Panama, as well as many of its neighbours has a large tradition of dancing and singing. Panamanians like latin dances such as salsa, merengue or bachata but they also love their folklore. Let’s take a look at some of the most extended Panamanian dances.
The Tamborito is, no doubt about it, the king of folkloric dances. The word itself means “small drum”. It comes from a mix of Hispanic and African traditional dances. The rhythm is based on “Congos”, a folkloric dance from the Province of Colon that was introduced by the African slaves in the 16th Century.
The Tamborito is played with three small drums, one for the high tones, one for the low tones and a caja, another one for the rhythm. Depending on the region, it may also include a Spanish guitar, a violin and an almirez, a cooking mortar with Arabic origins that has become a percussion instrument.
There is usually one female lead singer followed by the rest of the women singing in the chorus and clapping. The lead singer, cantalante, may sing about life, work, feelings, etc. depending on the type of tamborito. The rest of the women will repeat the same chorus over and over creating a game of question-answer.
When dancing, every person wanting to participate creates a circle, men on one side and women on the other. Taking turns, one man and one woman will go into the center and dance with subtle movements of their hips and tiny steps. They may dance next to each other or face to face but never touching, the woman can invite him to come closer only to turn her back when he approaches her and keep dancing around the circle.
When another man or woman wants to enter the circle to dance, one of the dancers leaves. Also, if one of them gets tired, they may leave and somebody will take their place. Couples are always formed by one man and one woman.
As an anecdote, some musical experts think in the 17th century, the Tamborito was well known not only in Panama but also in Spain as it has been represented in some theatre plays of the time.
The same as the Tamborito, the Cumbia is a mix of Hispanic and African music and dances. It is known across Panama and, depending on the region, it may be fully African (played mostly with drums) or fully European (incorporating other instruments). It is not known when it was created, but it probably originates from Colonial times. Each region offers a different interpretation of the Cumbia, some including more Indian movements or rhythms.
The Cumbia is played with more instruments than the Tamborito, up to 16. The basic instrument is the drum and different kinds of drums are used to keep the rhythm, as well as other percussion instruments such as maracas, and a Spanish guitar keep the harmony. The other instruments usually played are the rebec, the violin, the accordion, the harmonica, the flute or the Western concert flute.
Regarding the dance, there are two possibilities, Cumbia suelta and Cumbia amanojá. Cumbia suelta is for group dances (they can be up to 40 people) in a circle, men dance in the center and women outside. Sometimes, women carry a candle in one of their hands. It is danced with tiny steps that produce a subtle movement of your hips and, not breaking the circle, when the music indicates so, they turn around themselves or with each other.
The Cumbia amanojá is danced holding your partner. It is said to have evolved from a version of the Cumbia created for the upper classes in the 19th century. It was adapted from the original Cumbia and some of the most provocative steps, as well as the lyrics, were corrected and more instruments were included, creating orchestras.
It is considered to be the most elegant and beautiful dance of the whole Isthmus. Its origins are completely Hispanic and it is danced by a couple formed by a man and a woman. As a contrast with the other traditional styles, it is not played for a whole party but as a break from the other dances, during which the dancers can show off their skills and encourage everyone to enjoy the moment.
The instruments used for playing the Punto are a rebec or a violin, a mejorana (an instrument similar to a guitar), a Spanish guitar, an accordion and three different kinds of drums, used for the rhythm and the melody.
Punto, unlike the tamborito or cumbia has a more detailed choreography and it is less likely to be improvised. It starts with the man putting one of his knees down to the floor and making the woman turn around him.
Afterwards, she will stand in front of him, he stands up and they separate from each other keeping the step while slowly turning around in circles facing each other. The step at this point is quiet and elegant, with delicate moves of their arms and feet. When the music indicates so, both dancers gather in the center and dance close to each other until the melody changes.