Crossing Cultures: The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You

One of the cultural differences that I have come face-to-face with on multiple occasions is dancing. While living in the States, if someone said they “went dancing” or were at a party where they danced, my mental image would have been of colored or flashing lights, heavy rhythmic music, and body movements that, for the most part, would be inappropriate for me to duplicate. Only those who are trained and participate in some sort of dance group would be able to execute the more “acceptable” forms of dancing, such as ballroom styles, tap or ballet. You know, the “nicer” dances. 

This is not the case in Peru. 

Around here, EVERYONE dances. I have seen it happen at a 1 year old’s birthday party, a 3 year old’s birthday party, two baby showers (mine and Megan’s), a girls’ night out with a group of friends (smoothies, popcorn, pedicures...and boogying down), at the preschool, at Naranjal’s anniversary/water celebration, at one of the is an acceptable activity just about anywhere. And it is different than the type of dancing I described before. These are salsa-type rhythms, where your feet have to keep moving more than anything else, though your arms and hips had better be involved if you want to look like you know what you are doing. And most Peruvians do know what they are doing. They grow up learning how to move to these upbeat, positive-sounding songs, so they are very comfortable stepping up to the plate. Much more so than I was at my shower, when they all decided to pump up the music and dance in a circle around me, where I was supposed to dance one-on-one with each attendee in turn. 

It’s good exercise, let me tell you. 

But the interesting thing I have realized is how practical it is for Peruvians to so readily join each other on a dance floor in their style. For one thing, it is almost a free activity. We live among poor people, but almost every one of them has at least a radio, and there are plenty of places that rent out stereo equipment for special occasions, so even the poor can afford to really play it up every so often. All they need is a place to stand and some music playing, and they have an activity with no time, cost or age limits. Another aspect that makes it a good choice is that it is physical. When I stood up to try and learn a few correct steps from our friend Patty, I figured out quickly that my hip and leg muscles were not cut out for the moves I was trying to do. So, for people who work hard, make little money and spend no time at the gym, it’s a way to get up and move their bodies and have fun at the same time. We have been told by one friend that he likes dancing when he is upset, as a way to blow off steam, which is a healthy, safe, and legal way to do so. Additionally, it immediately evens the playing field among the people involved. It doesn’t matter if you are intelligent or educated (like some games might) or if you have athletic ability or if you are of a particular build - you can just join in. Even us gringos can participate, even if our efforts are awkward at best. No one cares; all are welcome. 

One special occasion that we were privileged to witness was at El Naranjal’s five year anniversary party where we also celebrated the christening of their new water tanks. The different sections of the community hired dance groups to compete. It was our first time to see so many different traditional dances. Most of them come out of their indigenous heritage. The styles reminded me of American Indian style movements, with story-lines depicting courtship processes or battles. Some were lively; others had us laughing. And again, as per their usual open-floor policy, they finished out our time there by having Greg, Megan and Kyle jump in and participate. 

Maybe the most significant positive aspect is the joy it brings to these people. Every time I have seen the dancing begin—regardless of the setting or if the people are participating or just observing—the people seem to light up. They love to dance! They love to watch others performing the traditional dances. It is a valuable part of their cultural history and it speaks to their hearts in a way that is unfamiliar to us. It is a part of what makes this place home to them, so we are learn- ing to open ourselves to it as well.