The History Of Modern Chile, Mirrored In Dance

Cueca Dancers; Getty/The Hulton Archive i i

Chileans dancing the cueca in the early 1950s, before Pinochet associated the dance with his dictatorship. In recent years, the resulting stigma seems to be fading. Getty/The Hulton Archive hide caption

itoggle caption Getty/The Hulton Archive
Cueca Dancers; Getty/The Hulton Archive

Chileans dancing the cueca in the early 1950s, before Pinochet associated the dance with his dictatorship. In recent years, the resulting stigma seems to be fading.

Getty/The Hulton Archive

Seventeen years under a dictator left deep marks on Chilean society, and those marks show up in unexpected places. Augusto Pinochet integrated the musical genre cueca into his regime. For decades, Chileans associated the national music and dance with a dictatorship known for killing thousands of people. But today, young people in Santiago are recovering this music and making it their own.

The Cueca

Paty Garcia and Claudia Mena are typical Santiago youths. They wear black jeans and Converse sneakers, have wild haircuts and love rebellious music.

"The words are really powerful, the way one dances is freer, the way you sing is more aggressive," Garcia says. "Young people really identify with this."

Garcia isn't talking about rock or punk. She's talking about the cueca, a traditional dance that dates back to colonial times. Cueca began in the countryside before spreading to cities like Santiago.

Mena, 18, compares cueca to American blues music. It's about a necessity to express yourself, she says; to talk about love and to tell stories about the lives of working-class people. Santiago cueca had its golden age in the '30s and '40s, at a time when the best music came from the roughest neighborhoods, and even bordellos were a popular venue.

Rodrigo Torres is an ethnomusicologist at the University of Chile. He studies cueca.

"The cueca is a dance about the romantic conquest between a couple, Torres says. "The dance resembles the courtship of a rooster and hen. While dancing, the couple moves in circles around each other, and the most important point of contact is the eyes and the gaze."

A Dictator's Prerogative

But Augusto Pinochet changed all that. He made cueca a part of military parades, so it went from being a flirtatious dance to a symbol of the dictatorship.

"Before [Pinochet], there was a possibility to share with others," Torres says. "The dictatorship brought repression; it relied on fear and distrust ... One of the important symbols [of the dictatorship] was the cueca, and it canonized the cueca to a point that many youth rejected the official cueca."

Another sort of cueca also developed during the dictatorship. When a woman's son or lover was taken by the government, that woman might dance the cueca, alone, in protest. Sometimes without music. That somber dance is called the cueca sola.

A Wife's Memory

Marta Perez's husband, Ulderico Donaire, was "disappeared" in 1976. She still dances cueca sola to remember him.

"The 5th of May, he said to me, 'Marta, I won't be around for lunch,' " Perez says. "It got to be 7:30, 8, 9 o'clock, and he hadn't arrived ... I have four children, we were all there waiting, we waited all night. And we're still waiting."

In the late 1980s, women like Perez inspired a song by Sting, "They Dance Alone."

But Carmen Gloria Araya says that things have changed a lot since then. She owns the dance hall El Huaso Enrique, and cueca night is packed.

She says that, now, people of all stripes come to dance cueca — and they all dance together. It's a way to relax from all the stress of the week, a release. Like everything in life, she says, the cueca evolved.

Paty Garcia and Claudia Mena agree. They've been singing cueca together for the past year.

"Before, the cueca was really horrible and lame," Garcia says. "You couldn't identify with it. Now, cueca is different. We have a great time singing cueca together. The best part is being able to believe in your partner: I believe in Claudia 100 percent, and she believes in me. We back each other up."

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