After a life spent traveling through Peru and writing the massive five-volume history, El Peru, the 19th century Italian naturalist and explorer Antonio Raimondi was said to have believed that despite his lifetime of study, he didn’t even begin to know his adopted country of Peru.
Miguel Sanchez, president of the Peruvian dance and music company Asociación Cultural Kanchis, shared his wealth of knowledge about Peruvian culture with me recently, and I left our conversation understanding Raimondi’s dilemma. But over the course of our conversation I also learned how the diversity of Peruvian culture can be explored through dance.
Asociación Cultural Kanchis, which was formed 18 years ago, will be presenting a free performance as a part of the monthly Rotunda Dance Series at San Francisco City Hall on September 6. Like many of the Bay Area’s traditional and folkloric dance companies, the company was formed out of a desire by Bay Area immigrants to find ways to sustain their culture in their new home.
Sanchez tells me that when he came to the Bay Area from Peru he “wanted to hold on to my traditions. I met people who felt the same way I did; people who wanted to keep the country in our hearts. We started with the music, and then moved on to dancing.” (1)
That first group of artists consisted of only a handful of people who rehearsed near Sanchez’s home in Cupertino. As they expanded and people began traveling from as far away as Stockton and Modesto to participate, rehearsals were moved to Union City—with as many as 60 people. The current company consists of approximately 30 dancers plus a support team.
“Not everybody is Peruvian, but most of us are,” he tells me. He also has dancers who are Mexican, Ecuadorian and Guatemalan. “We’ve even had a guy from Israel and a lady from Japan.”
That a Peruvian dance company has multi-cultural makeup is appropriate. Peru is a notably diverse country that has been shaped by hundreds of years of immigration from both east and west, and the diversity of dance reflects the diversity of those immigration patterns.
Sanchez tells me that, “the cornerstone for culture in Peru is the Incan Empire at the arrival of the Spaniards…the Spaniards brought African slaves which led to an African- Peruvian culture. In the 20th century, there was also a lot of immigration from China, and Peru has the largest Asian community in South America.”
This pattern of immigration has led to a surprisingly varied number of dances for such a relatively small country. Sanchez tells me that while he isn’t sure, he is certain more than 2,000 different dances are practiced in Peru. These include indigenous dances whose lineage dates back to the Incas, the European dance forms that were brought by colonizers, the many different mestizo dances that are drawn from both European and Indigenous sources, and the Peruvian dance forms that are part of the African diaspora.
The most widely known dance from Peru is the Marinera, and in particular the Marinera Norteña, which is sometimes called the national dance of Peru, although the Marinera has several different variations across the different regions of Peru.
The Marinera Norteña is performed with a couple. The man dances with a wide-brimmed hat and a handkerchief, while the woman dances barefoot in a skirt. The couple dance around each other creating a dynamic sense of flow out of the sweeping motions of the skirt, the handkerchief and the hat.
“It requires some very sophisticated and complex step work. In the case of the men, they imitate the steps of the Peruvian step horse.” Sanchez continues to tell me that what’s notable about this dance is that “the men and the women try to show off in front of each other—it is not a romantic dance in the sense that the man is not trying to lure the woman. They are in a competition with each other.”
In Peru the Marinera Norteña is sometimes performed on a grassy field with the man on a Peruvian horse and the woman on the grass. Each year there are festivals that feature performances of the Marinera Norteña with the horse. (2)
But despite the Marinera Norteña’s popularity, not only is it one of thousands of Peruvian dances, it is only one of several forms of Marineras. Sanchez tells me, “there is also the Marinera Limeña which is the form of Marinera that is danced in the capitol region of Lima, which is more romantic, with the couple dancing close together,” as well as the Marinera Serrana and the Marinera Puneña.
I ask Sanchez to give me a preview of what his company will be presenting at the Rotunda Dance Series and he tells me they are expecting to present four separate pieces.
“We’ll have some children dancing the Marinera Norteña. Then we will do a Tondero—another dance from the coastal area that portrays the movements of roosters. The third will be Valicha from the Cusco area, which is a dance usually performed by shepherds in the countryside. Finally, we will present the dance of Ispacas, from the southern area of Peru—a dance that depicts farming activity.”
The dances will include people of different ages, including children, which is important to the company. “We want to show people that these are not academy dances. These are folk dances that young people, adults, and old people dance. This dance is part of the family tradition—everybody dances.”
That dance should be part of a family tradition is something Sanchez practices as well as preaches. He is originally from Cusco, the historic capital of the Incan Empire and closest city to Machu Picchu. At home he and his siblings were taught different traditional dances by their parents, and he continued to dance at school up through university where he was part of a folk dance company.
He grew up in an environment where it was “tradition for people to dance at every festivity and celebration, and the dance is passed to us by our parents and from us to our children and on to future generations.”
“I have two children. My son just graduated from university, and my daughter is still in school. They have both been dancing since they were little kids. My son stopped dancing when he was away at school but whenever there was a vacation or we had an event, he always came back to dance with us. It is nice for me.”
The experience Sanchez has shared with his children has also been shared by the other founders of the group and their children. The hope is that “they will continue to share the dance and the traditions with their own children. They were born here, but they have the same love for the traditions that we do.”
He is also excited to see a resurgence of interest in traditional Peruvian dance in Peru: “For a long time the traditions were hiding, buried under the influence of European cultural forms, but now a very dynamic younger generation has been recovering the dynamic mix of traditions.”
As he considers the state of traditional Peruvian dance forms he says that, “now it’s growing over there, and it’s growing over here.” There are many great Peruvian dance companies in the Bay Area, including De Rompe y Raja, an African-Peruvian dance company “who are good ambassadors of the African-Peruvian culture.”
“When I left Peru 30 years ago the amount of traditional dance you found in Lima was very limited. Now you can find it everywhere. Finally, I think the popular folkloric expressions are finding their place.”
1. Like music and dance, food is a wonderful opening to learning about culture and our conversation took an interesting tangent into the diversity of peruvian cuisine that left me hungry for Chifa, the Chinese-peruvian fusion cuisine.
2. Videos of the Marinera performed with the man on a horse can be found on youtube. Type “peruvian paso dance” in the search bar.
Asociación cultural Kanchis performs Fri, Sep 6, at noon in San Francisco’s City Hall Rotunda as part of the free Rotunda dance series, presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West. dancersgroup.org, worldartswest.org