La Cueca: A Glimpse into the Soul of Chile

A room full of cueca dancing is one of the liveliest scenes in Chile. Pañuelos (handkerchiefs) spin wildly in the air and the music, like a puppet master, controls a dance floor of enamored marionettes. The distinct progression of turns, steps, slides and stomps leaves most newbies staring from the sidelines, trying to make sense of the puppet show.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Carla Pasten

With Andalucian Spanish, Arabian and African roots, the cueca is based on the mating dance between a rooster and a hen. Yes, that’s right. The male follows the female, courting her around an imaginary ring. He invites the lady to dance, positions her on the dance floor, follows her from side to side and adorns her. Then the “rooster” loudly stomps his feet to show what kind of man he is and ends the dance with her on his arm. The female, on her part, plays hard to get: she elusively leads the male through the steps, with just enough flirtatious eye contact and body language to keep the male in tow.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Carla Pasten

The timeless art of seduction is definitely alive and well.

Cueca expert and scholar Fernando González Maraboli calls the cueca a kind of musical poetry, the union of song, musical instruments and dance. Its composition and timing is based on the earth’s natural elements, astrology and the human body. But the cueca’s intrigue doesn’t stop at these mystical overtones and spectacular imagery.

Santiago’s original cueca was outcast from mainstream society due to its origins in the lower-class socially dangerous neighborhoods of Santiago. Its journey to present day fraught with twists and turns. “The cueca has always been the same, but it has suffered some renovations over time from political and social interests,” Daniel Muñoz, famed Chilean actor and leader of the cueca band “3x7 venteiuna,” told Revolver.
Out of this raw, urban form of the dance emerged the tourist cueca, a strict and regulated variation that is very prevalent today. In it, the man, in a typical cowboy outfit, dances with the girl he loves. The pair dance according to the rules of this strict and regulated form of the dance.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Iván Núñez

The youth of Santiago have embraced the buried cueca brava, a freer variation “born in the fierce neighborhoods of Santiago and other cities,” Muñoz said. They see something more authentic, credible and real in this form of the dance. “The cueca brava is the cueca of the broken Chilean.”

Similar to the cueca brava is the cueca chorra, a variation that uses the music and dance performed by groups like the legendary Chilean group Los Parras.

During Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, the “manipulated” cueca was used as a tool to encourage national unity and thus became Chile’s national dance. It was taught in schools across the country and displayed during national marches and exhibitions. While this form was mandatorily and widely accepted, it also added to the pile covering the already buried cueca brava.

But, as one form of cueca was pushed further into obscurity, a new form arose from its ashes: the cueca sola. This version of the dance is danced by women, alone (without partners), who lost men in their families to the violent acts of the Pinochet dictatorship. They danced it publicly in protest of the regime and some still dance it to this day, in memory of their “disappeared” friends and family.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Carla Pasten

The dichotomy that exists between the “tourist” cueca and the other forms is a strikingly clear reflection of the division among Chileans due to political affiliations and socioeconomic classes. The dance and its segregated styles is a powerful, unique and telling part of the culture and the country’s history.

But despite its poignant past, the cueca—in any of its variations—is wildly prevalent in present-day Chile. And like Chilean society, the dance is developing, expanding and diversifying. There are annual world championships of cueca held in countries and with participants from all over the world. In fact, one of its recent champions was a pair of contestants from Australia. While it may not be the latest dance craze in music videos or in movies, it’s slowly but surely making a name for itself beyond Chile’s borders.

The sure-fire bet to witness some quality cueca, though, is in Chile during the September 18 Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day) celebrations.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Carla Pasten

Almost every bar, party and fonda will have cueca dancing, and while this may be like jumping into the deep end for those giving it their first shots, veterans to the dance will likely be happy to offer some pointers. There isn’t anything much more entertaining for Chileans than watching a gringo (respectfully) trying to dance cueca—and no better way to warm up the locals’ hearts.

Now that we’ve laid out the steps below, the significance explained and the historical relevance revealed, enjoy the cueca and soak in the culture that comes with it. While Torres del Paine, pisco, empanadas, asados and chilenismos are ways to enjoy the country without getting into the cueca, the storied dance remains the most intimate glimpse into the true soul of the country.

How To Dance La Cueca (a basic tutorial):

Step 1: The Invitation
Music: Instrumental prelude
- The man offers his arm to the woman and the cueca has begun

Step 2:Paseo
Music: Instrumental prelude
- The man positions the woman on the dance floor and positions himself a few meters opposite her; the two, facing each other, clap in rhythm with the music

Step 3:Vuelta Inicial
Music: Copla (first four verses)
- As the singing starts, both dancers moving to the right, still facing each other and maintaining eye contact and spinning pañuelos in the air, complete a full circle around the perimeter of the imaginary ring, and ends in the same position as they began

Step 4: Media Luna y Floreo
Music: Copla (first four verses)
- Consists of making semicircles (half moons) from the man’s right to left and then back, in which the man follows and tries to get closer to the woman while the woman tries to escape and goes to the other side

Step 5: Vuelta
Music: Beginning of the Seguidilla (8 verses of 5 and 7 syllables)
- Moving to the right, both dancers complete a half circle (similar to step 3, but instead of ending in the initial position, the dancers end on the other side)

Step 6: Escobillado
Music: Seguidilla
- While moving in semicircles (similar to step 4) both dancers “sweep” the floor with their feet, alternating one foot in front of the other (see video for a clearer picture)

Step 7: Segunda Vuelta
Music: The fifth verse of the Seguidilla (in which the fourth verse is repeated)
- Moving to the right, both dancers complete another half circle (the same as performed in step 5), switching sides in the imaginary ring on the dance floor

Step 8: Zapateo
- While moving in semicircles (similar to steps 4 and 6) both dancers stomp “rhythmically” on the floor, the man loud and animated, woman soft and dainty

Step 9: Vuelta Final
Music: Remate (last 2 verses)
- Moving to the right (as always), the pair complete the final half circle (similar to steps 5 and 7) and finish together, as the music stops, arm in arm

Cueca Videos:

Instructional Website (in Spanish but with diagrams)

Where To Dance La Cueca Year Round:
El Huaso Enrique
Maipú 462
Santiago Centro
Tel: 6815257

Fonda Permanente – La Popular
Serrano 444
Santiago Centro

Galpon Victor Jara
First Wednesday of every month
Plaza Brasil
Santiago, Centro

Documentary on La Cueca by Journeyman Pictures

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