High on the mountain in La Reina, beyond barrios Nunoa and Providencia, on the Andes-side of Santiago, an annual event is taking place that will be replicated hundreds of times over in schools across the country. As we drive up the hillside the incline sends Santiago sprawling out towards the shade of the foothills in the distance.
Parents and children from the local neighbourhood have come back to their familiar old schoolyard which has been transformed into a pool of colours, tastes and traditions for the day. The upcoming week’s Fiestas Patrias will form vividly in each child’s memory, with images of the Chilean flag flying from windows and paper streamers all through Santiago, to the sights and sounds of their parents, like their grandparents, eating, drinking and enjoying their families.
The roof of the yard has been lined with green netting to offer shade from the sun and the well-polished tiles are dotted with stalls selling local Chilean and South American dishes. The busiest stall, surrounded by the cooler-looking parents, features traditional Chilean asados, anticuchos, empanadas and choripanes. Others sell Peruvian ceviche – fish cooked in lemon and lime juices, served cold – local wines and drinks, sweets made from dulce de leche and Chilean flags to spike into sausages.
At one end of the schoolyard, rhythmic clapping and the sound of singing voices accompanies a vibrantly clothed choir playing traditional Chilean ‘cuecas’ for onlookers. Clapping in time, three young couples stamp out the rhythms of the traditional dances, the spurs on their boots providing a clinking accompaniment.
The ladies, or ‘chinas’, wear bright dresses with flowers, their hair lashed uniformly into two pigtails with velvet ribbons. The men wear rigid black jackets, double belts, ponchos and sashes round their waists (colgazos) knee high boots (corraleras) with spurs (espuelas) and the trademark ironing-board flat hats.
“Emperifollado” says one singer with pride – ‘dolled up real nice’.
As the couples face one another, the man approaches the woman, offering his arm and pacing back and forth while the music starts. Then the man leaves the woman’s side as the clapping begins. The dancers move in circular movements, tracing semi circles and turning when the singers sing “vuelta!” The man seduces, and the woman flirts shyly, flicking a handkerchief in her right hand using it for the dance and covering her face with it.
More than an amusing pastime, cueca means much to these people. “It’s in my blood”, says Jaime Moya C., founder of the Verdigal INE folkloric group. “I was born in the countryside, these are my songs and this is our dance.”
The cuecas a group sings are as much a demonstration of regional identity as a mark of national pride, as the clothes worn and songs performed are as unique as the regions where they originated. In the southern reaches of Chile dark woollen hats and thick sweaters (chombas) are worn and the ladies wear hand-woven shawls around their shoulders. The further north one goes the music and the dress change. The wide hats of the central regions give way to thin brimmed top-hats as the Peruvian and Bolivian altiplano culture fuses with the deserts and valleys of the Atacama.
The way you dress and dance can even represent your social status. An elegant figure who looks suspiciously like the headmistress cuts her way through the crowd to take the microphone. She is dressed in a trademark wide-rimmed black hat, a cream jacket with a lace collar and a tapered ankle-length black skirt. This dress represents the Cueca de Salón, Moya tells us. In contrast to the flowery image of the ‘chinas’ (village girls) this clothing is representative of richer land-owners and gentility. There’s even an urban Cueca called ‘Brava’ (fierce) which only danced in cities.
But cueca is not without its competition. “In Santiago, if you go to a ramada they will play three cuecas and then Cumbia and other music,” says Moya, concerned that Chile may be losing its roots with the influx of other Latin American music like cumbia (Colombia), salsa (Cuba) or reggaeton (Puerto Rico). “A lot of Chileans don’t even know how to define it properly.”
Looking around the playground at the children staring at feet of the dancers while sucking bottles of juice through straws, it’s difficult to think that this form of dancing will ever be under threat. Moya, who taught himself the intricate meter by researching alone in libraries and now heads a troupe of cueca dancers, was probably inspired by similar experiences in his childhood.
Moya acknowledged that many young Chilean bands are incorporating cueca into their repertoires, and a brief glance across independent youth websites such as ‘Cultura y movimiento’ shows a kicking youth scene and a young country poised to dance cueca for many years to come.