I call him the Casanova of Cueca. An elderly gentleman dressed in a dapper combination of yellow trousers and red shirt, spinning and dipping and stamping his feet. He has his pick of dance partners and leaps around them with ease, flipping his handkerchief flirtatiously and flashing a smile at his audience.
A live band is whipping the cueca dancers into a frenzy in Plaza de Armas, the central square in the Chilean capital of Santiago. Young boys are clad in the traditional dress of the Chilean huaso cowboy (wide-brimmed straw chapullo hat, riding boots and poncho) and are proudly leading their female partners (chinas) onto the dance floor. The girls’ brightly coloured dresses with full skirts are striking. Older couples give the next generation a run for their money, hopping from foot to foot with ease, as the crowd claps to the beat of the energetic national dance.
Jump-tap-tap, jump-tap-tap. I tentatively practise the steps I’ve been taught as I clutch a handkerchief between my middle finger and forefinger, twisting my wrist almost in the style of a flamenco dancer. According to the roots of this dance, my partner is playing the role of the rooster, and I’m the hen he’s trying to court. But the dance is rather more elegant and playful than this description suggests.
Born in the Chilean countryside in the early 19th century, the traditional cueca is a coquettish jig that involves couples dancing around each other in circles, never touching, but with plenty of eye contact and handkerchief-laden gestures. Accompanied by two singers, a guitar and often harp, piano, accordion and tambourine, it’s danced across the length of this country, which snakes 2,670 miles down South America’s west coast, pinned into place by its Andes backbone.
The most famous version of the national dance comes from the Central Valley region, to the south of Santiago. You’ll see it everywhere during the Independence Day celebrations on 18 September, and it’s typically performed while a huge joint of meat sizzles on a barbecue at a fonda gathering, where people eat, drink and sing until the early hours.
Sidling up to the Casanova of Cueca at the sunny Saturday afternoon event — one of many hosted in the square throughout the year — I find out his name is actually Andrés Paredes and that he’s not dancing traditional cueca but a more modern version called cueca chora (urban cueca) or cueca brava (fierce cueca) that was born in the poorer neighbourhoods of Santiago and Valparaíso in the 1930s and ’40s.
But cueca brava is not the only evolution of this traditional dance: under the Pinochet regime, it was incorporated into military parades — becoming less popular as a result of this association with the dictator’s rule. In turn, the wives of the men who ‘disappeared’ in Chile from 1973 to 1990 would dance a lonely, heartbreaking cueca sola (lone cueca) in quiet defiance of the authorities.
However, these are happier times, and if you’re going to dance at one of the lively cueca clubs in Santiago, you’ll most likely be dancing cueca brava, and the place to go is La Casa de la Cueca. It’s the home of two famous Chilean folk singers — Pepe Fuentes y María Esther Zamora — who open their doors every Wednesday and Friday for dance classes.
Behind the nondescript entrance to this old house in the Ñuñoa district is a colourful homage to Chile’s folkloric culture. Every square inch of wall space is filled with photos of the singers and famous cueca dancers, plus Chilean memorabilia. Instructors Héctor Arapio Araya and Barbara León Alfaro [see box, right] take me through the basic steps and tricks to keep my handkerchief waving, then focus on teaching me to have fun with the dance and give it some attitude.
“Forget about set steps, make it your own; play with the handkerchief, be as flirty as you want,” Bárbara calls out. It feels awkward. But then music comes on and as the familiar jump-tap-tap beat fills the room, our assorted group of Santiaguinos is transformed. They fold into each other’s arms, pull away, glance playfully and twirl their handkerchiefs.
This form of cueca is a far cry from the original chaste dance — managing to be sensual and intimate even in a hall surrounded by others. But then, that’s the beauty of cueca; it’s ever-changing, adapting to each dancer, generation and situation in Chile. As Bárbara says, the key to cueca is making it your own. Sarah Gordon
Mira Niñita, Los Jaivas
Meet the cueca dancers
Bárbara León Alfaro & Héctor Arapio Araya, dance partners and cueca instructors at La Casa de la Cueca
When did you first dance cueca?
Bárbara: I’ve always had a link to Chile’s folkloric heritage through my father, a singer, and my mother, a dancer. Héctor grew up dancing cueca in traditional family gatherings with friends.
Why is cueca so intertwined with Chilean culture?
Bárbara: Cueca has always been connected with our people and our celebrations. There’s much talk about exactly where it came from, but it’s always accompanied people in their everyday lives.
What type of cueca do you prefer?
Bárbara: I’m most passionate about cueca brava, because it’s strong, passionate and free. I was born in Santiago, so I identify with its metropolitan roots. I also like it because the woman is equal to the man in the dance — it plays to the strengths of both dancers.
Héctor: I simply dance cueca; there are many variations but all are based in the same movements.
Where should visitors go in Santiago to see and try cueca?
Héctor: Comercio Atlético, a social club; its restaurant, El Huaso Enrique, offers classes and live music on Saturdays, as does Bar Victoria, while El Romerito Club Social Cultural hosts cueca events. For classes, try La Casa de la Cueca, where we teach on Fridays.
Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)