La Cueca: Chile’s ‘Rooster Courtship’ National Dance
As the saying goes: art imitates life, and the dance of la cueca chilena is a perfect example of this.
For thousands of years, the human race has found inspiration in nature and turned it into a way of expression—as this Chilean folk dance called la cueca chilena, or only la cueca, shows.
Chileans considered the way a rooster looked when courting a hen both appealing and entertaining. This is the reason why they came up with one of the most fun dances in Latin America. It went from a courtship dance, to a way to make fun of hard times, to a way of control, and then to a form of protest—nowadays, it is testament of how creative and resilient Chileans are.
La cueca is known as the national dance of Chile because of its cultural, social, and historical relevance. It is a fun dance los chilenos (Chileans) have been practicing for generations, which evolved from a courtship dance, to a protest, to a patrimony.
Let’s learn today about this Chilean dancing, what makes it so relevant after all these years, why it is related to the rooster and hen courtship, and some cueca dance facts.
Where Does La Cueca Come From?
What we know today as la cueca chilena comes from a Peruvian dance known as zamacueca—a derivation of the heavily African and Creole influenced dance known as zamba in South America—which became really popular in Chile during the 1820’s, and was slowly adapted by Chileans.
It is important to emphasize that la cueca is heavily influenced by la zamacueca but they are not the same dance or musical genre. In fact, la cueca is influenced by so many other dances from America and Europe—like the Arabic-Andalusian dances that were popular in Spain in the 19th Century—that it is impossible to pinpoint all of them. Thanks to time, dancers, and musicians, they have slowly merged into what we know as this traditional Chilean dance.
During the 20th century, la cueca became a really popular dance around Latin America, specially in the countries around Chile where they named it la chilena. Chilean sailors and travelers spread it through all Latin America, where people all around learned how to dance it!
When Chilean dancers dance la cueca they make movements that remind of when the rooster and the hen are in courtship. The movements of the hands, the hips, and all the body represent this loving dance between the birds, and that’s why people call it the “rooster courtship” dance.
Talk about iconic dance moves!
All You Need To Know About La Cueca
La cueca is one of the most popular music genres in Chile.
Musically speaking, la cueca is constructed by 52 compases (compasses) which are called a pie (foot), and usually has a duration of one minute and twenty seconds. People usually dance three pies of a cueca song.
Regarding its lyrical content, cueca’s songs are made of two stanzas and a finish, and it rhymes in even verses. It also includes exclamations every four verses, like ¡si! Or ¡ay si!
The themes on la cueca songs are really diverse, but all of them are incredibly poetic. The lyrics are usually romantic, costumbrists and, related to the hardships of the poorest in big cities.
It can be surprising for those who don’t know how a genre full of life can find inspiration in the hardships of the working class, but the truth is that la cueca was born under those circumstances. The dances and the song were developed and then spread through the taverns and bars in the cities in Chile.
Then it spread to the pre-industrialized cities in the country, where the music was adopted and improved by the hard workers in the outskirts of the city.
Thanks to this development, la cueca was used for two things:
- As a way of entertainment
- As a way of transmitting oral traditions through songs and compositions
Types of Cueca Dances
Lastly, there are several types of la cueca chilena, and what kind you listed or dance to depend on where in the country you are.
The most common and popular ones are:
La cueca brava: It originated from the countryman that moved to the cities in Chile.
La cueca porteña: This variant is usually danced in Valparaiso.
La cueca a caballo: For this one, people dance while riding horses! Something that needs creativity and skill!
La cueca sola: This iteration of la cueca came to be after during the 20th century, by women affected by the disappearance of their fathers, brothers, and husbands in the hands of the government.
The clothes that dancers use to perform this dance are not so much a Chilean cueca costume but the Chile traditional clothing. They include colors like blue, white, red and black.
The men dance using the traditional cowboy hat called huaso, a flannel poncho, riding pants, and boots, or short jackets, riding boots, and spurs. The women dance in traditional Chilean flowered dresses.
A key part of the dance is a pañuelo, or handkerchief, which is used to emphasize some of the most important parts in the dance.
La Cueca in Chile’s History
As I mentioned before, Chilean cueca was developed by the working class around the country.
It was a symbol of fun times with friends and family. A way to wind down after a day of hard work and dance your troubles away.
But on November 6 of 1979, dictator Augusto Pinochet declared la cueca as Chile’s national dance, and it went from a sign of freedom and fun to a sign of oppression and force.
Pinochet’s government promoted the Chilean cueca songs and dances for their own benefit. Although it became more popular and practiced around the country, it was only as a way to promote the government, to comply with their demands, because it was mandatory to dance it during official celebrations and other activities that they promoted.
But Pinochet’s government was ruthless against its opposition, and the most usual tactic to end with it was disappearing those that were loud against the government—the 20th century was a hard time for Latin America, with dictatorships and civil wars—separating families and leaving orphans and widows behind.
Those orphans, widows, mothers, and sisters find a way of turning that “patriotic” symbol in a loud way of protest.
It was Violeta Zuñiga—a famous Chilean human rights activist—who created la cueca sola (alone cueca). She began to dance alone after the government disappeared her husband, and the image of watching her dancing alone, a dance clearly made for two people, was so shocking that more women joined her to protest for their missed family members.
The resistance movement was so powerful that even English singer and musician Sting made a song about it.
After Pinochet’s dictatorship ended, the social and cultural perception of la cueca wasn’t the same again. Some experts even argue that their political use harmed the genre. But, slowly and surely, Chileans are reclaiming the dance as their own, and as a way of having fun with those around them showing their culture, history, and traditions.
Check out this amazing blog post in Spanish about la cueca. It has amazing resources you can use to learn more about this interesting dance!
Dance Your Way To Learn Spanish!
We can learn so much about a person or a country by their cultures and traditions, but also by the activities they like to do to have fun—like dancing!
La cueca is the perfect example of how something as harmless as a dance can become a symbol of oppression to then evolve into an expression of freedom by the efforts of those who practice and foster it. You will find more examples of situations like that in almost every country in Latin America, thanks to its convoluted history.
Learning Spanish can be a great idea to connect better with those you meet in your journey through Latin America. It is amazing how talking in Spanish with the locals breaks the language barrier and lets you have more meaningful and natural interactions with them.
What’s more, learning Spanish not only improves your cognition and decision-making abilities, an ability that is important to adventure yourself in the beautiful countries of Latin America.
Are you ready to go to the next level? Build your fluency with native Spanish speakers before your big trip. Sign up today for a free 1-to-1 class with a certified native Spanish-speaking teacher at Homeschool Spanish Academy and level up!
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