on a second broad sheet using a wooden clave dipped in paint. “People don’t know their past,” Padilla said at the time in a Miami Herald feature. “Ricky Martin and Luis Miguel, they got their moves from somewhere.”
Craddock also developed and performed in a Mambo Mania series in North Beach. At the time of her death she was an executive producer of Mambo Man, a coming documentary on the life of Cuban Pete.
“Cuban Pete got all the attention and he was a brilliant dancer, but he could not have had the late career renaissance that he had without Barbara Craddock,” said Jordan Levin, dance critic for the Miami Herald. “She was his partner and you don’t dance mambo without a partner. She was graceful, she was adept and she made him look good — which is usually what the guy is supposed to do when dancing a salsa. And after he died she carried on his legacy.”
Craddock is survived by her husband James Craddock, son Scott Riesner, daughter Kimberly Saldarini, and grandchildren PJ and Katelin Lyons.
Services were held. Donations may be made in her honor to Palm Beach Atlantic University’s Dance Department, Alzheimer’s Association or the American Cancer Society.
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