Dancer. DJ, director, and instructor, Mambo wears many hats (literally…he’s always wearing a hat…along with his signature sleeveless sweatshirt), and when it comes to salsa in San Diego, especially salsa on2, there’s not a dancing soul who doesn’t know and respect “Mambo” Castillo for his wealth of knowledge and insane patterns.
We recently sat down with him to talk about his more than 20 years worth of experience, his humble salsa beginnings, and what the rest of us can do to keep up with the “pattern master!”
Q: How did you get started with salsa?
Mambo: My older brother. My older brother was into all different styles of music. He had this Tito Nieves CD with old salsa style. He told me I should try it out and at that time I was like, “Ah whatever.” I listened to it, all nonchalant, and thought it was kind of cool, but was more into hip hop and house. I was actually a house DJ for a little while when I was younger.
Then, probably about 6 months before I turned 21, he told me there was this San Diego club with dancing that I should check out. Okay, cool.
So I went, kinda snuck in, and looked around. I was like, oh wow, people dance together. It wasn’t like hip hop and other styles of dance where you just kind of groove, they were like together together! That was pretty cool. I ended up enjoying it, going back, and finding all the clubs that played salsa music and following the people that danced.
Q: Who taught you to dance salsa?
Mambo: I started with learning from the dancers I met in the clubs. After about 3 years of that, I met Tulane and Angel. Tulane told me, “You know, you have really good dancing, but let’s get your timing on point.” She was really good at timing.
By that point I was also interested in playing instruments. I met three brothers, the Alvarez brothers, who happened to play percussion. Since I was already good at patterns and learning quickly, we worked out an exchange – they would teach me how to play percussion if I taught them some cool patterns. Two or three years of learning and having fun with percussion, I gained a much better understanding of timing.
From there I met guys from New York in the On2 style who showed me the 2 break and the 6 break. I decided to take it seriously, which meant taking trips to New York for random group classes with random friends and random people. 2002 was a lot of back and forth to New York learning On2. And in 2003, after all that time with Tulane and Angel performing On1, I started my On2 dance company Son y Pasos.
The rhythm that we dance to is called “son” and “pasos,” in English, is the steps. It’s Rhythm and Steps.
I didn’t take salsa very seriously at first – I had my regular job and thought I’d just come and hang out once in a great while, but then I got so excited about it. I met my son’s mom in the social scene. She was my first dance partner. We danced together, performed together, taught together. As time goes on, I just fell into it. I got better and better, practiced more, 25-30 hours a week, plus my regular job.
At that time, people wanted to be the best. To be the best then you had to really practice and travel to go take classes with Eddie Torres, just go and learn. Now, people want to be happy where they’re at or just be good enough. I was at that level where I wanted to be the best. If I was going to do this, I was going to be for real. I don’t ever want to be that person who went this far and is just okay. I wanted to be the best.
That’s why I practice so much. I practiced every day for hours and hours and hours. Footwork and patterns, timing, percussion. They say to master something it takes 10,000 hours. I exceeded those 10,000 hours by now. It’s been 20 years!
Q: How has your teaching progressed?
Mambo: It changed dramatically! When I first started, I was still a rookie. I was into martial arts when I was younger, and so it was easy to learn that side.
But teaching is psychological and you don’t learn that until you start to do it. It’s something you have to do to understand the psychological aspect of how people learn in general. People go to school, sit in front of a teacher, and sometimes the teacher has no idea how they learn. They just teach them the curriculum and done. As a dance instructor, you have to pick each person’s brain and see how they learn.
So when I first started, I tried different things. I got better by going to workshops specifically to watch how instructors broke things down. I wouldn’t take the workshop. And I did that for probably 2-3 years.
There’s a reason for my insanity. Breaking something down so your students actually get it – that’s the hardest thing to do as a dance instructor.
I learned different avenues and ways of teaching people. Basically, each person gets the same tools but they’re learning in a different way. Some people take longer, some people remember right away, some people have a short term or long term memory, some get frustrated and say, “I’m never going to learn this, I’m out,” some people do it until they learn it perfectly. Everyone has a different personality. But one of the main aspects that helps people learn the quickest is if they are having fun. As long as you’re enjoying it, making some jokes, not all hardcore – people think, “Okay this is fun, he makes jokes.”
My training style has made a huge transformation. I’ve changed 100%. I changed it all. I wanted people to be able to learn in a way that would make them feel good, have fun, but still learn what they are doing.
Q: What kind of learner are you?
Mambo: I am a photographic memory learner. I can learn it on the spot, but I will forget it within a day or two. But if I do the same thing over and over again, then of course I keep it. I can literally watch something and totally do it.
I was never a book person. Every job I’ve ever had, like construction, has been hands on. Dance is the same way. It’s about just doing it. Once you learn to do it over and over, it becomes easier and easier. For me to this day, that’s still the easiest way to learn something.
You don’t learn to drive by reading a book – you just drive. You have to get behind the wheel. Same with dance. No book is going to tell you how to make a pattern a work.
Q: What classes do you teach right now at A Time To Dance?
Mambo: Only salsa. Beginner intermediate and intermediate. I don’t teach anything else anymore.That’s my forte.
Q: What kind of advice would you have for people coming to your class?
Mambo: If they are coming to the level 1.5, at least know your basics. Technically the level 1.5 classes are supposed to be for someone who has taken at least 3 months of a beginner class. A lot of times people come as a total beginner and they aren’t going to pick it up easily and it’s just frustrating for them.
For the Tuesday intermediate class, you should really have a year and a half because it’s a real intermediate class. We don’t slow it down.
Q: And you DJ also?
Mambo: Yeah, I’ve been DJ since 2004 and have collected salsa music for a bit longer than that. I DJ at Tango del Rey on Thursdays and then at Queen Bee’s on Sundays. I do a lot of local events. I’ve been DJing a long time and promoting salsa in general. Bachata is a big deal right now, but salsa will always sustain itself. It can’t be remixed. It is what it is.
Q: What about salsa makes it your favorite?
Mambo: The energy and the music itself. Salsa changes your emotion right off the bat – it makes you happy, makes you want to get up and move. Other music kind of chills you out, you know. I listen to a salsa song and it makes me happy and smile. Salsa has always done that for me. I also like hip hop very much too, but salsa will always be my #1.
Q: And specifically On2?
Mambo: Of course!
Q: When you see people in a salsa club, is there anything you wish they would do better?
Mambo: Spacing between other dancers, and it comes from the leader. I feel like ladies should dance smaller, and the lead should be more aware of their surroundings. I see in the dance community that people come onto the floor and just do whatever they want. It makes our scene a little weird because some people get stepped on and it can be a frustrating experience.
Be aware of your surroundings, have the follows dance smaller, and of course, timing!
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to go take a class. A lot of people won’t go take a class because they think they already know everything. Well, not all of us know everything. There’s a reason why people get PhDs. Even that person doesn’t know everything – they’re always learning!
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
Mambo: Music music music. Listen to salsa music. If you’re gonna learn, listen to it. Don’t just go to a salsa class and listen to it there. If you want to be a part of the community, listen to it all the time. It will help you learn faster. If you never listen to it, then how are you going to learn the beats and the timing and the breaks, all the cool stuff that comes with it? It’s not enough to hear it just when you’re in the club or in class. You’ll never learn it the same way. Listening to it more often will definitely help you in your dance and enjoyment.
Q: Do you have any recommendations of who to listen to?
Mambo: I spent a lot of time with Gran Combo, Celia Cruz, Poncho Sanchez, El Canario. There’s tons of them, Grupo Niche, some more mainstream ones, Angel Canales, Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, La Maxima, Oscar de Leon. You can stream it for free or listen on Spotify. So, listen and see how your musical side will grow!
Mambo Castillo teaches Salsa On2 Level 1.5 and Salsa Intermediate at A Time To Dance studio in North Park, San Diego and DJs 50/50 Salsa/Bachata night on Thursdays at Tango Del Rey and Salsa Sundays at Queen Bees. He is the director of Son y Pasos salsa company. Follow him on Instagram or Facebook.
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I am still at 1.5, but I learned cool On2 patterns by Mambo and you can’t get that by reading books.