It was an intoxicating atmosphere and a carnival mood that greeted vocalist Celia Cruz when she mounted the bandstand at 1:15 a.m. at Saturday night's Latin American Thanksgiving Day Celebration Dance at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. Five hours of almost continuous dance music by three bands had kept the capacious floor jammed with heel and toe tapping, writhing, bumping, grinding and hip-throwing, south-of-the-border-style terpsichorean improvisation to the wall-to-wall beat that bellowed from 12 steamer-trunk-sized speakers.
In the mix of infectious polyrhythms and jubilant melodies were isolated statements by players whose jazz chops and tastes were abreast of contemporary sounds. Most notably, a violinist of Stuff Smith ferocity drove the dancers to near frenzy with a feverish solo in the final moments before the appearance of the headliner.
Cruz proved to have a stage presense every bit as charismatic in her own way as Ray Charles or the late Mahalia Jackson. Hundreds crushed up against the bandstand and others stood on chairs to watch in awe as she gesticulated with her arms and swayed her hips sensually, rolling off R's with chainsaw speed and emitting guttural asides in her powerful voice.
She was the very incarnation of the Latin bombshell and was accompanied majestically by La Sonora Matancera, the orchestra she started out with in Cuba several decades ago. It is really a pity that her extraordinary talents and those of her accompanists are not given more exposure to a wide community. The other bands were Cu Co Valoy, from the Dominican Republic, and Los Virtuosos and Orquestra Novel, both from New York.