Amazon Book Review by Steven Payne, Ph.D. - Librarian/Archivist The Bronx Historical Society Rating: 5 stars
As Librarian and Archivist at The Bronx County Historical Society, I am always looking for striking reminiscences of life and culture in The Bronx. Willie Estrada's The Dancing Gangsters of the South Bronx is one of the most compelling memoirs on "growing up in the Bronx" during the 1960s and 1970s that I have encountered. Willie throughout interweaves difficult memories of coming of age Boricua in a South Bronx increasingly devastated by structural and individual racism, capital flight, heroin addiction, gang violence, arson, and housing deterioration, and urban renewal schemes, on the one hand, with tactile recollections of the joy and community he was able to find in music and dance—in spite of the desolation all around him—on the other. Willie's periodic analyses of the structural and individual factors that shaped his adolescence and young adulthood in the South Bronx are piercing, and his occasional personal asides add complex layers of texture to his reminiscences. Most importantly, Willie provides unique historical insight into a period of South Bronx culture that is often overlooked—the years immediately before the emergence of hip hop. Traditional narratives often give sole credit to early hip hop—in the dynamic sense of the mosaic of artistic expressions, musical experimentation, and cultural fusions that emerged in the South Bronx of the late 1970s—with ending, for a period of time, internecine gang warfare in the borough. Willie challenges such a straightforward periodization by drawing attention to a slightly earlier moment in the vibrant, multi-ethnic musical and dance cultures of The Bronx. It was, Willie convincingly insists, the relatively short-lived but nonetheless momentous dance jams at St. Mary's Recreation Center that first brought peace to the borough during the early 1970s (even if this peace did not last).
These dance jams were also instrumental in the elaboration and formalization of the Latin Hustle, which before this point in time was a less developed set of dance steps practiced primarily by Boricua teens at house parties and in small basement clubs in the South Bronx. Willie's memoir persuades, therefore, that the dances at St. Mary's Recreation Center, organized primarily by teenage Boricuas, deserve a far more central place in the history of cultural developments in The Bronx of the 1970s than they have hitherto received. Willie's narration of his dance, personal, and professional life after the St. Mary's jams is simultaneously poignant and inspiring. All in all, Willie's is a top-notch memoir that labors with both painful and exuberant memories, some of which are worked and reworked from various angles, and gives readers a palpable sense of what it was like to come of age struggling, laughing, fighting, dancing, and loving as a Boricua in the "burning" South Bronx.
"I never look forward to my long commutes unless there's a book I can't wait to get my nose into and 'The Dancing Gangsters of the South Bronx ' was one such book - I finished this in a few days. For whatever reason my drug of choice seems to be 70s New York nostalgia and combine that with my Latin American background and love of hip hop culture and I'm in heaven. This book was a trip into all of those things as Willie MB Estrada recounts all the stories of growing up in the chaotic South Bronx of the 1970s with its gang warfare, burning buildings, Puerto Rican culture and a vibrant evolving dance scene. What I loved most was Willie’s straight up, no bullshit, raw style that made you feel like you were there seeing and hearing things firsthand. (I still have the vivid image of a room full of teenagers slow dancing (grinding) at a disco jam when the music cuts out and the lights came up to reveal a room full of teenage boys with erections and girls giggling. Interesting thing was that parents disapproval of this kind of intimate dancing led to the creation of the Latin Hustle. I know I have a lot of friends who are interested in the Latin Hustle and Hip Hop so do yourself a favor and explore an important part of the history by reading this book."
-Jackie Laso Barros from Australia
Just finished Willie Marine Boy Estrada's "The Dancing Gangsters of The South Bronx". The feeling of the reading is strong. It's a story of bravery, struggles, injustice, pain, hard work as well as love, fun, enjoyment and outstanding success in the life of a boy from the 70's. But at the same time, it's a story of the whole era. It reveals the truth behind many well-known events in the street culture history and it provides huge amount of missing knowledge. From the look into the gang world and the scene of the first Rock dancers to the creation of the Latin Hustle and the birth of Disco. From the high-class club scene of New York City to the early Hip Hop facts. All in one stirring novel. Sometimes I almost cried and sometimes I couldn't stop laughing while reading the funny stories. It's bitter-sweet as the life itself. It's real. You can feel the realness from every page. There's no choice but to admire the survival skills and the strong character of the guy whose hope and life energy preserved even in the most desperate situations. The whole story is inspirational, enlightening and fascinating. I'm really happy I bought this book on Willie MB Estrada's boat party. The party which I'll never forget.
-Sweemo PragueChild, Czech Republic
"If you liked 'The Get Down' then you will love the book 'The Dancing Gangsters of the South Bronx' written by the legendary pioneer of the Latin Hustle and Gang Leader Willie MB Estrada. I finished this book in less than a week and loved it. Puerto Rican culture often gets over looked for its contribution to Hip Hop but it was a vital part of the movement. This biographical book particularly looks at the rise of the Latin Hustle and how it was used to achieve peace amongst rival gangs in the 1970s South Bronx. Through his own personal account Willie has given a voice to a generation of Puerto Ricans whose story would otherwise go untold. A must read if you love old school New York in all it's grittiness and glory."
-Jackie Laso Barros from Australia
The book was a great read and I would highly recommend it as it answered a lot of unanswered questions and address a lot of misconceptions. It's often difficult to get accurate and credible information on the gang culture of the South Bronx which helped contribute to the emergence of what we now call Hip Hop. You can't get much better than the source, someone who was actually there and lived to tell the story and has the evidence to prove it. The photographs in the book really do give the reader a sense of reality.
-Crosby from Scotland
Just finished reading your book and I will say that I really enjoyed it. Growing up in the South Bronx most of my teen years, I was able to relate to most of what you chronicled in your book. But, being raised by a very strict father (who had his five daughters on “lock down”) I was shielded from most of what you experienced and discussed in the book. Even though we lived right across the street from St. Mary’s Recreational Center, we could only dream of stepping inside. Your book allowed me an inside look into the events and experiences that I had missed as a teenager growing up during the early 70’s.
The Hustle is and always will be my favorite dance form. Although I never mastered the technique past the 5 or 6 steps, I still enjoy watching others dancing it. I am forever grateful to you and your friends who were the “founding fathers” of this beautiful, sensual and captivating dance.
Your story is one to admire. I still marvel at the fact that you survived all the gang violence, drugs, and oppression that existed back then. Your story will resonate with many who were able to get out of that vicious cycle and make something of their lives. Music and dance was your vehicle and your “saving grace” in overcoming your obstacles and being able to achieve your goals and dreams. I am hoping for a Part II so that you can share, in detail, your experiences of the work you are currently doing with young around the world. As an educator for more than 30 years, I know first-hand how important it is to keep young people focused on positive activities so that they are not consumed by their negative environment. What better way than through music and dance?
One of my first posts of the year was... "When the student is ready the teacher will appear"
Well I'm giving thanks for the ability to recognize that not all teachers come in the form of a physical person. So many missions to complete and messages to up hold as I continue to #leadbyexample it can become over whelming and even though I'm taking it in my stride to the best of my ability, when I check my situation I'm never alone; there is always some form of support. I'm Not the first and will not be the last to march strong for a change and progression within my art form.
And who'd of thought some of my teachings would have come in the form of an Christmas present! So glad I got round to reading your book “The Dancing Gangsters of the South Bronx!” (Thank you for the gift of knowledge to The Massey Family.) Standing to #Salute You Willie MB Estrada. Your story is inspirational with many lessons of community; connection & progression for a greater cause all through the love of Dance and Music. Reminding me to keep marching to my own beat!
One question I want to know is... Do you still have the Cell Key?
All the best with your book and keep marching strong with your ventures. #Salute ☆ ☆ ☆
-Carmel Jones - United Kingdom
About the photo above, "Yo! This is very authentic stuff, true history and one of the greatest gestures of youth as ambassadors of peace in the community. As the Godfather of Bboy/Breaking/Breakdance culture in my country, Kenya, I truly respect and highly applaud both the organizers of the event(s) in the photo, and also Willie MB Estrada for introducing this part of our history so professionally and elaborately. You have inspired me, and therefore you have inspired an entire nation of Bboys/Breakers n Hiphopers because I will share this valuable information with my entire network nationwide. May God Bless You, and God Bless Hiphop and Ultimately, God Bless Hustle & Rock and its creators!"
BboyKay from the BboySquad Kenya