Updated April 2nd, 2021.
The rich and vibrant traditions in South America have cemented its reputation as one of the world’s cultural hotspots. This melting pot of European, Carribean and Indigenous influences has resulted in the creation of some of the world’s best literature, music and art. Along with written forms of expression, the continent is also famous for its visual displays and traditional South American dances have long been at the core of Latin culture.
Traditional dance, also known collectively as baile folklórico, has evolved over the years and come to play an essential role in contemporary life. The dances of South America help to preserve ancient traditions and also reveal a lot about the people and history of each country.
If you are visiting South America in the future, do not miss the opportunity to witness these iconic dances first-hand. And if watching from the sidelines isn’t enough for you, we’ve also included recommended schools if you’re looking to learn some of the most popular Latin dance styles. No matter whether you want to sharpen your Salsa or smooth your Samba, you’ll find an expert here!
Top 10 South American Dances
1. Tango (Argentina)
The Argentine Tango is arguably the most passionate dance in the whole of South America. This partner dance is dramatic, intimate and highly sexually charged. In fact, when the dance began to spread internationally in the 1900s, it was deemed too inappropriate to display!
The tango is a lead and follow dance, which is traditionally led by the male partner in a time signature of 4/4. The couple are connected chest-to-chest, creating a close embrace. Over the years, the dance has evolved and there are now many different variations of it globally. However, the most famous of these is still the Argentine Tango.
Although some believe this dance originated from the Río de la Plata between Argentina and Uruguay, others think that this dance evolved in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires during the 1880s. In the early days, it was believed to be routinely performed in the bars located in working-class districts and even in brothels (probably due to its sensual nature).
Tango is a fusion of different cultures, taking influence from the dances of African slaves, local criollo populations and the European conquerors. Due to a joint effort from both Argentina and Uruguay, the dance has been declared part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
2. Los Caporales (Bolivia)
Originating from the Yungas region of La Paz, Los Caporales is the most famous dance in Bolivia. It requires a lot of practice to get right and as such, it is one of the most difficult of the Latin American dances to learn. It is a very active dance which includes a lot of jumping and leaping.
Los Caporales is believed to be directly influenced from the Saya dances of the Afro-Boliviano community and was first presented in 1969. The dance features the character of the ‘caporal’ who was the foreman of the black slaves in Potosí. The caporal is usually mixed-ethnicity, dressed in military style clothing and would also hold a whip. It was this character which inspired the dance as we know it today, created by the Estrada Pacheco brothers.
Some women may dance in the male role, however, it is more common to see them dancing separately in march style. They are usually scantily clad and as well as adorning boots and mini skirts, they also wear small bowler hats which are pinned to their hair.
The folklore dance has spread throughout South America and is also performed in Peru, Chile and Argentina. In 2011, Bolivia made the decision to get Los Caporales declared as Cultural and Intangible Heritage of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. This was done to preserve the national identity of the dance.
Best place to see Los Caporales dancing: Oruro Carnival in Bolivia. This annual celebration lasts 10 days and begins on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday. A bus journey from La Paz to Oruro takes around 4 hours.
3. Samba (Brazil)
This lively ballroom dance first evolved in Brazil before later becoming popularised in the United States and Western Europe. It features tilting body movements and backward steps and is danced to samba music in 4/4 time.
Samba has its roots in a number of African dances which were first seen in Angola and the Congo. The style first emerged in Brazil in Bahia, originally coined by the descendants of African slaves. They combined the percussion sounds of traditional African music with Latin American folk. The result was the earliest form of Samba.
As time has gone on, both samba music and dance have grown and it is now internationally renown. Unlike other Latin American dances, samba refers to a group of dances as opposed to an individual dance. There are numerous versions of it, with Brazilian Samba and Ballroom Samba being the most popular choices, although still very different from one another.
Best place to see Samba dancing: Rio de Janeiro Carnival. The samba parade is made up of flamboyant dancers, amazing floats, vibrant costumes and of course, that all important party vibe!
4. Cueca (Chile)
Officially declared Chile’s national dance in 1979, cueca is a dance of conquest and definitely the one to learn if you want to woo a partner. It starts with the traditionally dressed man (huaso) offering his arm to the female partner (china). As the vocals begin, the participants dance in circles around one another, waving handkerchiefs in the air.
This dance is said to be a parody of the courtship between the rooster and the hen. Cueca is built upon the idea that the huaso pursues the china until she eventually concedes and is seduced. This plays out in the form of loud stomping from the male party and is eventually seen in a flash of the thigh from the female. The handkerchief is said to represent the feathers of the bird.
It is widely theorised that cueca has its roots in the Peruvian dance zamacueca. The latter was an amalgamation of African, indigenous and Spanish influences which is believed to have spread throughout Bolivia before eventually reaching Chile, where it continued to develop.
The dance is most commonly seen in the Chilean countryside but is also regularly performed during national holidays.
Best place to see Cueca dancing: Any of the major cities during the multi-day Fiestas Patrias, the celebration of Chile’s independence.
5. Salsa (Cuba/Colombia)
Perhaps the most famous of all the dances mentioned here is salsa. This high energy partner dance incorporates a lot of hip twisting in a 4/4 time signature. There are usually two quick steps and a slow step, followed by a tap or pause. This makes it an easy dance in which to master the basics.
Although Cuba and Colombia are the countries most often associated with salsa, the dance actually originated in New York around the 1970s. Pioneered by the Cuban and Puerto Rican populations living in the city, salsa is a mix of already established dances including Cuban Son, mambo, American jazz and pachanga.
Sailors returning from New York brought the dance to Colombia’s soil and it caught on at a rapid pace, especially in working class areas. It wasn’t long till salsa clubs were commonplace all over the country!
Cali, also nicknamed the ‘Capital de la Salsa’, is one of the most famous spots for competitive salsa and also boasts the most salsa schools anywhere in the world. Salsa is so integral to the culture here that there is even a variation of the dance known as Cali-Style Salsa.
6. Pasillo (Ecuador)
Named after the musical genre of the same name, pasillo has become the dance most commonly associated with the country of Ecuador. Music historians think that pasillo first evolved from a mix of the Viennese waltz and the Spanish paso doble in the 19th century. Unlike other Latin American dances, the pasillo is slower in tempo, in a 3/4 time signature and melancholy in sound. Although the pasillo is widely recogniseable, its style and tone can vary from place to place.
Pasillo songs usually have themes of lost love, disillusionment and the yearning for old times. Sometimes the lyrics will reflect the beauty of women or the surrounding landscape.
The bravery of men is a common theme in pasillo music and dance and has become closely associated with the struggle for Ecuadorian independence. In early December, the Festival del Pasillo takes place in Quito. This celebration is held to commemorate the founding of the city. For visitors, this is a great way to see pasillo dancing up close.
Best place to see pasillo dancing: See the ‘rhythm of Ecuador’ first-hand in the country’s capital, Quito.
7. Marinera (Peru)
This wonderful courtship dance is a dazzling spectacle which should be witnessed by all visitors to Peru. In the dance, the male party is on a horse (in the popular Marinera Norteña variation), while the female dances alongside. They are both traditionally dressed and handkerchiefs are used as accessories.
It is believed that the marinera evolved from another famous Peruvian dance, the zamacueca. This dance was brought to the country in the 16th century by African slaves and also forms the basis of the Chilean Cueca. Over centuries it developed, encompassing Andean, Moorish and Gypsy influences. Until the war with Chile in 1879, the dance was referred to as the ‘Chilean’ but once the war was fought, it was rechristened the marinera to honour the efforts of Peru’s navy.
Although other South American dances such as the Tango are more overtly passionate, in the marinera the two parties never touch, heightening the sexual tension and longing between them. There are three main variations of the dance which are regional. There is the Marinera Limeña (from Lima), Marinera Norteña (from Trujillo) and Marinera Serrana (from the mountains in the south).
Best place to see marinera dancing: In Trujillo during the ‘Marinera Concurso’, a contest which is held in January or on October 7th on Marinera Day where there are dances and parades through the city streets.
8. Danza Paraguaya (Paraguay)
The national dance of Paraguay is a type of polka, invented in the 19th century. It differs from the traditional European polka because it uses both binary and ternary rhythms. The European only uses the former. This combination gives it a distinctive sound which makes it easy to identify.
This lively dance can be partnered or also performed by a group of women who are called ‘galoperas.’ The Spanish guitar and Paraguayan harp are traditionally used for the accompanying music.
Best place to see Danza Paraguaya: Take a tour from Paraguay’s capital Asunción for an evening of dance, accompanied by dinner.
9. Candombe (Uruguay)
Candombe is as integral to Uruguayan culture as drinking yerba mate. This famous folk dance originated in Paraguay, among the descendants of African slaves who had been brought to the country. This African inspired dance is remarkably complicated and the choreography includes energetic and dynamic rhythms along with step improvisation.
Candombe is also performed to a lesser extent in the neighbouring countries of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. The dance frequently makes appearances during January and Feburary’s carnival season.
Best place to see Candombe: During carnival season in Montevideo, the dance is performed in the streets.
10. Joropo (Venezuela)
Joropo became Venezuela’s national dance in 1882. The dance starts similarly to the waltz, with the couple tightly holding each other. They then make steps forward and backward before holding each other’s arms while the man stomps his feet in time with the music and the woman makes sweeping steps.
This lively and fast-paced couple dance somewhat resembles the fandango and has European, African and indigneous South American influences. Whilst it was traditionally danced by those living in the countryside, it’s longstanding popularity has caused its influence to widen to include the cities of Venezuela.
Joropo was named after the popular music genre of the same name and Hugo Chavez, the late President of Venezuela used the music at national events, to assert his patriotism. As such, many have argued that Joropo has become a politicised genre. Traditionally, harps, maracas and a type of Latin guitar are the only accompaniments.
Best place to see Joropo: On a Sunday afternoon in the centre of Caracas, the joropo is routinely danced by members of the public in the square.
Recommended Latin Dance Classes in South America
If you’re feeling inspired and want to start learning a few steps of your own, check out the following dance classes offered in different countries across South America. Unfortunately, some of the lesser known local dances don’t cater to English speakers!
Sondeluz School & Academy: Cali, Colombia
For salsa lovers who want to learn the craft in a friendly and welcoming environment, look no further than Sondeluz Academy in Cali. Prices are reasonable and many of the alumni have gone on to compete abroad.
Dancefree: Medellin, Colombia
Offering both free and paid salsa classes, Dancefree is a great option for those hoping to dip their toes before they commit to a longer, more advanced dance programme. There are group classes as well as one-to-one lessons.
Rio Samba Dancer: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
These dance classes are aimed at travellers looking to have a go at samba. As well as more traditional lessons, they also offer samba specific fitness classes and group classes which include a trip to a local nightclub! That’s our kind of class!
Escuela Mariposita: Buenos Aires, Argentina
This esteemed tango school is located in Buenos Aires’ San Telmo neighbourhood. Whether you’re a beginner hoping to master the basics or a pro who is looking to sharpen their moves, Mariposita has got you covered.
Do you have a great dance school in South America which you’d recommend to our readers? Let us know in the South America Backpacker community!
Header image credit: Alexander Christiaens