Caporales is a folk dance originating in Bolivia and spreading into parts of the Puno district of Peru and areas of Argentina that share the Amaya culture. The roots of the Caporales go back to the Saya, an Afro-Bolivian song and dance style that developed in the negro and mulatto slave communities brought to the Viceroyalty of Peru to work in the mines and on the plantations of the Spanish conquerors. The costumes and movements of the Caporales dance draw on the caporal – or foreman – character developed in the sayas: the mulatto elevated to the favoured position of right-hand-man, the commander of the African slaves and indentured Andean workers, and the dance itself is connected with reverence of the Virgin of Socavon or the Virgin of Candelaria, two aspects of the Virgin Mary considered sacred to miners and in Peru and Bolivia.
The Caporales dance in its modern incarnation emerged in the late 1960s and quickly gained popularity. A fusion of Afro-Andino, Amayan and Spanish elements, the Caporales is an energetic dance performed by a team of male and female dances. The striking costuming references the foreman’s traditional uniform, embellished with aspects of Spanish military uniform and the indigenous Andean love of colour and decoration, and is as flirtatious as the dance style itself. The men jump and stomp in displays of strength and stamina, while the women’s elegant twisting motions lift their skirts and showcase the strength and form of their legs and hips. The bells on the men’s boots reference the chains worn by slaves and indentured workers, in reference to the dance’s cultural roots.
The Caporales dance has become hugely popular over time, and is danced widely in Peru, with regional competitions leading up to a national dance title that is fiercely competitive and just a little Strictly Ballroom. Dance teams practice for months to choreograph and perfect their routines prior to performance. Well, normally, at least.
In unusual circumstances you get four lessons in a week to learn to dance Caporales before performing it the office-wide Talent Show put on to celebrate the anniversary of your Institution. In unusual circumstances, the foreign volunteer gets roped into joining the dance team and performing in that too-short skirt in front of all her colleagues. This is Peru. Things like this happen, and I just go along with it.
This is what living in another culture is about: grabbing hold of opportunities, putting yourself out there without fear of ridicule, trying new things, getting a better grip of the history and mythology of your host country, and having a good laugh about it all. And laugh we did, over the aching muscles from practising so many hours in one week, over the frustrations and the mistakes, over the ridiculous false eyelashes and too-small or too-big shoes.
Last Friday I got up on that stage in my tiny skirt laced up as tightly as possible; in my boots 2 sizes too big, stuffed with toilet paper (the girl’s shoes were all too small). My hair was beautifully braided by one colleague, my false eyelashes carefully applied by another, my nails painted purple by a third. Getting ready was a team effort and when we got up on stage for the performance our whole team cheering loudly for us. The six of us got up there, we gave it what we had and sure, we made a few mistakes, but dammit we did so well for a week of prep. I’m proud of us, and yeah, we had fun.
This is how you build cross-cultural bridges, grow community and grow yourself while living abroad. You share cultures, traditions, beliefs and laughter. You get up there and become “la Australiana Andina” and draw your two worlds a little closer together, through participating, by giving your all and by being willing to laugh at yourself. This is why you should embrace the crazy cross-cultural opportunities that come your way. This is why I danced the Caporales.
Huge thanks to Meylin Vasquez, who did a wonderful job of taking photos with my complicated camera. Te agradezco mucho Meylin!