How to Dance Off Pinochet's Demons With a Handkerchief

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Why you should care

Once shunned as a symbol of Chilean nationalism, this folk dance is now capturing imaginations worldwide. 

The eye contact is intense, the costumes elaborate and the handkerchiefs wave overhead in dignified fashion. A man with a large hat and a woman in a red dress circle, taking short, deliberate steps. As they draw near each other, the guitar music intensifies. They flirt in ritual. This is cueca, with variations referred to as zamacueca or marinera. And while you may not have heard of it yet, this folk dance is on its way to becoming the next tango: universally known, globally taught and a poignant symbol of the Latin American diaspora.

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Club Urugauyo dancing cueca in Sydney, Australia.

Source Club Uruguayo de Sydney

Because it takes different forms, many countries claim it as their own. Different nations call it different names, and variants exist even within countries. It originated in early 19th century Peru, created by African-origin (mostly) enslaved people and was called zamacueca, says Laura Jordan, a musicologist whose work focuses on cueca. By 1820, it made its way to Chile, where Jordan says its African origins were “diluted.” In recent decades, the dance was embraced as a national symbol by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, which resulted in the loss of its mainstream popularity. But now, cueca is staging a comeback throughout Latin America, and it’s taking off in new parts of the world.

You could call it a movement in young people.

Cosme Quintanilla, Chilean cueca instructor

From New York City to Madrid, you can now watch or take classes in zamacueca and its descendants. Based in Stockholm, Las Reinetas, a cueca music group formed in 2013, perform the art across Europe. The band has performed in various cities, like Oslo, Barcelona, Lausanne, Paris and others.

In Sydney, Club Urugauyo hosted a “Cueca Championship” in July. In Newark, New Jersey, a marinera competition has hosted participants from across the U.S. since 2012 and has seen its participation grow from 60 competing pairs in its first year to 134 in 2018.

Chileans, meanwhile, have dusted off its association with Pinochet, reclaiming cueca as a popular pastime. Salvia Porteña, a cuequero based in Valparaíso, now has international tourists from the U.S., Peru and Bolivia visiting him to see and learn the dance. Cosme Quintanilla, a cueca instructor of eight years based in Santiago, says the number of his students has grown from 180 new students in all of 2010 to 160 at just the halfway point of 2018.

“The interest is strong,” says Quintanilla. “Maybe you could call it a movement in young people.”

What’s driving the spread of this folk dance is its pan-continental identity coupled with the spread of a Latin American diaspora increasingly ready to publicly celebrate their culture in their new countries. Jordan calls cueca a truly South American dance. Zamacueca’s descendants have simultaneously been viewed as the national dances of Chile, Peru and Bolivia.

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Members of the Chilean National Folkloric Ballet give a massive class of traditional dance.

Source Sebastian Vivallo Onate/Agencia Makro/LatinContent/Getty

Growing cultural awareness within the African-origin South American diaspora is a factor in the dance’s geographical expansion, suggests Andrés Arevalo, a Peruvian-born producer, dancer and choreographer now living in Florida. Arevalo organized Tumba y Cajón, a festival dedicated to celebrating Afro-Peruvian culture in Miami, in July 2018. “I think the spread [comes from] people wanting to celebrate our culture, and to learn these dances has a lot to do with the fact that our communities have resources now,” he says. “Before, people would immigrate and had to focus on making ends meet. Now we have lived here for generations and have time to celebrate our communities through art.”

Ease of travel too has helped popularize the dance form globally, suggests José Campos, a professor at Yo Amo la Marinera dance school in Zurich. “As borders have become more open, people who know these dances have more opportunity to travel,” he says. In 2010, 16 new students signed up at the Zurich school. At this point in 2018, enrollment is 26 and growing, says Campos. “With travel has come international competitions that give great prizes. There are definitely great incentives to dance and learn abroad.”

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Zamacueca, the old and traditional Peruvian flirting dance, is performed by the National Group of Folklore in the main square of Lima for International Dance Day.

Source Getty

To be sure, this folk dance is still deeply intertwined with national identity for many. Priscilla Molina, a 25-year-old Chilean cuequera, discusses her affinity for the dance in patriotic terms: “I love cueca; it’s my national dance,” she says. “I’m proud to be Chilean — to feel cueca in my every step.”

But for Arevalo and many others, there’s a deeper context that’s exciting about the emergence of handkerchief folk dances as a reference point for Latin American dances globally. These dances come from Afro-Peruvians, says Arevalo. “That this is what the world sees as Latin [American] means that the conversation about race in and outside of South America is changing,” he says. “Afro-Latin people are being recognized for their contribution to dance, to all Latin culture.”

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Dancers perform during the VIII International Cueca Festival, a traditional folk dancing event, in El Alto, Bolivia.

Source AP

There are implications of this global spread within Latin America too. Though the African-origin roots of zamacueca and its descendants are part of established history, that is recognized much more outside South America than within the continent, says Arevalo. The global spotlight may change that. And despite associations with national identities, these folk dances “are uniting people across Latin [American] immigrant communities,” he says. “We all have our versions of them, and learning these variations from others in the immigrant community makes us stronger.”

Indeed, within the diaspora, conceptions of ownership over these handkerchief folk dances have mostly eroded, suggests Lita Marina Girano of Peru’s Club Libertad Norteamérica, which helps spread marinera globally. “Marinera has gone beyond Peru’s borders, and today there are people around the world, not all Peruvian, who dance it,” she says.

In a world where countries are tightening border security and restricting movement, these handkerchief dances are emerging as unlikely ambassadors of globalization.

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