Contra – Cueca Exchange

“Teach us how to dance ‘country’”!

Alfredo was the one who asked me, but soon, Maria, Mauro, and Francesca were all egging me on. Another American might have been offended. They had all assumed that I would know how to dance “country,” based on some notions from old American TV shows and movies, presumably. I couldn’t be offended, though, because I actually could teach my Chilean co-workers how. Well, how to contra dance.

So right then, right there, we pushed the tables aside in the little office in the middle of the Parque Metropolitano de Santiago. I used Francesca’s computer to pull up a song by one of my favorite bluegrass bands, Nickel Creek. And I began to show off the simple steps I learned from old hippies in December at a barn dance. Step to the left, do-si-do, swing your partner, step to the right, promenade. Francesca was soon quick-steppin’ all over the room, a little bit awkwardly but with plenty of country flair. Mauro, Alfredo, and Maria, the old ones, mostly sat, laughing and watching. We were all laughing.

I never felt so white before. Or maybe I never felt so American before. I felt as though I was fulfilling expectations. But something about it felt so good. I was letting myself release into the musical movements that felt like home, thousands of miles away.

After another song, Alfredo shouted, “Francesca, show off your cueca!” So Francesca loaded her favorite traditional Chilean folk band and she was off. The difference in rhythm was palpable, switching abruptly from contra to cueca like that. But Francesca’s transition was seamless and she was soon one-two-three’ing around the room. Uno dos tres, uno dos tres. Alfredo, Mauro, and Maria clapped their hands to the rhythm that by now felt distinctively Chilean to me. I tried it out, awkwardly. Francesca and I were rosy red-faced, hot with rhythm and motion, and we were all laughing.

A quick google search on “origins of contra dancing” reveals that this particular dance probably came from Mother England in the 17th century. Books from that period describe a particular type of ordered line dancing, with partners standing opposite one another. Most people would say that “contra dancing” as we know it, which involves dynamic line, circle, and square formations, became most ingrained in New England culture. The main theory suggests that contra was the speedy American version of English country-dance: you’re meant to dance so fast that you leave a  “contrail,” and “contrail dance” shortened to “contra.” In any case, I had never heard of it, until a hipster friend took a bunch of us to a monthly contra dance in an eccentric retiree’s barn-house in suburban Connecticut. My dad grew up in New York, and may have gone to a contra dance or two in his time at Trinity College in Connecticut. And I grew up in Maryland – still close enough to New England to claim contra as part of my culture, I think.

I don’t imagine many of my fellow Americans know how to contra dance, or even what it is. The U.S. is probably even more of a melting pot in terms of dance styles than it is in ethnicities. I have grown up on both coasts, in metropolitan areas, nowhere that could be described as country. Friends of mine know dance styles from all around the world. But the truth is, I don’t know how to belly dance, go-go, salsa, or Cajun jitterbug. I do know how to country dance, and that’s what was asked of me that afternoon in Santiago.

I didn’t always like bluegrass; I rejected it when I was young and my dad tried hard to warm me up to it. He, a seasoned Grateful Dead-head and lover of string jams, planted bluegrass seeds in me that remained dormant beneath the soil for a long time. I hid away the Ricky Scaggs CD he gave me so that he wouldn’t make me listen to it. In middle school I was all about R&B and soul – Ashanti on repeat. But sometime toward the end of high school, bluegrass sprouted in me and took over my musical garden like a rambunctious native wildflower.

That afternoon of dancing happened early on during my three months at Bosque Santiago (Santiago Forest). Over the course of my time there, I learned how to give environmental education lessons to kids in Spanish. They always looked at me with this odd, gaping expression because of my apparently unrelenting gringa accent. Many of them, especially the younger ones, probably had never interacted with an American before. I really wanted to teach them about tree planting and stream ecology, but I ended up responding to more questions about Justin Bieber and Obama, only because I couldn’t roll my r’s.  I was there to teach ecology but probably even more so, to exchange culture – and that includes dance, evidently.

Cueca supposedly arrived to Chile and Bolivia sometime in the early 1800s. Some theorize that it’s a mix between Spanish Fandango and African Criollo, and the dance imitates the courtship between a rooster and a hen. In Chile, the music emerges from a guitar, accordion, guitarron or charrango, and some form of percussion. Generally, male cueca dancers wear traditional horseman clothing with a pañuelo (handkerchief) and women wear long, colorful dresses: it’s a feathery display of coordination, rhythm, and style. Most young people I talked to in Santiago said that people only dance cueca on the 18th of September (Chile’s Independence Day), or out in the country. So maybe it’s not all that different from my contra. They both sure do tug at the heartstrings – Francesca and I both rushed to Youtube in the same excited way, eager to display something that is undoubtedly a piece of ourselves.

Despite the commonality, cueca did feel different, awkward. Somehow I couldn’t get into the rhythm; something wasn’t natural. Maybe I have the contra gene and Francesca has the cueca gene. It must be like the gene that doesn’t allow me to roll my r’s, despite years of yearning and practice. So, bluegrass might be in my nature and my nurture. But when I think about it, I’m not sure if it’s part of my whiteness, Americanness, or even of my Englandness (my mother’s great-great grandparents came from England.)

This brings up another question: is bluegrass a “white” thing? At modern bluegrass festivals, it certainly is. I have heard one African American bluegrass band live, and that is the Carolina Chocolate Drops (I recommend them). But that’s one band, among hundreds. Fans at bluegrass concerts and festivals are overwhelmingly white. So in that sense, bluegrass is a white thing. But I recently stumbled upon an interesting article called “Why Black Folks Don’t Fiddle.” As the fiddle is one of the key instruments in bluegrass music, it’s a good look into the topic. The author, Tony Thomas, writes that the fiddle was the most common instrument played by African Americans in the 19th century, and this tradition continued into the next century. The flavor of American bluegrass would certainly not be the same without African American musicians. Now, in modern times, bluegrass can be seen as a sort of revival of past history and tradition, conjuring up a sense of the “old south.” Thomas writes, “Nostalgia for the past seems not to be a major part of Black general culture, especially musical culture. This is especially true in regard to aspects of culture that symbolize the Southern rural past, the other racial side of the past that Country music and old time music folk look to.” It looks like my current love of bluegrass might be connected to both whiteness and Americanness, in all sorts of complicated ways.

I can’t help but wonder, now, if cueca might have the same sort of uncertainty about it – is it a “Chilean” thing, or a “Mestizo” thing? It is the official national dance, but it also extends across national borders. It originated out of a fusion of ethnic styles and is ever-evolving. Most of Chile is “Mestizo,” a word that means a mixture of European and indigenous blood. 10% of Chile is Mapuche – the country’s largest indigenous group. Many Mapuche don’t describe themselves as “Chilean,” but many also dance cueca. So I wonder if Francesca might have the same questions that I have about how this dance relates to identity, ethnicity, nationality. I’ll have to ask her next time I’m down there.

That afternoon we were lighthearted and playful. Still, in that moment, I felt as though they projected a stereotype onto me, and the answer was yes. Let me stomp that stereotype a little deeper into the ground, and make it stay for good. It was also a moment when I realized that I’m proud of bits and pieces of my heritage. I felt that while my whiteness and Americanness come with a political history I might not be so proud of, they also come with rich, lively, sweaty things like contra dance. This is what happens with those  “You show me your dance, and I’ll show you mine” kind of moments. We’ll see what happens next time.

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One thought on “Contra – Cueca Exchange

  1. I love to contra dance and I am living in Santiago for the next few months. Your post was the first thing that came up when I searched “contra in Santiago, Chile.” Do you have any idea if there are contra dances down here? I imagine there are not (and I’ve been learning salsa and cueca!) but I wondered if you happen to know.

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