Just as music is the heartbeat of the country, so dance conveys the rich and ancient heritage that typifies much of the national spirit. Bolivians are tireless dancers and dancing is the most popular form of entertainment. Unsuspecting travellers should note that once they make that first wavering step there will be no respite until they collapse from exhaustion.

Organized group dances

are organized groups of dancers who perform dances following a set pattern of movements to a particular musical accompaniment, wearing a specific costume. These dances have a long tradition and some of them still parody the ex-Spanish colonial masters. The most famous
are those from the Oruro carnival .

Another notable
is the comical
Auqui Auqui
is Aymara for old man). The dance satirizes the solemnity and pomposity of Spanish gentlemen from the colonial period. The dancers' dignified dress and manners make them appear old, and a humped back is added to emphasize age. These little old men have long pointed noses, flowing beards and carry crooked walking sticks. They dance stooped, regularly pausing to complain and rub aching backs, at times even stumbling and falling, to the accompaniment of

A number of dances replicate hunting scenes, the origins of which are thought to lie in the
, the great annual Inca hunt which involved 20,000-30,000 people forming a huge circle and then closing in until the animals could be caught by hand. The main protagonist in most of the hunting dances is the
, a mischievous character, half monkey half devil. He wears a bright costume, a horned crown and carries a whip, tambourine or
. The
dance, or vicuña hunt, often involves the
carrying a stuffed vicuña while being chased by an old man representing the
or spirit of the mountains. When the
is caught, an old woman, the spirit of the earth, beheads the vicuña and the body is then carried off by a condor.

In the Wititis the
carries a live partridge, singing out in imitation of the bird. He is accompanied by men dressed as young women and condors. Other dancers try to lasso the fleeing partridge but often hook the young women instead. In the
, or fox hunt, the
carries a stuffed fox and chases the women relentlessly, mimicking the Spaniards' pursuit of native women.

Dances for everyone

Many dances for couples and/or groups are danced spontaneously at fiestas throughout Bolivia. These include indigenous dances which have originated in a specific region and ballroom dances that reflect the Spanish influence.

One of the most popular of the indigenous dances is the
which originated on the Altiplano but is now danced throughout the country. It involves numerous couples, who whirl around or advance down the street, arm-in-arm, in a
. During fiestas, and especially after a few drinks, this can develop into a kind of uncontrolled frenzy.

Similar to the
is the
from the Beni and Santa Cruz regions. The
originated from tribal dances, as did the
, another folkloric dance from the lowlands. The
is a dance from Tarija which is performed at religious festivals such as Christmas and Easter. The name derives from the word
, a person from Tarija. The dance is accompanied by typical Tarijan instruments . There are countless other indigenous dances, far too many to list here.

Of the ballroom dances, the
is perhaps the best known. The Bolivian
is a close relative of the Chilean national dance of the same name and they share a mutual origin in the
, itself derived from the Spanish fandango. Today the
is very representative of Bolivia, as typical of this country as the Tango is of Argentina. Similar to the
is the
Bailecito Chuquisaqueño
, though it is more delicate, without the emphasis on provocative mannerisms. Other regional dances include the
Khaluyo Cochabambino
Rueda Tarijeña
from the southeast and
Carnavalito Cruceño
Taquirari Beniano
from the tropical lowlands.

Outside of the fiestas, the most popular dances are not of Bolivian origin: salsa, merengue, Caribbean soca, Brazilian samba and Columbian cumbia. Salsa dancing should probably not be attempted by anyone unfamiliar with the basic steps or unable to wiggle their hips in time to the beat. If you really must attempt this, then make sure enough alcohol has been consumed to render you unaware of the fact that you are the laughing stock of the entire dance floor. Merengue, soca and samba are just about viable, given a crowded dance floor and very understanding partner.

, on the other hand, is a cinch. It was originally invented by black slaves as a means of moving more easily while shackled together. All you need to do is shuffle around a bit, dragging one leg behind the other, occasionally performing a clumsy spin, rather in the manner of a drunken sales rep at a Friday night disco.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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