Cueca – Where poultry and dancing come together

When it comes to South America and music/dancing, the first thoughts that usually spring to mind are the very sensual tango or lively samba or a little bit of everything in the form of salsa. But these dances are the domain of Argentina and Brazil and, as with so many other aspects of life, here in Chile, the national dance is very different to the stereotypes we have about this continent in general.

Bear with me through a bit of a history lesson and description of the Cueca dance, before I entertain you with a tale of my own hilarious attempts to perform it…

The Cueca has been danced in Chile since approximately 1824 and officially became the national dance on September 18, 1979. It is the only dance to have survived from the time of colonization to the present. But the origin of the dance is not certain and there are a few theories – some say it started in Peru, whereas others believe it to have been Chile. Some also believe it to have some links to African or Arabic rhythms, whilst most believe it is more European, Spanish to be exact. Where ever it comes from it is now called Cueca Chileno and it has a totally different style, pace and rhythm to other latin dances.

The movement of the dance is reflective of the behaviour and movements between a rooster and chicken. Yes, you read right – a chicken and a rooster. The man’s steps roughly reflect the wheeling and enthusiasm of the rooster’s amorous struggle, while the defensive and cautious nature of the chicken can be seen in the movements of the woman. In the beginning, the man approaches a woman and offers his arm. The woman rises, and accompanies him on a brief pass around the room. They then face each other, both brandishing a handkerchief, and begin to dance. Both partners dance separately, never touching yet never losing contact with each other through their facial expressions and their movements. The initial steps are very short, tranquil, and hesitant. The handkerchiefs move softly, and following the continuous circling of the Cueca, the man pursues the woman who flees from him. Using the handkerchief as if it were a soft lasso, the man surrounds her with it without touching her, and brings her steadily and persistently to his side. The woman approaches him with elegance and flirtatiousness, then as slightly lifts her skirt with her left hand and gracefully moving her handkerchief with the right, she flees from him again. This continues with the man’s footwork becoming ever more complex, almost as though he is having a competition of skill against himself, until with the last turn the man ends with his arm around his partner and with one knee on the ground.

I found the above description of the dance on the internet, because if I was to try and write a description based on my own first experiences, it would say something very different…

A few weeks ago I got to experience a night of cueca dancing in a truly local restaurant (Huasu[1] Enrique) in Santiago. It is a small, simple restaurant in quite an old area of Santiago with live music and a great mix of older and younger people all enjoying some food, drinks, great company, good music and wonderful dancing. And in my case, a lot of laughter because I was hopeless…

The dance has a really difficult rhythm (at least for me as a foreigner and one whose sense of rhythm is not that great at the best of times), that changes as the dance progresses. I had a very good teacher in the form of a friend, Rodrigo, however despite him showing me the moves and telling me to follow his lead (which is not very easy since at no point in the dance do you really touch each other), I don’t think I did a very good job. But he was very polite and probably a little biased when he said that for my first night I did very well. I on the other hand think I should probably stick to salsa. But I will have to give cueca a second chance and see if I can master the strange rhythms and the handkerchief waving. I was always so intent on trying to move my feet right, that most of the time I forgot that I also needed to be waving the handkerchief around. Definitely a dance where you have to multitask!

But another reason for this post is that learning about the traditions and history of this dance, made me reflect on traditional dances back home and I realised that despite South Africa having a variety of dances traditional to different tribes, none of these are actually dances that I feel connected to. The Afrikaners have the langarm, the Zulus have traditional zulu dancing etc, yet there is nothing for the average white South African of European descendant. It’s rather sad actually… But you never know, if I stay in South America long enough I may be able to add a few more dance styles to my repertoire and if miracles happen, one of those styles might just involve imitating a chicken being courted by a rooster…


[1] Huasu means cowboy in Castellano

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One Response to Cueca – Where poultry and dancing come together

  1. linda says:

    This must have been hilarious and a real sight for sore eyes!!! no video I supppose?
    Love Mum

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