Seduced by La Marinera, Peru’s National Dance
By Mike Gasparovic
Head bowed, the man doffs his straw hat to the lady as he escorts her to the dance floor, to a thrum of syncopated drum rolls. He is courtly, dressed in all black. A lingering, coquettish glance. A pause. Suddenly the man’s feet explode into motion, sweeping into a wide, graceful arc while tapping out a complex, virtuosic zapateo that threatens to become a blur of flying steps. The couple is now approaching each other, their elbows are locked, they’re about to embrace, but at the last second she breaks away, smiling and lifting her gown’s ornate sweep train to expose her bare feet, her upraised hand provocatively twirling a handkerchief in coy triumph.
Approach, avoid: the dance of seduction is on.
That polarity of magnetic male attraction and sudden female flight is central to la marinera, Peru’s unofficial national dance, and one of the most jaw-dropping, flat-out exhilarating spectacles you will ever have the privilege of witnessing in Latin America. It’s elegant and sassy and graceful and witty and romantic and very very sexy. It’s also a huge source of cultural pride—deservedly—for Peruvians, who are fanatics when it comes to their criollo heritage.
This means that when you’re in Lima or its northern sister Trujillo, you absolutely positively must make space in your itinerary to see it.
Here’s a short primer to get your feet (and pulse) moving.
A Creole Fusion
Historians today agree that like everything in Peru, la marinera is a mishmash, a lively fusion of cultural influences that dates back more than 500 years. The problem is, nobody knows for sure which influences those are.
Some academics and their partisans (debates about the marinera can get fierce) emphasize the dance’s indigenous roots, maintaining that an early version dates from pre-Inca times. The evidence? Certain Peruvian huacas or sacred sites have engravings of locals dancing with what look to be handkerchiefs, a crucial prop for modern marineros.
Other scholars, meanwhile, emphasize the admixture of Spanish and African elements that occurred when the conquistadors arrived with their slaves during the 1500s. This mix gave rise to the cultural hybridism today’s Peruvians celebrate under the name of criollismo.
Whatever the dance’s distant roots, it seems clear that the contemporary marinera had as its immediate ancestor the zambacueca or zamacueca, a coastal dance that was later exported to modern-day Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela. This tradition, also called the mozamala due to the zeal on the part of colonial males for dancing it with mozas malas or lower-class girls, was frowned upon as indecent by the arbiters of public morality. After Peru’s independence, however, it got rehabilitated. What before was a vulgar cosa of the tavern became an elegant fashion of the salon.
A Ballet of Love
Quibbling apart, what everyone agrees upon is that the modern marinera was born in the 1880s. Earlier in the century, the dance had been known to many as la chilena, owing to the fame of some of its Chilean practitioners. But after that country’s trouncing of Peru in the War of the Pacific in 1883, nationalistic sentiment prompted the composer Abelardo Gamarra to rename it la marinera, in honor of Peru’s valiant navy. (In 1893, Gamarra would go on to pen what remains the most famous marinera to date, “La conchaperla” or “the pearl shell.”)
From there the dance’s playful, energetic sensuality exploded. For like the Argentine tango or the Viennese waltz or the American twist, la marinera is a stylized reenactment of the eternal ballet between man and woman—one that’s typically Peruvian in its aristocratic gallantry and roguish humor.
This dalliance a deux comes in different regional flavors. For many, that of the northern city of Trujillo is the most picante. Declared the official marinera capital by Peru’s congress and host every January to the country’s largest dance competition, the town touts its marinera norteña as the fastest, most dazzling interpretation of the spectacle. It was in Trujillo that female dancers started the whole tradition of going barefoot—some even pride themselves on being able to put out cigarettes on their callused soles.
Not to be upstaged, Lima and the Andean sierra also have their own marinera varieties, which are generally slower and more elegant. There’s even a version in which the dancers go on horseback, riding Peru’s famous caballos de paso. All these variants, however, share something fundamental: the passion born of Peru’s motley, multiracial history.
Víctor Calderón, a great marinero who’s dedicated 40 years to his art, sums it up: “La marinera is an expression of the soul, of falling in love.”
Places to See la marinera:
Brisas del Titicaca
Heroes de Tarapacá 168, Breña
Bolognesi 292, Barranco
Academias de Marinera Tradición y Sentimiento
Caminos del Inca 3202
Asociación de Criadores y Propietarios de Caballos Peruanos de Paso
Via de Evitamiento km. 569, Buenos Aires
Restaurante El Sombrero
El Mansiche 267
Mike Gasparovic is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. He devotes his free time to studying the history, art, and literature of the Spanish-speaking world and learning about its people. He currently lives in Lima. He currently lives in Lima and wrote this article on behalf of Aracari Travel, specialists in providing the best in cultural experiences all over Peru.
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