Allison’s Traditions Field Note

Title: The Traditional Dances of Chile


The cueca [kwe-ka] is a long-lived and loved national dance of Chile. Since coming here I’ve had the chance to learn more about it and even dance it a few times!

What traditions does the community have?

Valparaíso is an old port town in a country rich in history. You have traditions mish-mashed together from the native peoples, Spanish conquistadors and European immigrants. Each new layer of society has added to the traditions that now make up modern-day Chile.

What tradition did I learn about?

I enrolled in a class called Danzas Tradicionales (traditional dances) through my university the first chance I got. I was never any good at dancing, and I thought, where better to learn than in a Latin American country? My first day of classes a bunch of other nervous students and I entered the gym and reluctantly made a circle at the request of our two teachers. Our teachers were both middle-aged Latin men with ridiculously muscular legs. I figured this was a good sign. Dancers have strong legs, right? “Good morning everyone!” they cried, “Today we are going to teach you the cueca [kwe-ka].” They both did a flourish with the handkerchiefs they had on hand, “The national dance of Chile!”

With that they began teaching us the moves. Unlike most partner dances, you don’t dance the cueca hand-in-hand. This was a wonderful thing for me, I’m even worse at dancing with someone than by myself! When I have a partner I freeze up, and more often than not end up stepping on them. But in the cueca you barely ever touch your dancing partner. Instead you use a handkerchief (or pañuelo [pan-hue-lo]) to flirt, blow off or in general keep the connection with your partner. It’s grasped between two fingers on your right hand and flourished with every move you make.

I was nervous and excited as they began to break down the dance for us. In a circle we began thumping our heels on the floor in a complicated fashion. Our teachers yelled out the moves to us, “This part is called the zapaterilla (almost literally the shoe-ing),” They then began to almost skip in place while simultaneously crossing one foot in front of the other, “And now el paso de tijeras (scissor pass)!” I was sweating and not at all elegant as I tried to copy their moves, but I was smiling too. I was really getting the hang of this dancing thing!

The dance itself is pretty easy to learn and after two classes I knew all the steps. What really gets me is how to use your pañuelo. With it you can show interest, disinterest and even disdain to your dancing partner. Different regions of Chile have their own version of cueca as well. In Valparaíso they have the cueca brava or fierce cueca, because the woman of the ports here are supposedly fierce and strong. Our two teachers acted this dance out together and it was a hilarious sight to see. The poor man tries to entice the woman to dance with him, to even look at him. He dances forwards and waves the ground before her with his pañuelo, cleaning the very earth she might touch. In turn she ignores him, looks away even while they’re dancing close together and when they part swishes her pañuelo dismissively.

She never falls for his trap, and remains fiercely independent the whole dance. I actually loved this form of dance, it’s so animated and tells a hilarious and sometimes sad story. I don’t know if I’ll be able to dance the cueca very well by the end of the semester, but I would love to learn the subtle movements of the pañuelo.

Why does the community have this tradition?

What is so beautiful about Chilean traditions is that they always have more than one meaning. All of these dances, including the cueca, are danced during get-togethers and annual festivals. They’re a way to bring people together, to celebrate being together.

Another dance from northern Chile I’ve learned is called the cacharpaya [ka-cherm-pie-a]. The movements and music for this dance are what most people would consider happy. We basically skip the whole time, and often join hands as one big group to dance together. Our dance teachers, however, told us differently. They took the lyrics of a common cacharpaya song and broke them down. The song turned out to be one long goodbye for all the loved ones about to depart. This dance ends an annual festival in the north and due to money issues, this festival is the only chance for people to see one another. The dance and song are a farewell and a wish that they will be able to see one another some time soon. I can think of no sweeter way to say goodbye than this.

Is this tradition connected to its environment? How?

As I mentioned before, these dances are a way to bring people together. It’s a lovely excuse to go visit friends and family you may not have seen in years and celebrate the reunion with a dance. The festivals all over Chile last for days and in that time people rarely ever stop dancing. Chile geographically is so stretched out. Everyone is divided by the extremes of the environment from the northern deserts to the rainy isolated southern reaches. A way to bring these disconnected communities together is through basic traditions. The dances may vary by region, but everyone knows a good beat when they hear it. Dance is also a way to transcend words. You get to express yourself without having to bumble over your own tongue. The dancing tradition helps take people from all different parts of Chile together. It is a celebration of overcoming the elements and remaining a community.

Gotta love their fancy footwear!

Gotta love their fancy footwear!

Our study abroad group got a chance to dance together!

Our study abroad group got a chance to dance together!

Check out a video here:


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