Dance is an expression deeply rooted in a culture’s essence. Traditional dances take delight in movements in expressing a culture’s ideas and emotions and releasing energy. A traditional dance is often accompanied by lively music, instruments of cultural significance, and colorful wardrobes, to further enhance its impact and meaning.
It has been said that a Panamanian will sometimes begin to sway their hips and hum while standing in line, and it is no wonder, Panama is a country rich in traditional music and dances. Since its inception, Panama has had several cultural influences reflected in their traditional dances.
The most well-known of the Panamanian traditional dances is called El Tamborito, Spanish for the small drum. With a name like this, one can anticipate a rhythmic infused style of dancing, full of culture and drama. Other Panamanian traditional dances include Cumbia and El Punto, all unique in their own right. Each has its unique cultural influences, ranging from Spanish, Caribbean, African, and European blends, harmonized into rhythmic beats enjoyed throughout the centuries.
Let’s settle in and explore these traditional dances, and what makes each unique!
Tamborito, The Small Drum
El Tamborito’s music and dance are one of Panama’s most hypnotic practices. El Tamborito is a mixture of Hispanic and African traditional dances, and the dance’s rhythm is based on a folkloric dance, Congos, from the Province of Colon, introduced by African slaves. El Tamborito’s music and dance dates back as early as the 17th century and has become the national dance of Panama.
Usually, a group of men out in a public space or public square, break out in music and sound their drums in rhythm to the traditional beat. As the beat continues, a woman will come and sing a central theme and her interpretations of the rhythm, usually having to do with life and feelings, while other women chant along to the chorus and clap their hands. The chorus is the same chorus repeated over and over again, usually a sentence long, creating a game of question and answer. After the dance, usually, everyone will share a swig or glass of their favorite liquor.
While dancing along to the rhythm, women and men will form a circle and taking turns, a man will step in, to the center and a woman will follow, both swaying their hips and moving their feet subtlety, and never touch. The dance is a coy interpretation of cat and mouse chase, where the woman sways her hips provocatively and hints for the man to come closer, only to then abruptly turn her back and return to her circling solo dance. During the dance, the woman is to not smile, as it would imply the man’s chase is effective and she finds him alluring. The key to this dance, however, is to maintain intense eye contact between the couple.
El Tamborito, as the name suggests, is played using three African styled small drums, one for the rhythm, one for the high notes, and one for the low notes. El Tamborito’s beat is accompanied by the clapping of hands, creating a hypnotic rhythm. Depending on the region, the instruments may also include a violin and a Spanish guitar, accentuating the Spanish influence over the region.
As it relates to Panama, Cumbia music and dance is heavily influenced by varying cultures over the last several centuries. Indigenous tribes of Panama and both African and European influences penetrate the sounds of Cumbia, creating a well-blended culmination of traditions.
Depending on the region of Panama, Cumbia music can sound fully African, incorporating only hypnotic drum beats, or fully European by incorporating other instruments. In the colonial era, slaves in Panama sang Cumbia songs in both Spanish and African dialects, accompanied only by drums, and later, Spanish influence brought about the introduction of the Mejorana and Rabel guitars. Each Panamanian region offers a slightly different version of not only the sounds but the dance interpretation as well.
Regarding the Cumbia dance, Cumbia ‘suelta’, or loose, is used for a group setting, largely in birthday parties and local festivities. In Cumbia suelta, men and women form a circle, and men take turns dancing in the center while the women stay in the outside. Everyone dances swaying their hips and moving their feet subtlety.
Cumbia amanojá is a little more progressive in both dance, music, and lyrical content, than its more traditional and formal counterpart, seulta. The Cumbia amanojá is a couple’s dance, danced while holding your partner. Violin, accordion, and sometimes the harmonica are usually the main instruments accompanying the dance.
El Punto Panameño
The El Punto Panameño depicts a love story expressed by the choreography of the dance. The courtship of a man towards the woman is displayed, as the man is attempting to win over the object of his affection’s heart, by his display of elegant steps and difficult footwork. His gestures and choreography are meant to be pleasing to her, who in the end accepts his overtures of love and romanticism. Love wins!
The composition of the music is created specifically for the purpose of dance, and usually only performed by a single couple. The dance is broken up into 4 major segments: El Paseo (the walk), El Zapateo (shoe tapping), El Escobillao (the sweep), and El Seguidilla (the follow).
The choreography is orchestrated in such a way to display elegance, skill, and grace. Unlike its other counterparts, El Tamborito or Panamanian Cumbia, the dance is performed during an intermission between other group dances at an event or party.
Folk Wear Pieces
Accompanying such elegant and graceful musical and dance tradition comes very traditional dress attire, also demonstrative of the cultural influences experienced throughout the centuries. A Panamanian woman’s Pollera, or folklore dress, is a Panamanian woman’s pride. The dress has been known to grace the Panamanian woman’s culture since the colonization of the Spanish conquistadores into the Americas. Today, the cost of a Pollera reaches in the upwards of several thousand dollars.
Further adorning her attire, a very special and traditional headwear piece, Tembleque, is worn by Panamanian women during traditional dances and performances. Neckwear jewelry and pieces, called Peinetas, to complete the folk attire are made of gold and pearls, and the price can exceed the upwards of $15,000 USD.
In addition, Panamanian women traditionally wear several golden chains and ornaments necessary to complete the traditional look of the Pollera. With all its complexities, a single Pollera can take in the upwards of one year to create! Generally, the gold and pearl decorations are passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms.
To complete the look, Panamanian women also decorate their hair with tortoiseshell combs, pearl flowers, gold pins resembling a dagger, and several hanging accessories or “ducktails.” One in full folklore attire, a Panamanian woman is ready for her dances!
What about the men? The men’s dress attire is much more simplistic, as they represent farmers in the countryside. Men wear a long-sleeved collar shirt, usually white, and dark chino pants. In order to draw attention to their skilled footwork while dancing, men will wear two-toned shoes. The most important accessory to the man, however, is his montuno, or straw hat. This accessory is used while dancing, to court the lady.
Traditional Panamanian Dance in National Festivals, Parades, and City Venues
El Tamborito, Cumbia, and El Punto traditional dances can be seen throughout Panama’s festivals and events including birthday parties, school dances, beauty pageants, and national festivals and parades.
The Festival of Coffee and Flowers held annually in Boquete is a great venue to see what the dances are all about! Traditional dance performances can also be seen as a formal performance in Panamanian restaurants. The Restaurante Tinajas, located in Panama City, offers a delightful performance out in their patio with rave reviews! Often, show organizers will also take the time to explain the different traditional attire and their meaning. Performances can also be seen throughout various plazas in Panama. The Cathedral Plaza in the old town of El Casco Viejo in Panama City is such a location. Locals and tourists alike gather here for delightful displays of Panamanian dance!
If you feel you are ready to explore the beautiful elegance of Panamanian traditional dance, not to worry. Dance schools throughout the country are more than willing to impart their folklore dance knowledge and help you get on your feet. The Escuela Nacional De Danzas located in Ancón, a suburb of Panama City, specializes in Panamanian traditional dances, folklore dances, among others. Flamenco Panama, located in the heart of Panama City, will also cater to your dance needs! The Escuela de Folklore de San Miguelito, located in San Miguelito city in Panama, offers classes for those wanting to dive further into traditional dance and folklore of Panama.
Panamanian Dance and Music Evolution
Many cultures have influenced Panama throughout the centuries. In Panama’s national dance, El Tamborito, we see influences from the Spanish, Caribbean, and African cultures, all blended so well to create a unique sound and dance!
In Cumbia, we originally see African and European instrumental influences, however, we witnessed the influence of Spanish culture with the introduction of various types of guitar, Mejorana, and Rabel. As cultures blend and mix, so do the music and dance styles. We are witnessing this blend in the dance of the Cumbia amanojá, who’s dance style and lyrics have become more progressive than its more traditional counterpart, Cumbia suelta. We can also see these cultural influences in traditional dance attire evolve over the centuries.
The Pollera dresses have become lavish and exquisite, implementing both African and Spanish styles into their designs. Traditional headwear pieces, Tembleque, and traditional neckwear pieces, Peinetas, have accumulated cultural influences throughout the generations, and have in their own right, become family heirlooms passed down from generation to generation.
Whether it is among friends or family (or standing in line), Panamanians love to gather and dance! The rhythmic sounds inevitably lead a Panamanian to sway and hum whenever, wherever. One can expect spectacular traditional performances in national parades and festivals, where a glimpse of Pollera dresses, Peinetas, and Tembleque pieces will be in full swing.
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