The Different Colombian Dances Explained

Dance Colombia

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If you’re a frequent reader of my articles here, you might have noticed a pattern forming when I talk about Colombia, variety! Colombia is all about variety! 

Colombia may be the most diverse place on earth, and the pattern holds true regarding our music and dances. With our various geographies and cultures comes a vast diversity in our rhythms and dances. 

Every corner of this beautiful land boasts its own style and expresses that style in its own way through music and dance.

Traditional Colombian Dances

Here are a few of the most typical and culturally significant dances native to Colombia that you will come across during your time here.

Cumbia

The most typical and exemplary dance of Colombia, the Cumbia, is actually more popular in other countries, such as Mexico, than it is here. 

Today younger generations of Colombians view Cumbia as more of a traditional style of music and dance that, although it may have fallen out of fashion, is still commonly played during some more festive times, like in December. 

In Mexico, however, it is still quite relevant. Cumbia is common in most parties and nightclubs and has even been adopted by the street gang-associated urban subculture in the US called “Cholos”. 

They’ve got their own style of dancing, the Cumbia, which would be absolutely foreign to most Colombians but is still Cumbia nonetheless.

Like many of Colombia’s musical and dance influences, the origins of the Cumbia come from the cultural interaction of the indigenous population, the afro-descendant enslaved people, and the Spanish colonizers that brought them here. 

Marked with African percussive rhythms and Spanish colonial stylings, the Cumbia dance represents a courtship ritual where the man typically circles around the woman freely as she slides and sways her hips. 

While it may be known as our national dance, it was in the 1940s that it was modernized and spread throughout most of Latin America, finding a permanent home in Mexico.

Vallenato

Currently the most popular of Colombia’s native musical heritage, Vallenato hails from our Caribbean coastal region, specifically, Valledupar. 

Of all of Colombia’s musical traditions, Vallenato remains the most popular, enjoying steady airplay on the country’s radio stations and a constant presence in its nightlife.

Vallenato is the most special representation of Colombia’s three stories: the African, the Indigenous, and the European. 

This is most clearly represented in its three main components: the core instruments used in its composition, the Caja, a small African drum, and the Guacharaca, a ribbed wooden stick scraped with a fork-shaped tool designed to mimic the calls of the Guacharaca bird. 

And then there’s the accordion, the quintessential symbol of European influence in Latin American music.

In 2015, UNESCO, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, declared Vallenato music addition to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. 

They stated traditional vallenato lyrics “interpret the world through stories that mix realism and fantasy” in songs that are “nostalgic, joyful, sarcastic and humorous,” and that’s why the genre must be protected. 

Vallenato’s roots come from the farmers of the Magdalena region of Colombia, like the Spanish minstrels or juglares and West African griots of the past, singing, chanting, and playing their instruments as they traveled from town to town with their cows, sharing news and messages. 

They also made it common to weave the local gossip and even some rivalry and roasting into their songs. 

The musical tradition was mainly limited to the lower classes of society. It wasn’t until the wealthy patrons of the Valledupar Social Club insisted on bringing the music into their parties so they could enjoy listening to the local smut. 

While Vallenato is most commonly a listening experience, with most people joining together in singing along to every word, its heavy romantic tones lend themselves to couples almost inevitably dancing, holding each other tightly, cheek to cheek.

The dance culture is one of the many pros of living in Colombia…as a Colombian I drop my personal pros and cons of living here in this article.

Porro

Porro also hails from the Colombian Caribbean region, mainly the department of Sucre. 

It’s a much faster and livelier musical rhythm than the Cumbia that lives in its blood. 

It imitates Big band or military marching band music. Porro had lost most of its popularity from the 1940s to the 1970s, but as recently as the 1980s, it has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, mainly in Medellin. 

The genre has seen a revived interest among younger audiences. Dozens of schools in the city specialize in teaching porro moves.

Joropo

This dance is well known for highlighting the Colombian “campesino” or country folk.

Native to Colombia’s eastern plains, or Llanos Orientales, we should also mention that it has roots in Venezuela, which counts as a national dance.

Like the more famous Fandango, the movements can be viewed as similar to a waltz, with the dancers holding onto one another before separating and performing a move, often compared to sweeping the floor. 

Lastly, they hold each other’s arms, and the woman takes sweeping steps while the man stomps his feet along with the rhythm of the music.

Bullerengue

“Bulla” means applause or noise in Spanish; you may have heard a singer shout “Hagan una bulla!” during a performance; in the same way, many DJs or MCs might command a crowd to “Make some noise!” 

Bullerengue is another traditional musical genre dance with roots in the African descendants of the Caribbean region of Colombia. 

The songs are sung mainly by older women and accompanied by heavy drum beats; generally, there are no melodies.

While it is mainly considered a traditional genre, in recent decades, Petrona Martínez and Totó la Momposina have increased Bullerengue’s international popularity and success, having been nominees and even winning the Latin Grammy Award for Best Folk Album.

Bambuco

The Bambuco is the most prominent of the traditional genres in the Andean Region of Colombia, where Bogota, our capital, is located. 

It differs significantly from the other representative genres like Cumbia or Joropo mainly because of the region it hails from. 

The Andean region is cold and mountainous, yet beautiful—a marked difference from the Caribbean coasts that inspire those other genres. 

Like most of our music, it does have its African roots; however, Bambuco is more heavily influenced by the European Waltz or Polka. 

It also wears its Spanish influence proudly, being played usually by duos or trios of guitars. You can also find the string, percussion, and wind instruments. 

Although it did have its “hay day” back in the 1920s and 1930s, today, its popularity is not what it once was and has been mostly relegated to performances seen during traditional festivities.

The dance itself is primarily a couple’s display of love and courtship. 

In it, you will see the various stages of a developing romance, such as the invitation, flirting, pursuit, and finally, the union. 

The costumes are also very traditional: women usually wear a long white skirt decorated with flowers and colors, and men wear a white shirt and black pants with a hat and a red bandana. 

These types of costumes are very commonly associated with the typical image of the “campesino” much like the world recognizes the 10-gallon hat, shiny belt buckle, and boots of the North American “cowboy.” 

It is common for you to find souvenirs with these images on them.

Mapale

The Mapale is another Afro-Caribbean dance originating in Colombia and created by enslaved people. 

Some say it was used to represent the fisherman returning home after a long day out fishing the Magdalena River. 

The name “mapalé” comes from a type of catfish that populated this river, and many people will tell you that, within the dance, the male’s movements represent a fish out of the water while the females represent the waves of a choppy sea.

Today is the most commonly performed rhythm and dance in the streets of Cartagena

Essentially, it is one of the Colombian rhythms from the coast that is most heavily associated with purely African roots. 

With its breakneck rhythms, mapalé is traditionally played with two drums, “el tambor alegre” or the happy drum and the tambora, supported by clapping. 

Nowadays, musicians playing the rhythm often add a guache (a shaker) to the sound. 

You will most often find the dance performed by two lines of dancers, one male, and one female, first facing each other, then circling. 

Alternating between dancing loosely, or stuck close together, but always making suggestive advances towards one another. 

The dance is steeped in a high frenetic sexual energy, accentuated by the accompanying drums singing and clapping.

Modern Colombian Dances

The dances, as mentioned earlier, are mainly seen as traditional and not commonly danced at house parties or nightclubs. 

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. You will see some of these while out, especially during some of the more traditional festivities, such as Carnivals or in December, when the whole country is celebrating, and yes, all month long.

But more modern dances have sprouted up from Colombian streets in recent years. 

You may remember Colombia’s wonderful performance in the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 2014 ( if you don’t, you need to re-think your life choices) 

Where “el tri-color” was led by the apple of the country’s eye, James Rodriguez, and a rag-tag crew of scrappy wunderkinds, including Juan Cuadrado and David Ospina, to the Quarterfinals where they lost (don’t bring it up if you want to keep your Colombian friends) to the host and perennial powerhouse Brazil and their “jogo bonito.” 

One of the most enduring images and part of why the world fell in love with our boys during that world cup was how they would dance together to celebrate goals

That dance is called Salsa Choke! Popularized by the song “Ras Tas Tas” by Cali Flow Latino, the Colombian Salsa world has been overtaken. 

Colombia has always been a heavy player in the Salsa universe; some will even say that the genre is more alive here than in its birthplace Puerto Rico. Cali has been at the epicenter of that storm. 

The city that has always been known for its amazing Salsa dancers, with many wins at world dancing competitions, has now birthed a new, more urban street wave of Salsa, well, sauciness!

The other new Colombian dance to make international waves is the 

Champeta

This is thanks to “Hips don’t Lie” superstar Shakira, who took Champeta (and other rhythms like Mapale) worldwide during her iconic Super Bowl Halftime performance alongside JLo in 2020.

Champeta is just the latest of the Afro-Caribbean beats to capture the hearts and streets of Colombia. 

The word derives from the “champetilla,” a small machete-style knife used at work, in the kitchen, and as a weapon. 

The word “champetudo” was used as an insult to describe poor African descent people of the region at one time. 

It is now known to describe a set of complex dances done to a mix of Salsa, Reggae, and Jibaro rhythms, a scene also commonly called “terapia” or therapy due to its relaxing, release of energy, and ability to transport you away from your daily struggles. 

As we often see, what we once viewed as poor, low-class street culture has now been accepted by the wealthier social elite. This is displayed in Champeta’s acceptance in many of the capital’s fancy nightclubs.

Closing thoughts

So there you have it! A brief (?!) overview of just a few of the dances and musical genres native to the beautiful country of Colombia. 

I hope to have inspired you to delve a little deeper into one, or maybe more, of these; you might find that one of these rhythms touches your soul and speaks to you the way it does to so many Colombians.

So, go! Get Dancin!

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