According to Rebeca Mauleon’s indispensable “Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble,” the Mambo is:
An up-tempo dance style, developed through the 1940s and 1950s, which blended several elements of North American instrumentation and harmony with the Cuban son (a style of popular dance music that combined Spanish and African elements).
The great thing about Mambo music is that it leaves space for instrumental improvisation, like in jazz. The dance form also allows for improvised dance steps, which I’m sure contributed to its incredible world-wide popularity.
One of the first to be crowned “Mambo King,” bandleader Perez Prado left Cuba and toured South America, Mexico and Puerto Rico in the late 1940s. His teenaged dance fans caused traffic jams and near-riots wherever he appeared.
In 1951, a Catholic cardinal from Lima, Peru denied absolution to anyone who danced the Mambo. Which, of course, made it even more popular—a “forbidden fruit” kind of thing.
In the US in the 1950s, New York City’s Palladium Ballroom became the home of Mambo with dance contests every Wednesday night, and almost every middle-class household in America had at least one Mambo dance-instruction record.
And in 1961 both the Sharks and the Jets danced the Mambo: