By Gabriela Shiroma
September 29, 2008

To talk about Peru’s National Dance, La Marinera, is to talk about passion, celebration, gallantry, romance, independence, identity, struggle, and academic research.  This dance represents the courtship of the man and woman as they advance and retreat with flirtatious movements with the solo use of a handkerchief.  Its history covers 5 centuries of socio-cultural exchanges, political conflict and identity development.  In order to have a better understanding it is necessary to go back to its root—the Mother Dance Zamacueca.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1532, Peru was home to many pre-Incan cultures and to the Incan empire itself.  In the colonization of Spanish America, Peru became the center of the Viceroyalty because it represented one of the biggest sources of gold and silver.  Due to the lack of cheap manpower, thousands of African slaves were imported to Peru primarily to work in the Andean mines.  Unfortunately the slaves did not endure the climate and those that succeeded in surviving were transferred to the coast where they became domestic, agricultural, and day laborers.

The Viceroyalty of Peru included a large part of what is today Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina.  Lima was the cultural, social-political and economic focal point of the Viceroyalty and the point of entry for the popular Spanish dances of the era.  

The Zamacueca as dance and song of counterpoint is without a doubt a fusion of various cultural elements. In its melodic style and metric structure are found the use of European stringed instruments, such as the guitar and harp.  In its rhythmic form, the cajon (wooden box), the most important percussion instrument in the Peruvian coast, represents the Afro-Peruvian component.  The indigenous component is in the modulation of the singing voice, which uses the minor mode and expresses an element of sadness.  It is because of this that the Zamacueca and its derivates belong to a category of mestizo dance, synthesizing African, indigenous and Spanish elements.

Peruvian historian and researcher Fernando Romero asserts that the word zamacueca is derived from the Zamba Antigua (a Spanish dance which existed in the 16th century) with the later addition of the word kwa-kwa, which in the African Kikongo language signifies cajon (wooden drum).  The fusion of the word, and the resulting dance form, was called Zamba kwa-kwa (or “Zamba of the drum”), and subsequently the Zamba-Cueca and finally Zamacueca (1780-1824).

Throughout the beginning of the 19th century, South America was liberating itself from Spanish rule.  The Zamacueca converted itself into a dance of independence celebration. As each republic broke off and formed its own identity, the Zamacueca was given a new name and the status of the national dance.  Hence, in Chile its name changed to Cueca, in Bolivia Cueca Boliviana and in Argentina Zamba.

During the period of the Peru-Bolivian Confederation (1836-1839) Peru and Bolivia united to form one nation. The Chilean government, which was not in agreement with this alliance, formed a Reformist army and sent it well into Peruvian territory to conquer the army of the Peru-Bolivian confederation. In this journey, the Zamacueca, re-christened La Chilena, traveled with the Chilean soldiers.

The political conflict among Peru, Bolivia and Chile did not cease and on 1879, Chile declared war on Bolivia over tax regulations being levied on Chilean business transactions.  Peru with its alliance to Bolivia was obligated to declare war with Chile.  This was the famous War of the Pacific, which lasted from 1879-1883, the victory going to Chile.  Journalist Abelardo Gamarra lobbied for the Peruvian Chilena to change its name to La Marinera in honor of the Peruvian navy (Marina) and the heroes who died in the horrendous battles along the Peruvian/Chilean border.

Later on when gold was discovered in California, the Pacific corridor became alive with shipping activity.  Chilean and Peruvian sailors were regular visitors along the Costa Chica of Mexico as they traveled north to California.

The Cueca Chilena of the 19th century was simplified by Mexicans to the name  Chilena.  There are records of Zamacuecas that were sung and danced in California during the Gold Rush era and considered as the early dances of California.  This mother dance has traveled throughout the three Americas: North, Central and South America. It is intricate in our history for over the past five centuries, and she still survives, passionate and proud of our nations.

The Marinera of Lima (or Marinera Limeña) is the direct descendant of the original Zamacueca. It has inherited many specific sets of rules regarding its practices, which were narrated and described by travelers who saw the Zamacueca danced during the nineteenth century. The Marinera of Lima is also called Jarana.  There must be a union on the structure of the dance and the music. It has five parts including three marineras and a faster tempo version at the end called Resbalosa. The dancers need to respect the courtship in regards to the verse structure; any misrepresentation of the dancer or the singer would suddenly conclude the piece. The Marinera of Lima is sung in a counter-point style utilizing an eight-syllable metric. It is accompanied by at least two teams of voices, guitar and cajon. The cajon applies a combination of 3/4 and 6/8 time signature patterns, which indicate a deep African influence. The guitar is rhythmic and provides the Spanish legacy. It is danced with handkerchiefs. Due to its intricate practice, the Marinera is practiced by an elite circle today.

Master Dancer Nestor Ruiz, current Apprenticeship Program master artist and vivid witness of the creation of the national contests of Marinera Norteña, states: “The actual Marinera Norteña is the result of an evolution forced by ballroom tournaments taken from Lima to the northern area of Peru since the 50’s.  It is clearly the most popular Marinera style nowadays. Its origins were not as flamboyant as today. It originated from the traditional northern dance The Tondero and the Marinera Limeña.”

It regularly represents a fantasy of a peasant girl (a female turkey) being pretended by a landowner (Paso Horse). The costume for the peasant girls has developed through the years from being a common dress to a magnificent work of art representing a female turkey incomparable to any in the world. The dress has elegance and improves the movements when the dancer applies a round or when footwork is required. The man, representing the landowner, usually is a Paso Horse rider wearing a wide hat and poncho, which is also utilized to enhance the rounds and to carry the woman throughout the dance. The music is played either with guitars, vocals and cajon or a marching band that is more effective for the tournaments held at big coliseums.