Nearly 50 years ago, way before the current wave of popularity of salsa dancing, there were nightclubs in Washington that were nothing but rumba, cha-cha and mambo, salsa's stylistic parent. Many of these clubs were on the dynamic U Street corridor and catered to a primarily African American clientele. One man, Roland Kave (pronounced kah-VAY), almost single-handedly brought the mambo to Washington, teaching hundreds of people the hottest dance steps and teaching the rhythms to local jazz cats so that they could make money playing this hot new Latin jazz. Kave, who turns 69 this month, still dances mambo and salsa from time to time, mainly at the Hollywood Ballroom in Silver Spring, but sometimes at some clubs closer into town, like Habana Village in Adams-Morgan. As much as anyone, he embodies the history of Latin dance in Washington. Here's Kave's story, in his own words:
"When I got back to Washington in '54, mambo crazy, like I said, none of the blacks were dancing mambo. I got settled into teaching the mambo at the Tropical Room at the Dunbar Hotel at 15th and U. It was a big black hotel, and I started there every Saturday night. The first thing I did was bring in Buddy Rowell, who was playing at the Cairo Hotel on Sundays. The dance session there was being hosted and promoted by Groggy. Well, his name was Maurice Gervitsch, but everyone called him Groggy. He was a big-time Jewish lawyer and dancer. Buddy had been playing with a big 12-piece band, basically for the Jewish set, and in the '40s he was a kind of rumba king, but he had a big hand in bringing the mambo to whites long before I dreamed of it.
"One night, a fellow comes into the Tropical Room and says, 'What about Bob McEwen and his Capital Caravan?' You know, that was the television show with all the live acts and dancers. Well, McEwen owned the Caravan Ballroom, at Ninth and V streets [later it was to become the WUST Radio Hall and now is the 9:30 club], and I went and talked to him and signed a contract. I moved my Saturday night mambo and cha-cha lessons there with a staff I'd taught the basic steps to. To provide the music, Mr. McEwen signed the first black Latin dance band in Washington, D.C., made up of just African American musicians, with no Spanish speakers, called Los Americanos. After Los Americanos had been there about a month or two, I picked up a black tabloid and read where they were going to start appearing as of that Saturday at the Republic Gardens. I said 'What!?!?!'
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