La cueca is a traditional dance from Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia that has a long and complex history. It is also the national dance of Chile, where it is celebrated every year on September 18th, the Independence Day. But what is la cueca’s movements related to? How did this dance evolve and what does it symbolize? In this article, we will explore the origins, meaning, and variations of la cueca, as well as its role in the political and cultural history of Chile.
The Origins of La Cueca
According to Culture Trip, historians believe that la cueca originates from a regional dance, the zamacueca, which has roots in Spanish, indigenous, and African traditions, and was originally danced in Peru. As the dance evolved during colonial times, it made its way throughout the region to countries like Bolivia and Chile. In the 19th century, la cueca became a popular activity in local taverns throughout Chile. In the 20th century, the dance was especially common in rural areas or in the working class neighborhoods of Santiago.
The Meaning of La Cueca
La cueca is a dance of courtship that mimics the mating ritual of a rooster and a hen. The male displays a quite enthusiastic and at times even aggressive attitude while attempting to court the female, who is elusive, defensive and demure. The dance often finishes with the man kneeling on one knee, with the woman placing her foot triumphantly on his raised knee.
The dancers use handkerchiefs to communicate their emotions and intentions. They also maintain strong eye contact throughout the different steps and movements. The handkerchiefs are said to represent the wings of the birds, as well as the flags of the nation.
The music of la cueca is usually played by a guitar or a harp, accompanied by a tambourine or a drum. The lyrics are often improvised and reflect the themes of love, patriotism, or social commentary.
The Variations of La Cueca
La cueca has many regional variations that differ in style, speed, and rhythm. For example, in Bolivia, there are many variations throughout the different regions. Cueca styles of La Paz, Potosí and Sucre are the elegant and static versions, whereas in Cochabamba and Tarija the style is much livelier and free2.
In Chile, there are also several types of la cueca, such as:
- La cueca brava: This is the urban version of la cueca that emerged in the bars and taverns of Santiago. It is characterized by its fast pace, sharp movements, and witty lyrics.
- La cueca chora: This is a subgenre of la cueca brava that incorporates elements of slang, humor, and sarcasm. It is often used to criticize social issues or political figures.
- La cueca nortina: This is the version of la cueca that is danced in the northern regions of Chile. It is influenced by the Andean culture and music, and uses instruments such as the quena (a flute), the charango (a small guitar), and the zampoña (a panpipe).
- La cueca chilota: This is the version of la cueca that is danced in the southern archipelago of Chiloé. It is slower and more graceful than other types of la cueca, and uses instruments such as the accordion, the violin, and the guitar.
The Role of La Cueca in Chilean History
La cueca has played an important role in the political and cultural history of Chile. During the War of the Pacific (1879-1884), when Chile fought against Peru and Bolivia over territory and resources, la cueca was used as a way to express patriotism and solidarity among Chileans. The dance was also known as “la chilena”, meaning “the Chilean”, to distinguish it from other regional dances.
However, everything changed in Chile after the 1973 coup d’état when General Augusto Pinochet and the Chilean army violently ousted the democratically-elected government of President Salvador Allende. Thousands of left-wing politicians, activists, intellectuals, and artists were killed, kidnapped, or exiled. La cueca was then appropriated by Pinochet as a symbol of his dictatorship’s oppressive rule. He declared la cueca as Chile’s official national dance in 1979.
In response to this situation, many Chileans used la cueca as a form of protest and resistance against Pinochet’s regime. One example is the movement of “la cueca sola”, meaning “the lone cueca”, where women danced alone with a photo of their missing loved ones pinned to their clothes. This was a way to denounce the human rights violations and the disappearances of their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers. Another example is the song “They Dance Alone” by Sting, which was inspired by this movement and dedicated to the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who also suffered from a similar dictatorship.
After the end of Pinochet’s regime in 1990, la cueca regained its popularity and diversity among Chileans. It is now seen as a dance of joy, celebration, and identity, as well as a dance of memory, justice, and dignity. La cueca is a dance that reflects the history, culture, and spirit of Chile and its people.