Happy World Folklore Day! Well, not until 22 August, but in the meantime let’s talk about Argentine folklore. Whereas in Buenos Aires tango is predominant, as soon as you get out of the capital, folklore is all over the place. In the whole north of Argentina –but especially in the regions of Salta and Tucuman– traditional music and dances have a strong culture backing them and are very much alive today.
Numerous folklore dances are popular nowadays in Argentina. Most of them were influenced by the indigenous, the African slaves and the northern neighbours: Bolivia and Peru. “Influence” is an important word when it comes to folklore. Many of those we had the chance to see –whether in Argentina, Chile, Peru or Colombia– have clear similarities; whether it be in the steps, in the gestures, or in the outfit.
There would be much to say about the history and the meaning behind the dances of the Argentine folklore; and there are some very good articles about that, although most of those we found were in Spanish. What interests us particularly is how very much alive this folklore is even nowadays.
During our 2 months in Argentina, we were hosted by no less than 3 people who were in love with folklore; they either danced it, sang it or played it with a music band. Later, in Colombia, we would have such luck again, and learn all about Colombian folklore with Robinson.
While tango is playing in most cafes and restaurants you stop at in Buenos Aires, the same can be said about folklore in the Northwest of Argentina. There’s also a lot of strepitous public dancing on the city squares, most particularly in Salta. Often, it’s a kind of street art to gather money; but sometimes you’ll see people simply rehearsing for an upcoming peña.
Peña is the name of a folklore dancing event or a disco where lovers of folklore practise and have fun. It refers therefore both to the event and to the location where it takes place.
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The main 3 dances of the Argentine folklore
These 3 dances almost always come with live music provided by folklore bands. The typical instruments are guitars, accordion, drum and violin. Singing voice is optional but some pieces are sung too.
The outfits are typical gaucho clothes, since the dances were traditionally practised by gauchos, the Argentine country folk; long colourful dresses for the women, boots, large hats and sometimes whip for the men. During the dance, both often have a handkerchief, which is a very important element of most of the dances.
In Salta at carnival time (beginning of February) pop up the mythical carpas salteñas (literally meaning “tents of Salta”). Huge tents are put up, where zamba, together with modern rhythms (such as modern cumbia) is played and danced on all night long.
This is the dance that we’ve seen the most in the northwest of Argentina. It arrived from Lima in the XIXth century through Chile, digging roots in that country too under the name of cueca. It’s a pair dance where both dancers wave a handkerchief, playing games with it and with each other.
It’s a choreographed dance with exact positions and figures for men and women. Their order is strict and for experienced dancers, which figure comes next is obvious from the music; while for outsiders like us, it’s a complete mystery.
In Neuquén, our host Sole brought us to an informal peña in the hall of the Fine Arts Museum. We tried dancing zamba with more and less success despite the friendly reassurances from our fellow dancers.
Start dreaming: Our road trip through the Northwest of Argentina
Sole danced chacarera with her dancing group and she mesmerised us with a performance.
This dance is considered the most typical Argentine folklore dance. People practise it widely, not only in Salta, but in all the area up north from Córdoba.
It originates in the Santiago del Estero province (north of Córdoba) and its influence on cultures stretches as far as to Bolivia. Chararera is also danced in pair with strict choreography but the dancers don’t touch each other. If there are more pairs, they form all together a set structure that either moves around or swap position.
This dance is said to have originated even before 1820. It’s the dance of the Gaucho culture par excellence; thus people dance it to a lesser extent in Peru, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Lovers of Argentine folklore refer to it as the archetype of the native dances, combining aspects of all the others. At the same time, it has a simple choreography which leaves enough space to the personality of the dancers; the playful grace of the woman and the friendly games of the man.
Nowadays, we find several versions all over the North of Argentina, like Gato Porteño, Gato Cordobés, Gato polkeado, etc.
Videos to give you a better idea of these Argentine folklore dances