Updated: Apr 25, 2022
In 2018, the Afro Colombian dance company Sankofa performed at the Joyce theatre in New York City. The company showcases Afro Colombian dance and tells the stories of Afro Colombians through dance. After the performance there was a Q&A (Question and Answer) session with the dancers and head choreographer—Rafael Palacios. During the Q&A it was revealed that Colombia has the largest African population in Spanish speaking Latin America. How fascinating!
In Colombian media, there is often very little Afro Colombian representation, leaving the impression that the Afro Colombian population is small. Even in Colombian Reggaeton videos, a music genre started in Afro Latin communities, there is scant visibility/representation. From Maluma, to J Balvin, and on, these music videos present a single identity of Latino, one which is often void of black people, and lacking the true racial representation of the country.
About 2-3 years ago a noticeable shift started. As urban Afro dances gained traction in Latin America, and social media became a platform for dance, Afro Colombians became more visible on screens. Social media provided an alternative media outlet for Afro Colombians to share their culture and create supportive communities. Afro Colombians were on screens and suddenly out from the shadows of mainstream Latin (Colombian) media.
AfroConex collaborated with two Afro Colombian dancers to learn more about the rich history of African dance in Colombia. Yndira Perea and Camilo Perlaza, dancers of the Afro Colombia dance company Sankofa share with us their insights on Afro Dance in Colombia.
1. AFROCONEX: Yndira, Camilo thank you both for our most recent collaboration. The video is beautiful. Before we talk about the video, can you tell us a little about yourselves. Where are you from, how long you have been dancing and the style of dance you do.
YNDIRA: Thank you very much for the invitation to this beautiful and pertinent project that makes the various Afro-diasporic cultures visible.
I am an Afro-descendant woman born in Quibdó - Chocó located in northwestern Colombia; I have been dancing since I was 5 years old. I began my training in traditional dances from the Colombian North Pacific. I then moved to the city of Medellín to continue my professional studies where I was given the opportunity to learn other dance techniques such as: jazz, contemporary, classical ballet and Colombian folklore. Later I met the teacher Rafael Palacios, director of the Sankofa Corporation from whom I learned Afro-contemporary dance. I have been a dancer-interpreter of the Sankofa Corporation for 23 years. I now have my own dance company for 9 years called Wangari of which I am the director and choreographer.
CAMILO: I am William Camilo Perlaza, a professional dancer for the Afro-Colombian dance company Sankofa.I have been dancing since I was 5 years old.I am trained in the traditional dances of the Colombian South Pacific. I dance contemporary Afro dance and today urban rhythms such as Salsa Choke
2. AFROCONEX: In the video you capture beautifully Afro Colombian cultural movements. Can you share with us, what you consider are the main characteristics and essence of Afro Colombian dance?
YNDIRA: I consider it important to state that there is a great cultural richness and diversity in our Afro-Colombian territories. They have an African essence or matrix that connects with ancestry. I think it is the bridge that communicates and reaffirms that connection of our dances with the roots and the land. Afro-Colombian dances have their particular objectives that can become a dance that generates enjoyment, but also to perform rituals and offerings. These dances involve movements of the whole body that are always linked to the musical time.
CAMILO: In Afro-Colombian dances, all of them are characterized by telling the stories of the dances and the stories of the daily lives of Afro-Colombians. Through these stories it is possible to maintain the culture from generation to generation.
3. AFROCONEX: During the Sankofa Q&A (after the Joyce Theatre performance) Afro Colombian culture was categorized into 2 distinct cultures—The Afro Colombian culture of the Caribbean coast—covering areas like Cartagena and Barranquilla, and Afro Colombian Culture of the Pacific Coast, covering areas like Choco and Cali. How would you describe the difference in culture between the two coastal regions?
YNDIRA: Although there is a connection that historically runs through us, I think there is a mixture of indigenous, Spanish, and African culture from which differences can come in addition to the geographical location of the territory. The cultural difference between these two coasts or regions lies in their customs, and their marked accent. In music there are different instruments in each place that give a special sound that identifies them, as well as their dances.
CAMILO: In Colombia we differentiate the regions by their "musical rhythms"
In the same way that respective festivals are held celebrating the patron saint, there are festivities where the types of dances and music that are practiced in the region, town or city are made known.
4. AFROCONEX: Is there a difference in the dance culture/styles between the 2 coastal Regions?
YNDIRA: The dances of these coastal regions have their origin with the colonization that brings with it the slave trade. There are different dance codes in each one and although they contain an African matrix, the difference is given by the cultural characteristics of each region, as I said in the previous question.
CAMILO: I think there is no great difference because in both our regions the traditional dances that we do arise from our histories of when we were enslaved. We have similarities in some dances/movements, such as the Requintilla that is from Tumaco-the South Pacific, and the Mapale that is from the Caribbean region.
5. AFROCONEX: You both hail from the Pacific Coast of Colombia but reside in the Medellin Region. Many of our readers are unfamiliar with the Pacific Coast of Colombia. How would you describe the Pacific Coast and what do you want people to know about it?
YNDIRA: The Colombian Pacific is located to the west of the country, it is a beautiful region that has a great biogeographic wealth (fauna, flora). It has the second rainiest place in the world which is Tutunendo located in Quibdó and that is largely due to the humidity of the territory. It has one of the deepest bays in the world which is Bahía Solano. It has the main maritime port of the country in Buenaventura; they have an enormous cultural diversity; its people are cheerful, hospitable and friendly. There are festivities where you can experience the various cultural events. Above all, I am interested in knowing that, although it has been a looted and forgotten territory, the population continues to resist until it achieves the much desired social equity.
CAMILO: The Food is amazing! in the North Pacific as well as in the South Pacific we have many typical dishes and traditional drinks that represent our culture. We have many rivers, a whole peaceful sea that surrounds us and a jungle that fills us with a lot of culture.
6. AFROCONEX: One of the things that stands out in Colombian dance, whether it is Salsa or Champeta, is the footwork. Colombian salsa has this crazy fast footwork and Champeta as well. Is the footwork an evolution of African dance influences? What explains the focus on the feet in Colombian dancing?
YNDIRA: I do feel that the movement of the feet in the dances of the Afro-Colombian regions has an African root that evolves over time depending on the creative needs of each place. There is a traditional dance called Zaouli in the center of Ivory Coast. It has a rapid movement of feet that gives the appearance that the dancer is floating. It reminds me of the agile movements of feet that are performed in Colombia. Also, the stomping of the traditional dances of Burkina Faso, where we had the opportunity to study for three months at EDIT school, reminds me of the agility of Colombian footwork. As I have said before, our roots allow us to have an approach with the ancestral that derives in multiple manifestations. In this case the agility, sound, creativity in the movements of the feet that in each dance or dance will have their own meaning.
CAMILO: Well, in my personal opinion, having the privilege of seeing Africa, I see that we have many similar movements of our traditional Afro-Colombian dances with traditional African dances. This allows me to identify more with our ancestors.
7. AFROCONEX: Can you share with us the names of a few Afro Colombian dances?
YNDIRA/CAMILO: In the North Pacific we have traditional dances such as: Jota Chocoana, Abozao, Danza, Contradanza, Tamborito, Pilón, Mazurca, Juga, among others. In the South Pacific we have traditional dances such as: Currulao, Caderona, Patacoré, Requintilla, Old Bambuco, Los Negritos, among others. Check out also: Fundación escuela folclórica del pacifico sur tumaco (South Pacific Folk School Foundation Tumaco)
As for urban dances, there are: Paso e ’Perra, Salsa Choke, exotic dance, all of these are being developed by young people from the region that allow them to create other new languages that start from everyday life
8. AFROCONEX: How is Afro Colombian dance culture being preserved in Colombia ? And where does one go to see, and or learn these dances if they visit Medellin/Colombia ?
YNDIRA/CAMILO: There is a struggle to preserve our culture and tradition. One of the most important strategies is to be able to transmit knowledge from generation to generation by creating spaces for the training and strengthening of this knowledge, and making reflections on why it is important to preserve this ancestral knowledge that, although they are transforming over time, they continue to retain their essence. It has been important to generate dialogues with cultural institutions to generate strategies for the visibility, recognition and respect for Afro-Colombian culture.
In the city of Medellín there are various groups or companies of traditional dances that you could attend to learn about or study, one of those is the Sankofa Corporation or the Wangari Company, which have a strong base in traditional dances from the Colombian Pacific and urban dances.
9. AFROCONEX: And how can people both inside and outside Colombia help to support Afro-Colombian culture?
YNDIRA/CAMILO: Well, I think that it can be helped in many ways. One can be with the donation of a space (our own) where we can develop our artistic activity and have the school we dream of so much. Hiring our services with a good payment of course. Making the work visible for future contracts nationally and internationally ... among thousands more
I think that at this very difficult time we need to have many contracts so that the entire work team can have a fixed income. Having our own space and in very good condition is still our dream.
10. AFROCONEX: What role does dance play in your life, either professionally or socially/personally?
YNDIRA: I assume myself as a woman who lives with and for dance, becoming a guide for the transmission of knowledge in traditional dance of the North Pacific and Afro-contemporary dance. Dance has become my life project, it is the place from where I enunciate myself as a woman - Afro-descendant - dancer - Chocoana, from there I allow myself to create spaces for research, training, and creation in Afro dance. But they also become spaces for healthy coexistence and deep reflection about what Afro-descendants experience in the country. The creations that I make have an important political content from where we denounce nonconformities that seek to bother and transform collective imaginations about the Afro community with anti-hegemonic body movements in a society that oppresses, racialize, and segregates. Dance is Revolution!
CAMILO: Dance is my life project. It has given me a livelihood to support my family. It allows me to share knowledge with boys and girls in training processes through projects with the Sankofa corporation and the city hall of Medellin. I am able to remind boys and girls who have lived in the city from a very young age of their culture, so that they do not forget their roots.
10. AFROCONEX: When AfroConex asked to collaborate, it was interesting when you asked if we wanted Afro traditional dance or Afro urban dance. Do you see any connection between the two?
YNIDRA: Well, my question was more to understand and confirm what you wanted as a proposal. Since we do not speak the same language I could have been misinterpreting what you were asking.
Of course, if I see a connection between these two dance lines, because I consider traditional dances to be the support, the root, of who we are. Urban dances are also inspired by traditional dance, and use some of its codes to create in the contemporaneity, logically uses manifestations of everyday life that makes it interesting, reflective and very powerful.
CAMILO: Of course, some of the urban movements arise from traditional movements. I see a connection between the two. Traditional dances, they nurture us to reach other types of movements in a more effective way.
11. AFROCONEX: The interview opened with commentary that Colombian media, whether it’s Netflix shows or music videos from top Colombian artists, you often do not see Afro Colombians represented on screen. How has this affected you not seeing people like yourself on screen representing Colombia?
YNDIRA: This seems to me to be a very important and pertinent issue to address because, without a doubt, people of African descent have a historical burden that has oppressed us and made our contributions to the construction of the country invisible. We are not recognized and we are denied the possibility of entering spaces of power to make important changes and advocacy.
Not seeing us or not narrating us is like not existing, we call this ¨Representativity¨, it is important to have your own references that promote your development as an artist. In this case I did not have the opportunity to see many references on television that inspired me. My grandmother inspired me at the time. I have been a very stubborn and disobedient woman, and I believe that is what gave me the strength and courage to continue on the path of dance as a world from which a transformation of mind and body can be achieved that allows us a more just and equitable country. This is why it seems important to me to generate our own projects, work in community and make our proposals visible so that new generations know that there are professions such as dance and that it is possible to live from it.
It also seems important to me to be able to narrate ourselves in different ways both from the practical and from the theoretical, to systematize everything we do as artists and thus leave a seed for those who arrive.
CAMILO: I see it more as something bureaucratic. We work in one of the best Afro dance company in Colombia and sometimes we are overlooked for large projects, this contributes to the feeling of being invisible. The people who manage these projects are the people who have power and therefore select those who are already in their circle for these projects.
12. AFROCONEX: What are your thoughts on the urban Afro dances that have become very popular throughout Latin America ?
YNDIRA: I think it is very good that these dances are made visible and welcomed. What I do not agree with is that they appropriate them and ignore their roots. It is very common to see how they appropriate our own knowledge and take it to other settings, be it artistic or academic, to speak for us, when Afro communities do not need to be spoken for. They need to be recognized as persons subject to rights and their own voice who contribute to the construction of the country. If we educate based on respect for the other, everything will be much better.
CAMILO: I believe that everything has its moment and well this is the moment where we have taken a very important role in making our culture known from the urban movement.
13. AFROCONEX: It's impressive the reach of Urban Afro dance. It has penetrated to all types of people. Do you feel that urban Afro dance has played any role in greater visibility for Afro Colombians ?
YNDIRA: What I think is that there is an energy that moves us and young people (the new generations) come with an unconditional force in their bodies that require dances that go in the same way. This does not mean that traditional dances are left aside, there is simply an affinity with the new sounds, the new languages.
CAMILO: Yes, we have been feeding on African rhythms such as the Coupe Decale and Afro Beats, that has allowed us to make a leap in the industry and visibility for us Afro-Colombians that in such a way gives us the opportunity to show our urban dances.
14. AFROCONEX: Both of you are Sankofa dancers, what is it like dancing for the company ?
YNDIRA: It is a very valuable experience that has allowed me to reach great stages in the world in countries such as: France, Spain, Jamaica, Africa, the United States, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Panama and China. Sankofa is a space where I have expanded my knowledge and it has taught me to have a more critical view of what happens in society. From here concerns arise, questions that I then narrate from my body, that has been seen in an erotic and exotic way. But it has been strengthened to create rebellious movements that go in opposition to what is imposed by the system.
This has been a place where I am put on stage with dignity, where my knowledge and proposals are valued and can contribute to the growth and strengthening of the Corporation.
CAMILO: Sankofa allows us to speak through dance. It allows us to tell our stories through dance. It gives us a voice. It gives us the ability to make it known to our country and the world that our stories matter. As a Sankofa dancer, every day I work towards a much deeper Self-recognition through art, (dance). I reflect more on our struggles, the struggle to make ourselves look mestizo or white, since on so many occasions we have been oppressed by our skin color. In Sankofa, dance and music give us freedom to exist before whites and mestizos without having to say a word.
15. AFROCONEX: Where do you find inspiration to continue creating/evolving your dance?
YNDIRA: I find inspiration in many things but I believe that right now there is a lot of strength in my sister women because of the struggles that we must fight on a daily basis. I find inspiration in the colors, smells and flavors of the Colombian Pacific; in the struggles of existence and re-existence.
CAMILO: In the sounds of the bodies when they are played live. When we are in creation working on a new subject, new ideas arise and movements are explored. It is in these moments I find inspiration.
16. AFROCONEX: What role does spirituality and faith play in your dance, and your creative process?
YNDIRA: Dance becomes that place that allows me to liberate and heal. When I dance it is as if I bless my body and my being to calm down and maintain the hope that everything will be better.
On a creative level, I feel that the moments when there are emotional charges should be taken advantage of. Because they throw important elements for the construction of choreographic pieces that are also going to be narrated and interpreted in the most honest way that exists. I have lived it at various times in my life and they are the most significant pieces for me so far.
CAMILO: Spirituality and faith provides me with security, trust, understanding and peace of mind.
17. AFROCONEX: How is dance viewed in Colombia? Meaning is dance viewed as a reputable career choice? Can a dancer make an acceptable living?
YNDIRA: It is not easy to be a dancer in this country because dance is not seen as a dignified profession. Many consider it a hobby, others just stereotype and devalue what for us is an important profession that has undoubtedly managed to transform and save lives. I am a dancer and I live by dance. I have clung to it and I have respected it, and although it has not been easy, I can proudly say that everything I have has been given to me by dance.
CAMILO: In some parts of the country dance is seen as a joy, something to distract themselves because they like to dance. In other parts it is seen as a profession, a job. Etc. For the effort, the daily dedication, the sacrifice. Etc. To be a good professional dancer you must train every day at a demanding pace to obtain a good professional level.
18. AFROCONEX: Many of our readers may not be familiar with Afro Colombian music. Are there any artists we should check out to get a sample of the different Afro Colombian sounds?
YNDIRA: There are a lot of artists that I could recommend such as: Plu con Pla, Chocquibtown, Explosión Negra, Alexis Play, Dino Manuel, Herencia de Timbiquí, Mr Black, Grupo Niche, Orquesta Guayacán, among many others.
CAMILO: I recommend many of the same, including Juan Jose Luna Coha.
19. AFROCONEX: Where do you see Afro Colombia dance heading in the future?
YNDIRA: I see Afro-Colombian dance in an ascending way, with powerful, reflective proposals that point to a true and longed for, social transformation. I see it as a worthy representation of our territories, valued and respected.
CAMILO: I want Afro Colombian dance to be seen by the whole world and we are already doing it through the Sankofa corporation.
Some dances referenced in the blog:
Abozao: North Pacific, Colombia
Tamborito: North Pacific, Colombia
Patacoré: South Pacific, Colombia
Currulao: South Pacific, Colombia