With a Hop, a Kick, and a Turn, Cumbia Enters the Global Stage: A Dance That Began as Part of the Spanish Slave Trade in Colombia Is Gaining Popularity

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In Costa Rica, where dancing ranks close to soccer as a national pastime, the insistent wood-block percussion of cumbia rattles inside crowded buses and from the speakers of beachside clubs, where dancers kick up sand under the moonlight. Here, the most popular variation on cumbia is a partner dance, which, to the untrained American eye, resembles a more vertically minded salsa, punctuated by hiccups of rhythmic hopping. The dancers maintain this rhythm (typically, with one partner's left hand clasping the other's right) as they navigate through turns--side to side, behind the back, or with one partner on bended knee, hand held out like a compass as the other literally dances circles around him.

As a foreigner working in Costa Rica, I learned cumbia in an equally foreign location: a carpeted dot-com office. A programmer who moonlights with a local dance company taught me in exchange for English lessons. On our first day, Jose Luis positioned me directly across from him, took my right hand firmly in his left, and told me, "OK. We jump back once, then kick one leg forward, a mirror of each other, then kick the other leg forward, then step back, one-two, then do it again."

That was the bouncy basic step, stylized with quick half-turns. As I learned from Jose Luis, who sent me to see the Compania Nacional de Danza, cumbia has choreographic potential well beyond these basics. A single man or woman can attract or repel the attentions of a circle of admirers in countless ways, nudging a reaching hand away with the flick of a hip, or turning a partner in rapid circles with just the tap of a foot or knee.

In the U.S., cumbia music is easily findable on Spanish-language radio stations, though the dance takes some searching out. If you're an American living outside of Latin hubs like New York, Texas, California, or Florida, chances are good you haven't seen it, despite its enormous popularity in South and Central America. Why?

For answers, I turned to cumbia experts in the United States. Josie Neglia, proprietor of Josie Neglia Dance Academy in Los Angeles, teaches cumbia classes at her studio, primarily to students who want to learn it for parties, weddings, and the like. "Latin clubs here play [cumbia], but they don't play it as much as salsa," she says. "It's very specific to the culture."

The culture to which she refers is Latino, and more specifically, Colombian. Though opinions differ regarding exactly which area the dance sprang from, by most accounts, it originated in the 1800s as part of the Spanish slave trade in Colombian coastal areas. Laura Altman, a Colombian native who teaches cumbia at Miami's International Dance Studio, says, "It was a folkloric dance that became a social dance. It was a way for the slaves to imitate the Spaniards." The dance, which traditionally was (and in the case of many folkloric groups, still is) danced barefoot, began on the country's beaches. It combined the long skirts of the Spanish slave owners, the rhythms of Africa, and South American Indian instruments.

As cumbia migrated north through Central America and Mexico, variations emerged. Altman notes that although cumbia is becoming increasingly international, it looks different in different crowds, with some purveyors holding fast to tradition while others try to modernize. Its closest relation rhythmically is samba, she says. The Colombian style is more African, with more grounded, hip-swaying movement and less of the small, quick hops favored in the Mexican-influenced style. The core movement, as she describes it, is "a very soft, lazy feeling, with the hips moving left to right. The count is a one and two, with a step-tap. The change of weight is fast side to side." Though cumbia is typically a partner dance, it can be done in large groups, which dramatically widens its scope.

In the traditional style, Altman says, the men and women flirt openly, dancing with their arms open in broad arcs, moving toward and away from one another with varied steps--the men ducking low and fanning the women's feet with red bandanas, for example--but the partners never touch. …