Culture Spotlight: Cumbia

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Cumbia queens at my school

Cumbia is a sacred word on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, especially during Carnaval season. The dance is a mesmerizing infusion of Spanish dance, African drumbeats and indigenous instruments, an ode to the history of this region. It’s also my personal favorite dance, so I’m going to introduce you to this stunning cultural masterpiece. Follow along with this video.

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My friend Winston makes cumbia “tambores”

They say that cumbia began as a courtship dance among the African slaves, who danced with small, shuffled steps because of the iron chains on their feet. The lace-edged, full skirts pay homage to Spanish fashion, while the instruments and beats are a mix of African drumbeats (thought to be from Guinea), indigenous flutes, including the gaita, the guacharaca (a percussion instrument that makes a scratching DSC_1161sound) and the German accordion (one story says a German ship wrecked and an accordion washed ashore and into the music of the region.)

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Flirtatious cumbia during a Carnaval parade

The dance tells the story of a flirtation between  man (possibly a young slave) and a woman (a Spanish aristocrat.) The dance begins as the woman playfully turns down the man’s advances. He tries to draw close to her several times, but she always flounces away. Finally, he returns with a lit candle to woo her. She accepts the gift graciously, but then teases him again when he tries to come closer, passing the candle in front of his face three times. Finally, she succombs to his charm and follows him in the dance. The sombrero vueltiao, a striped hat, directs each step of the dance, leading the woman in and around the pasos.  My 11th grade students recreate the traditional storyline above.

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Cesar, our local cumbia champion.
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Dancing cumbia as the teacher queen

Cumbia is not only a stunning display of Colombia’s beauty and flair; it’s a moving, living testament to the history, traditions and patrimony of this strong, beautiful country. It’s all wrapped up in the way the women move their hips, the way the men woo the women, the way the whole crowd reacts when the first notes on the flute sound.

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Co-PCV Thomas and I doing our own cumbia during the parade.

And now, it’s wrapped up in me, too, in my memories and my photos and even in my hips. I had my first cumbia lessons just a few months after I moved to my site, and I’ve loved the graceful steps and fancy dresses ever since. They taught me to keep my head held high, arms out straight with the ends of the skirt held between my fingers. My hips stayed in a rocking motion as I followed the male lead around the dance floor, swooping the grand skirt with me, first out to the sides, then above my head, then at my hips as I followed the sombrero vueltiao. One brush with cumbia was all it took to steal my fascination. And now, it’s your turn to fall for cumbia. 


Sources: IMG_3604 http://discovercolombia.com/cumbia-the-rhythm-of-colombia/ http://cumbiaexhibition.blogspot.com/2008/09/history.html …and many stories from the locals 🙂

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