Professor Erika Randall
1 November 2007
¡Vuueeelta! Eres la consentida, amor de amores*… The cueca is a polyrhythmic form of music and celebratory dance that has had a presence in Chile since the late 1820s, when the zamacueca, the parent version of the dance from Lima, Peru, made its way across the border (Sánchez Vargas). The dance is performed in an imaginary circle by a man and a woman whose movements are typically associated with the courtship process of a rooster and a hen. An invisible line divides the two halves of the circle and each dancer moves within his or her respective half. The two fundamental elements of the cueca are the guitar and the pañuelo (handkerchief), which is used to convey emotions, feelings and messages throughout the dance. Worth a thousand words, Figure 1 to the right visually describes one version of the cueca, the Cueca Campesina, during the zapateo (patoramosc). In the past, the many variations of the cueca corresponded to the differences in the Chilean society; however, the nationalization of the cueca has interrupted its method of oral transference and the reflection between the dissimilarities within the society and the cueca has all but vanished.
In the past, the different variations of the cueca reflected both geographical subcultures and social-class standings in Chile. Although there are over 100 variations of the dance known to have existed, they can be divided in to several broad categories or styles. As professor Margarita Sánchez Vargas teaches in her class on folkloric dance, there are three main types of cueca based on geographical differences which split the 2,700 mile-long country into three subcultures: the North [Cueca Nortina], the Central [Cueca Central], and the South [Cueca Chilota]. The rhythm of the Cueca Nortina is much slower than that of others, especially when compared against the Cueca Central and the Cueca Chilota. The slow and gentle miniature “skip” is representative of the Northern civilization, which shares many cultural ideas with the surrounding countries of Bolivia and Peru. The zapateo in the Cueca Nortina is a small hop and then a strike to the ground with the foot. In contrast, the zapateo of the Cueca Central is much more pronounced, including the intense stomping of the heels and toes. During the Cueca Nortina, the idea of machismo is demonstrated through the role of the woman, who is supposed to look at the floor when dancing instead of making eye contact with her partner, as is done in the cuecas of the central and southern zones. After the last vuelta (or change of place) in the Cueca Nortina, the dance ends with the dancers in their beginning positions, facing one another and without physical contact anytime throughout the dance. However, in the Cueca Central, the man and the woman typically interlock arms, openly demonstrating that the man has conquered the woman (Sánchez Vargas).
The Chilean society has always been very segregated by social class distinctions, which were mimicked by the different styles of the cueca, especially within the Central region. There are more than five principal different styles of cueca within that geographical zone including Cueca Campesina, Cueca Chora, Cueca Porteña, Cueca Criolla de Medio Pelo and Cueca Criolla Salonera (Sánchez Vargas). The Cueca Campesina traditionally characterized the rural, poorer populations in the central zone of Chile. In this version, the dancers’ bodies are more grounded and hunched over as they both wave and spin their pañuelo in all areas around their body that are under eye-level (Sánchez Vargas). In some cases, the man may even use the pañuelo to join his arms in circling them around the woman during the zapateo, showing the great progress of his romantic conquest and entering into the personal space of the woman. In the upright and erect Cueca Criolla Salonera, as taught by Sánchez Vargas, the dancers are neither allowed to lower their pañuelo below eye-level nor rotate it—the handkerchief is presented nicely and basically left untouched except to change position of the hands. Musically, the Cueca Campesina is played by untrained musicians, differentiating it from the Cueca Criolla Salonera. One can easily distinguish the musical technique employed in the latter just from simply hearing the first few bars of music. The instruments vary as much as the level of musical expertise, ranging from the tambourine, drums and spoons that supplement the guitar in a Cueca Campesina, to the piano, harp and accordion played for the Cueca Criolla Salonera. Another interesting dynamic is how the two dances conclude. The Cueca Criolla Salonera is a cueca conclusive, where the dancers finish when the music stops playing. On the other hand, the Cueca Campesina is a cueca suspensiva, meaning the dancers finish their dance when the singer finishes singing, even if the music has not stopped (Sánchez Vargas). This is a very important feature of this style of cueca because it symbolizes the strong connection within the various rural communities, as the dancers must really listen to what and how the vocalist sings the cueca.
There are different versions of the cueca because it is a dance that has been historically conveyed from one generation to the next through oral tradition. Each version, whether it is the Cueca Chilota or the Cueca Porteña, has been learned through participation in the community in which the dance thrives. The different variations of the cueca survived for over 100 years because “Chilean society, in the past, was highly stratified according to income” (Roraff 51), and travel between geographic divisions was not frequent. For this exact reason, there is not much documentation regarding the cueca in general, but this is something the Chilean folklorists, such as Margot Loyola, have been improving upon.
It was declared on Sept. 18, 1979 by the Chilean government that “the cueca [was] the official national dance of Chile” (Knudsen 68). The Federación Nacional de la Cueca [FENAC], formed in response to this new law, made it obligatory for the state schools to compete in the national championship of the cueca (Knudsen 68). In turn, the school system had to start teaching this dance to students, whereas before it was an extracurricular option (Bobadilla). These competitions, as part of the nationalization, “created a stereotypical cueca …people got the impression that there is only one correct Chilean cueca: the huaso cueca [campesina] of the Zona Central” (qtd. in Knudsen 68). Even before the nationalization, the Cueca Campesina was supported as being the national symbol: “The cueca seems to be even more itself when a huaso dances it” (Garrido 66).
The nationalization of the cueca caused an abrupt change in the method of its transference. As ethnomusicologist Felix Hoerburger discusses, “…folk dances [in their first existence] are learned in a natural, functional way…[and are] an integral part of the life of a community” (qtd. in Nahachewsky 18). The cueca was exactly that—a dance “preserved by oral tradition” (Valdés 41) that was learned during community festivities such as baptisms, weddings, the Independence Day celebrations as well as during religious celebrations such as Carnival and Mingas (Sánchez Vargas). In 1979, it then became an academic study, which meant normalizing the manner in which it was taught and the style that students should learn—the Cueca Campesina. This has changed all parts of the education system, affecting even the university level. The students who study Physical Education are required to take a Folkloric Dance class in order to be better equipped as P.E. teachers with the knowledge to teach the cueca and other folkloric dances to the younger generations (Sánchez Vargas). Just as the National Anthem is seen as a national symbol in the United States, the cueca is also taught to be one of the four national symbols of Chile (Knudsen 68) as well as “part of the spiritual personality of the country” (Subercaseaux 144).
The cueca has transformed over the last 20 years since its nationalization into an international symbol of Chile both for Chileans and tourists alike, which has further perpetuated its normalization. As a foreign exchange student trying to learn the cueca from my friends and host family, it was difficult to grasp because each person taught me different and conflicting movements. The first class I took pertaining to traditional Chilean dances taught the basic choreography of the cueca; however, when we practiced the dance, we did so without any acknowledgement that other versions of the cueca exist. This style of teaching is a reoccurring approach within the education system which has caused a normalization of the dance. However, since students are not taught that variations of the cueca exist, they unknowingly mix in elements of different cuecas, demonstrating that the oral tradition of the cueca has yet to be completely interrupted by its nationalization. With the progress of this strongly developing country, the divisions between the social classes and geographical regions have lessened, but still exist. The cueca has lost the various accents it once had, and instead of portraying different dialects, it has become a voice of the masses.
*Translation: Change of place! You are spoiled, my love of all loves…
- Bobadilla, C. “Re: ayuda!.” E-mail to C. Bobadilla. 23 October 2007.
- Garrido, Pablo. Biografía de la Cueca. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Nascimento, 1976.
- Knudsen, Jan Sverre. “Dancing Cueca ‘With Your Coat On’: The Role of Traditional Chilean Dance in an Immigrant Community.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 10.2 (2001): 61-83. JSTOR. U of Colorado Lib., Boulder. 4 October 2007 http://www.jstor.org.
- Nahachewsky, Andriy. “Once Again: On the Concept of ‘Second Existence Folk Dance’.”
Yearbook for Traditional Music 33 (2001): 17-28. JSTOR. U of Colorado Lib., Boulder. 4 October 2007 http://www.jstor.org.
- patoramosc. Zona Huasa, Folklore y Tradiciones. 31 October 2007
- Roraff, Susan and Laura Camacho. Culture Shock! Chile. Oregon: Times Media Private Limited,
- Sánchez Vargas, Margarita. Class Lecture. Danzas Folklóricas. Universidad Católica de
Valparaíso, Valparaíso, Chile. Spring Semestre 2007.
- Subercaseaux, Bernardo. Historia de las Ideas y de la Cultura en Chile, Tomo II, Fin de Siglo: La Época de Balmaceda. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria, S.A., 1997.
- Valdés, Samuel Claro and Carmen Peña Fuenzalida. Chilena o Cueca Tradicional. Santiago:
Ediciones Universidad Católica de Chile, 1994.