It has continued to remain true that if I am invited to an event I will: A) most likely be asked to speak (whether I knew about it ahead of time or not); B) eat cabrito (stewed young goat served with rice and white beans); and most importantly C) dance in front of everybody.
And while many times I am overly concerned about my speech and if I’m addressing people properly, whether I’m eating enough of my food to make those around me happy but not too much to feel sick, the one factor that will guarantee me more friends and form confianza faster has nothing to do with formalities, but dancing my butt off.
At first I thought it was just that I am a novelty—a big tall gringa who comes into town and gets up in front of everybody and dances with the mayor who is half her size. People would approach me and pat me on the arm, laughing and happy that I had danced for everyone’s entertainment. But as time has gone on and every event I attend (no matter how formal) ends or begins with dancing, and all the small-talk involves asking, “What is your favorite dance?” I have realized it is not just that I’m a big goof here for their entertainment (although that is a big part of it). It is that I am participating in something that is important to them and has a deep foundation in their culture. People instantly warmed up to me once they saw I had the ability to let my guard down and participate in something that is a big part of their everyday lives.
|Teachers cutting a rug after class|
So far I have a great relationship with the director and teachers at the high school I work at, and they are very supportive with the work I want to do at the school. I know for a fact that the day I sealed the deal as a good person to them was the day I attended an all-teachers party and danced for two-hours straight with everyone present.
Peruvians have great pride in their different bailos and danzas tipicos. There are typical dances from the selva (rainforest), sierra (mountains), and costa (coast, where I’m at). There are dances of the north and south, and dances adapted from others in Bolivia and Columbia. And each dance has its outfit, its meaning, and its story in the history of Peru. Then of course, there is just plain getting down and dirty, dancing to regatone and shaking what yo’ mama gave ya. Six-year-old girls know how to move their hips in ways that I will never be able to. This is both awe inspiring and disturbing. However, it is a big part of their everyday lives, and every dance has its place in social settings and events.
|Alpa Wuiru, a local dance group performing at an event|
I recently was invited to hang out with a youth group in town comprised of guys and girls ages 17-20 that is part of the municipalidad (municipality) and gets together five-days a week to practice different dances for different town or district events. They invited me to dance huayno (pronounced wino, a typical sierra danza) with them for an event (I ended up performing in four different events in four different towns. They decided this was a faster and easier way to present me to the different towns in the area as a Peace Corps volunteer, but that’s a story for another day). As I was learning the different steps to the dance, they all jumped and cheered and yelled “¡Bravo!” every time I did it right. Talk about a confidence booster! The kids asked me if I performed danzas tipicos back in the U.S. It’s hard to explain to someone with a culture so filled with dancing that it just isn’t the same in the U.S. Sure, for performance dancing we have tap and ballet, jazz, break-dancing and hip hop (and more I probably don’t know about). But kids don’t grow up knowing how to do every single one of these dances and perform them on a regular basis. It isn’t ingrained in us in school, at home, and in social settings. I'm no expert on dancing, so I could be way off, but thats my point exactly; dancing just doesn't have the same presence in our culture. In the U.S. we are taught to find our talent and run with it. When we’re younger we often have more opportunities (mostly girls) to participate in a type of dance, but unless we are willing to dedicate time, sweat, and hard work to something so we can “go somewhere” with it, it is generally dropped for something else we can succeed at as we get older. There’s also the matter of time, of course. We have a much more competitive culture which does not exclude the arts. This is also hard to explain; not pursuring something you enjoy because you’re not the best.
|Two chiquititos dancing marinara at a serenata|
I tell them I just like to go dancing with my girlfriends, but even this doesn’t make a lot of sense to them because when you go out dancing you don’t dance by yourself or in a group of people. Occasionally you dance in a circle with someone in the middle, but that depends on the music, because all music has it’s specific dancing—salsa, cumbia, huayno, etc. If you’re out on the dance floor it’s with a dance partner, and if there is space, everyone stands in a line side-by-side. Generally boys are in one line and girls are in the other. It’s kind of awkward. I try to explain to them that we do have partner dancing in the U.S., but a lot of the dances are from other cultures. The U.S. does have its different variations of swing dancing, and I’m more used to country-swing. They don’t have any dances like that here and I would love to teach them except I don’t know how because I just follow the guys lead and try not to fall over as I’m being spun around. And as I’ve said before, all guys dance here, so it’s really weird to them that in the U.S. the stereotype is that a lot of guys don’t like to dance (or are afraid to dance in public) and many people don’t dance until they’ve “had enough to drink”.
Dancing with the youth group definitely confirmed my theory that one of the ways to a Peruvians hearts is through dancing, and I’ve even received some respect from people in town who are impressed that the gringa was able to so quickly learn something they grew up doing. Dancing just makes everything better. Even in the English classes I’m teaching to 5th and 6th graders, when I find a way to include dancing in the lessons, everyone is happier.
|The teachers performing huayno for the school on Dia del Juventud|
It’s actually quite freeing to know that the more I get into dancing, the more vulnerable I feel, the stronger of a relationship I’m forming with those around me. You´ve just got to put yourself out there. As we grew up with the encouragement to “dance like nobody’s watching”, here it seems to be “dance like everyone is watching” so that you dance with more pride, more ganas, and shine even brighter—and everyone surely is watching. And luckily for me, that works in my favor.
|Alpa Wuiru and me after our second performance at a neighboring high school|