Cumbia: The New/Old Latin Dance

June 21, 2007

In Costa Rica, where dancing ranks close to soccer as a national pastime, the insistent wood-block percussion of cumbia rattles inside crowded buses and from the speakers of beachside clubs, where dancers kick up sand under the moonlight. Here, the most popular variation on cumbia is a partner dance, which, to the untrained American eye, resembles a more vertically minded salsa, punctuated by hiccups of rhythmic hopping. The dancers maintain this rhythm (typically, with one partner’s left hand clasping the other’s right) as they navigate through turns – side to side, behind the back, or with one partner on bended knee, hand held out like a compass as the other literally dances circles around him.

As a foreigner working in Costa Rica, I learned cumbia in an equally foreign location: a carpeted dot-com office. A programmer who moonlights with a local dance company taught me in exchange for English lessons. On our first day, Jose Luis positioned me directly across from him, took my right hand firmly in his left, and told me, “OK. We jump back once, then kick one leg forward, a mirror of each other, then kick the other leg forward, then step back, one-two, then do it again.”

That was the bouncy basic step, stylized with quick half-turns. As I learned from Jose Luis, who sent me to see the Compañia Nacional de Danza, cumbia has choreographic potential well beyond these basics. A single man or woman can attract or repel the attentions of a circle of admirers in countless ways, nudging a reaching hand away with the flick of a hip, or turning a partner in rapid circles with just the tap of a foot or knee.

In the U.S., cumbia music is easily findable on Spanish-language radio stations, though the dance takes some searching out. If you’re an American living outside of Latin hubs like New York, Texas, California, or Florida, chances are good you haven’t seen it, despite its enormous popularity in South and Central America. Why?

For answers, I turned to cumbia experts in the United States. Josie Neglia, proprietor of Josie Neglia Dance Academy in Los Angeles, teaches cumbia classes at her studio, primarily to students who want to learn it for parties, weddings and the like. “Latin clubs here play [cumbia], but they don’t play it as much as salsa,” she says. “It’s very specific to the culture.”

The culture to which she refers is Latino, and more specifically, Colombian. Though opinions differ regarding exactly which area the dance sprang from, by most accounts, it originated in the 1800s as part of the Spanish slave trade in Colombian coastal areas. Laura Altman, a Colombian native who teaches cumbia at Miami’s International Dance Studio, says, “It was a folkloric dance that became a social dance. It was a way for the slaves to imitate the Spaniards.” The dance, which traditionally was (and in the case of many folkloric groups, still is) danced barefoot, began on the country’s beaches, flavored by a rich confluence of Spanish, African, and South American Indian influences, with the long skirts of the slave owners and the rhythms of Africa, set to Indian instruments.

As cumbia migrated north through Central America and Mexico, variations emerged. Altman notes that although cumbia is becoming increasingly international, it looks different in different crowds, with some purveyors holding fast to tradition while others trying to modernize. Its closest relation rhythmically is samba, she says. The Colombian style is more African, with more grounded, hip-swaying movement and less of the small, quick hops favored in the Mexican-influenced style. The core movement, as she describes it, is “a very soft, lazy feeling, with the hips moving left to right. The count is a one and two, with a step-tap. The change of weight is fast side to side.” Though cumbia is typically a partner dance, it can be done in large groups, which dramatically widens its scope.

In the traditional style, Altman says, the men and women flirt openly, dancing with their arms open in broad arcs, moving toward and away from one another with varied steps—the men ducking low and fanning the women’s feet with red bandanas, for example—but the partners never touch. It is this interplay between the sexes, Altman adds, that lies at the heart of cumbia’s appeal. “I like the rhythm, the teasing of the partner – it’s very sensuous and playful.” The Colombian music is heavy on tambora, a type of drum, while the Mexican style emphasizes trumpet and horns.

Martin Vejarano, of the New York-based band La Cumbiamba eNeYé, teaches cumbia music and dance workshops around the country. He says that as cumbia became popular in the 1950s and ‘60s, the instrumentation became more orchestrated, in the style of Benny Goodman. In the traditional style, he says, “The women make little steps, drag their feet—it’s very indigenous. The woman is strong but quiet. The man’s style is more African—more fast, more aggressive, but also more graceful. It’s a courtship dance. He’s trying to conquer her heart.”

Tucson native Sydney Hutchinson, author of a forthcoming book on quebradita (a kind of sped-up cumbia favored in the Southwest and L.A.), says that as cumbia adapted to a big-band format, it fused with the increasingly popular salsa style in the 1970s. “People dance not in a partner hold but separated,” says Hutchinson about the Mexican cumbia style danced in Tucson,  “and everyone moves in a circle together, counterclockwise around the dance floor.”

In New York, Hutchinson says, cumbia is mostly danced at bailes sonideros, a kind of dance party imported from Mexico City and Puebla. Sonideros are DJs with huge sound systems who play mostly Colombian-style cumbias, but they interrupt the music with spoken greetings to people. “People who go to the dances ask the DJs to send these shout-outs to people back home,” Hutchinson says. “Then they are recorded onto tapes so they can send them back to Mexico.”

Neglia describes the cumbia she teaches as a four-count side-step with a very strong down beat and a rock back (rather than a jump) on the three-count. “L.A. and New York started the forward-and-back style,” she says. “And the Mexican dancers add some flair.” In other words, the dance is open to interpretation. As Altman puts it, “Your mom’s chicken soup isn’t the same as my mom’s chicken soup.”

As a girl, Altman danced cumbia in the Carnaval celebrations of her Colombian hometown, Barranquilla. She and her dance-school compatriots danced it in rows—a line of girls alongside a line of boys, the formation switching partners, opening up and closing in as the procession moved forward. She has since seen it done in local clubs and danced by a Colombian folkloric troupe that passes through Miami annually, as well as in Miami’s annual two-week March Carnaval festival, which typically features a Colombian cumbia contingent along with the salsa-dancing Cubans.

Nestor Gomez also learned cumbia in his native Colombia after his wife formed a children’s dance group. In the February carnaval, he says, hundreds of people dance cumbia in parades, with 60-80 people per group. His wife now teaches in Queens, where they live. “Many non-Hispanic people are thirsty to know about cumbia,” he says. He’s seen it move steadily downtown, to Lincoln Center and Madison Square Gardens, and to nightclubs. But for him, as for many, cumbia is more than a social dance. “I dance it all the time when I have the opportunity,” he says. “It’s very emotional. It’s my culture. It’s something I have known all my life.”

Altman and Vejarano, too, have seen the inevitable crossing of folklore and pop culture as younger dancers work to make cumbia their own. “I’ve seen women wearing miniskirts that they lift as if they were wearing long skirts,” Altman says. “In Colombia, we don’t have cumbia in the clubs,” Vejarano says, “but in L.A. they mix it with techno.” And in New York, he’s seen cumbia progress toward the world-music arena. Although he prefers the traditional style, he isn’t entirely opposed to cumbia’s modernization. “It would be nice to mix cumbia with dance music,” he says. “It’s such a happy music.”

Heather Wisner, a copy editor at the Statesman Journal in Oregon, is a former associate editor at Dance Magazine. She lived in Costa Rica from 2003-2005.