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What Is the Traditional Dance of Panama?

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 Dance is an expression deeply rooted in a culture’s essence. Traditional dances take delight in movements in expressing a culture’s ideas and emotions and releasing energy. A traditional dance is often accompanied by lively music, instruments of cultural significance, and colorful wardrobes, to further enhance its impact and meaning.

It has been said that a Panamanian will sometimes begin to sway their hips and hum while standing in line, and it is no wonder, Panama is a country rich in traditional music and dances. Panama's traditional dances have been influenced by various cultural elements since its founding.

El Tamborito is widely recognized as the most famous of all the traditional dances in Panama. This dance gets its name from the Spanish term for small drum, which gives an insight into the rhythmic and lively nature of the dance. The dance is known for its cultural significance and dramatic flair, making it a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. Alongside El Tamborito, Panama has other traditional dances like Cumbia and El Punto, each with their unique style and identity. These dances are an integral part of Panama's cultural heritage, reflecting the country's rich history and diverse influences. Each has its unique cultural influences, ranging from Spanish, Caribbean, African, and European blends, harmonized into rhythmic beats enjoyed throughout the centuries.

Let’s settle in and explore these traditional dances, and what makes each unique!




Tamborito, The Small Drum

One of the most mesmerizing cultural practices in Panama is the music and dance associated with El Tamborito. This dance is a fusion of traditional Hispanic and African dances, and its rhythm is primarily based on a folkloric dance called Congos, which originated from the Province of Colon and was brought to Panama by African slaves. The unique blend of cultures and influences has resulted in a hypnotic and captivating performance that reflects the country's diverse cultural heritage. El Tamborito has become an essential aspect of Panama's artistic and cultural identity, and it continues to attract both locals and tourists to its rhythmic and energetic performances. El Tamborito’s music and dance dates back as early as the 17th century and has become the national dance of Panama.


Usually, a group of men out in a public space or public square, break out in music and sound their drums in rhythm to the traditional beat. As the beat continues, a woman will come and sing a central theme and her interpretations of the rhythm, usually having to do with life and feelings, while other women chant along to the chorus and clap their hands. The chorus is the same chorus repeated over and over again, usually a sentence long, creating a game of question and answer. After the dance, usually, everyone will share a swig or glass of their favorite liquor.

As they move to the beat, participants in the traditional dance will create a circle, with men and women taking turns to step into the center. In this dance, both genders sway their hips and move their feet subtly without ever making physical contact. The dance is a coy interpretation of cat and mouse chase, where the woman sways her hips provocatively and hints for the man to come closer, only to then abruptly turn her back and return to her circling solo dance. During the dance, the woman is to not smile, as it would imply the man’s chase is effective and she finds him alluring. The key to this dance, however, is to maintain intense eye contact between the couple.

 El Tamborito, as the name suggests, is played using three African styled small drums, one for the rhythm, one for the high notes, and one for the low notes. El Tamborito’s beat is accompanied by the clapping of hands, creating a hypnotic rhythm. Depending on the region, the instruments may also include a violin and a Spanish guitar, accentuating the Spanish influence over the region.

Cumbia

As it relates to Panama, Cumbia music and dance is heavily influenced by varying cultures over the last several centuries. Indigenous tribes of Panama and both African and European influences penetrate the sounds of Cumbia, creating a well-blended culmination of traditions.


Depending on the region of Panama, Cumbia music can sound fully African, incorporating only hypnotic drum beats, or fully European by incorporating other instruments. In the colonial era, slaves in Panama sang Cumbia songs in both Spanish and African dialects, accompanied only by drums, and later, Spanish influence brought about the introduction of the Mejorana and Rabel guitars. Each Panamanian region offers a slightly different version of not only the sounds but the dance interpretation as well.

Regarding the Cumbia dance, Cumbia ‘suelta’, or loose, is used for a group setting, largely in birthday parties and local festivities. In Cumbia suelta, men and women form a circle, and men take turns dancing in the center while the women stay in the outside. Everyone dances swaying their hips and moving their feet subtlety.

Cumbia amanojá is a little more progressive in both dance, music, and lyrical content, than its more traditional and formal counterpart, seulta. The Cumbia amanojá is a couple’s dance, danced while holding your partner. Violin, accordion, and sometimes the harmonica are usually the main instruments accompanying the dance.

El Punto Panameño

The El Punto Panameño depicts a love story expressed by the choreography of the dance. The courtship of a man towards the woman is displayed, as the man is attempting to win over the object of his affection’s heart, by his display of elegant steps and difficult footwork. His gestures and choreography are meant to be pleasing to her, who in the end accepts his overtures of love and romanticism. Love wins!

The composition of the music is created specifically for the purpose of dance, and usually only performed by a single couple. The dance is broken up into 4 major segments: El Paseo (the walk), El Zapateo (shoe tapping), El Escobillao (the sweep), and El Seguidilla (the follow).

The choreography is orchestrated in such a way to display elegance, skill, and grace. Unlike its other counterparts, El Tamborito or Panamanian Cumbia, the dance is performed during an intermission between other group dances at an event or party.

Folk Wear Pieces

Accompanying such elegant and graceful musical and dance tradition comes very traditional dress attire, also demonstrative of the cultural influences experienced throughout the centuries. The traditional Pollera dress is a source of great pride for Panamanian women. This dress has been an integral part of Panamanian culture since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors during the colonization of the Americas. Even today, the Pollera dress continues to hold significant cultural and social value, and its cost can range up to several thousand dollars. This elaborate and elegant dress is a symbol of Panama's rich cultural heritage, and it represents the skill and craftsmanship of Panamanian artisans who create these unique and beautiful garments.


Further adorning her attire, a very special and traditional headwear piece, Tembleque, is worn by Panamanian women during traditional dances and performances. Neckwear jewelry and pieces, called Peinetas, to complete the folk attire are made of gold and pearls, and the price can exceed the upwards of $15,000 USD.

In addition, Panamanian women traditionally wear several golden chains and ornaments necessary to complete the traditional look of the Pollera. With all its complexities, a single Pollera can take in the upwards of one year to create! Generally, the gold and pearl decorations are passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms.

To complete the look, Panamanian women also decorate their hair with tortoiseshell combs, pearl flowers, gold pins resembling a dagger, and several hanging accessories or “ducktails.” One in full folklore attire, a Panamanian woman is ready for her dances!

What about the men? The men’s dress attire is much more simplistic, as they represent farmers in the countryside. Men wear a long-sleeved collar shirt, usually white, and dark chino pants. In order to draw attention to their skilled footwork while dancing, men will wear two-toned shoes. The most important accessory to the man, however, is his montuno, or straw hat. This accessory is used while dancing, to court the lady.

Traditional Panamanian Dance in National Festivals, Parades, and City Venues 

Panama's traditional dances, such as El Tamborito, Cumbia, and El Punto, are a prominent feature of the country's festivals and events. These dances can be witnessed at a variety of occasions, ranging from birthday parties and school dances to national festivals and parades. They play an essential role in Panama's cultural identity and heritage, and their presence at public events highlights their significance in the country's social fabric. These traditional dances are not only a means of entertainment but also a way of expressing Panama's unique cultural blend and diversity.


The Festival of Coffee and Flowers held annually in Boquete is a great venue to see what the dances are all about! Traditional dance performances can also be seen as a formal performance in Panamanian restaurants. The Restaurante Tinajas, located in Panama City, offers a delightful performance out in their patio with rave reviews! Often, show organizers will also take the time to explain the different traditional attire and their meaning. Performances can also be seen throughout various plazas in Panama. The Cathedral Plaza in the old town of El Casco Viejo in Panama City is such a location. Locals and tourists alike gather here for delightful displays of Panamanian dance!

If you feel you are ready to explore the beautiful elegance of Panamanian traditional dance, not to worry. Dance schools throughout the country are more than willing to impart their folklore dance knowledge and help you get on your feet. The Escuela Nacional De Danzas located in Ancón, a suburb of Panama City, specializes in Panamanian traditional dances, folklore dances, among others. Flamenco Panama, located in the heart of Panama City, will also cater to your dance needs! The Escuela de Folklore de San Miguelito, located in San Miguelito city in Panama, offers classes for those wanting to dive further into traditional dance and folklore of Panama.

Panamanian Dance and Music Evolution

Many cultures have influenced Panama throughout the centuries. In Panama’s national dance, El Tamborito, we see influences from the Spanish, Caribbean, and African cultures, all blended so well to create a unique sound and dance!


In Cumbia, we originally see African and European instrumental influences, however, we witnessed the influence of Spanish culture with the introduction of various types of guitar, Mejorana, and Rabel. As cultures blend and mix, so do the music and dance styles. We are witnessing this blend in the dance of the Cumbia amanojá, who’s dance style and lyrics have become more progressive than its more traditional counterpart, Cumbia suelta. We can also see these cultural influences in traditional dance attire evolve over the centuries.

The Pollera dresses have become lavish and exquisite, implementing both African and Spanish styles into their designs. Traditional headwear pieces, Tembleque, and traditional neckwear pieces, Peinetas, have accumulated cultural influences throughout the generations, and have in their own right, become family heirlooms passed down from generation to generation.

Let’s Dance!

Whether it is among friends or family (or standing in line), Panamanians love to gather and dance! The rhythmic sounds inevitably lead a Panamanian to sway and hum whenever, wherever. One can expect spectacular traditional performances in national parades and festivals, where a glimpse of Pollera dresses, Peinetas, and Tembleque pieces will be in full swing.

Conclusion 

 In conclusion, traditional Panamanian dances, such as El Tamborito, Cumbia, and El Punto, serve as vibrant expressions of the country's rich cultural heritage. These dances, accompanied by lively music and colorful attire, reflect a blend of influences from Spanish, African, Caribbean, and European traditions.

El Tamborito, with its rhythmic fusion of Hispanic and African roots, stands out as Panama's national dance, captivating audiences with its dramatic flair and hypnotic beats. Cumbia, influenced by indigenous tribes and diverse cultural elements, offers variations in music and dance styles across different regions of Panama. Meanwhile, El Punto Panameño portrays a romantic courtship through elegant choreography and music composition. 

Adorned in elaborate Pollera dresses and traditional accessories like Tembleque and Peinetas, Panamanian dancers showcase the country's craftsmanship and cultural pride. These traditional dances play a central role in national festivals, parades, and social gatherings, inviting both locals and tourists to experience the beauty and rhythm of Panama's cultural traditions. Through dance and music, Panamanians celebrate their identity and heritage, fostering a sense of community and joyous camaraderie.

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