When they say Colombia is the capital of salsa, they mean it. Dancing is a Colombian way of life, and there is no good day without a good dance. When a band starts singing to salsa tunes, the crowd gathers and people randomly start dancing with strangers. It is interesting to see how two strangers can so easily find the connection and the confidence to execute such a sensual and passionate dance. Yet salsa is not the only beautiful dance form in Colombia. The indigenous dances have a long history in Colombia, and have always been a proud part of indigenous Colombian culture.
Popayan is the famous white city of Colombia. Every building in the city centre is painted sparkling white with a beautiful dark brown accent. Popayan is also in the centre of the indigenous part of Colombia and surrounded by indigenous villages from a melting pot of ethnicities. While most parts of Colombia has been westernised, the area around Popayan is still very much traditional. Walk into a public square and you can see people still dressed in their traditional clothes, a sight quite rare in most parts of Colombia.
I was lucky to be invited by a cultural dance troupe in Popayan to watch their performance in a rural village three hours away by bus. I had the chance to watch their rehearsals while in Popayan and feel the energy of this group of young performers. By day most of them have their own jobs and by night, they transform into passionate dancers. Everyone in the team was so passionate about preserving the traditional dances of the indigenous. You could easily feel their strong love for Colombia and its vibrant culture.
The weekend finally arrived and we sent off for the village very early in the morning. As we pulled into the village, the small village square was already bustling with activity. Villagers from around had congregated to sell their produce and also to watch the performances. I remembered taking a quick look at the varieties of vegetables, and I must admit I did not recognise half of what were sold. Strange looking carrots and bean pods were the most popular items, and I must say they probably would taste better cooked than raw! Yet I really enjoyed the vibe and the liveliness of the otherwise quiet village atmosphere.
The guys quickly began to unload their costumes and later joined in the fun. The stage was already set up and the performances for the day slowly began. There was a lot of singing, dancing and merrymaking. We were dancing in circles and invited to taste “chicha”, which is the indigenous home-made alcohol made from corn. Mind you, it was just 10am in the morning and the drinking has already started.
The bands on stage were smart to play popular oldie Colombian songs, which rallied the crowd. The old were clapping along, the tipsy were spinning in circles and the shy were standing by the sides trying hard not to shake their butts too much. Soon, it was lunch and the entire village formed lines to receive a free meal. It was a hearty meal of corn and stewed meat, accompanied by endless cups of chicha. Free food is an amazing concept. I enjoyed how it brought people from far away together and created an opportunity for people to reunite.
Soon, it was the troupe’s turn to perform. Everyone had their costumes on and was so eager to present themselves. It was a stunning performance. I enjoyed how detailed the costumes were, and how the team combined both traditional and modern elements of dance. Even without background knowledge of these dances, I could easily understand what they meant. The hardship of farming, the importance of family and the meaningfulness of food were the central themes of the dances. These were simple themes that meant so much to the indigenous population.
I would not even be surprised that the villagers themselves find the dance routine unfamiliar. Many indigenous traditions have been forgotten because of the long influence of the Spanish and the rapid proliferation of modernity. Nevertheless, it was a great excuse for families to enjoy their weekend, have cups of chichi while enjoying the free line up of music and dances. A village so remote like this hardly have any events in a year, and a day like this would be a valuable one for many families.
The day soon turned dark and families leave the square for their homes. Many scooted off in their motorbikes, in the typical four-on-a-bike fashion. Some decided to make the long uphill walk back to their isolated houses on the mountain slopes. A few others stayed back to enjoy the music on playlist, which switched from the traditional affair for the day, to the modern salsa. The traditional dancing has ended, but the salsa moves have barely begun.
The speakers blasted rhythmic salsa music as scores of young people began dancing. Just like any other Colombians, pairs sprung up spontaneously and grooved to the beat. With a chicha in hand, the guys began to dance. I am someone who is really bad at dancing, worse at salsa. It was embarrassing, but I was not allowed to sit out. The girls invited me to dance with them, and taught me the basic steps. As I fumbled through the steps, they tried to lead me to lead them to spin and perform more sophisticated moves. It was funny how the boys usually take the lead in salsa, but in my case the female partner was leading me on.
Dance, rest on the side, drink, repeat. The crowd did not seem to dwindle or slow down. It was 2am and my eyes were already droopy, but everyone still seemed energetic. I went back to sleep, thinking it was already late. How wrong was I. At 7am, the music was still blasting and the guys still showing off their salsa moves. The dancing did not stop and the crowd did not thin. Almost everyone danced throughout the night.
Aptly put by one of my Colombian friends, “once you start dancing salsa, you cannot stop”. While many Colombians try to revive their indigenous spirits, they cannot hide the fact that salsa also runs deep in their blood. Dancing salsa into the night was an apparent norm. Not only do Colombians enjoy it, they absolutely love it. I could not put my head around why they had so much energy to dance salsa all day everyday, but I guess this is something only a Colombian can feel for.
Traditional dancing in the day, hot salsa dancing at night. I just love how perfect this balance is.
Did you enjoy the article? Share it with your friends on social media. Also, I would love to hear from you! Have you been part of any indigenous dance events? How was the experience?