Here in the walled city, dance is a way of life. It is a language of its own. There are more flavors and styles than I knew were possible (not that I can distinguish many of them, yet). It’s not unusual to see people dancing in the street in the evenings, or on a sidewalk by the bay, as was my case when I learned how to dance merengue this weekend.
Colombians are born dancing. There’s no other way to explain the way they move. It’s in their blood, and it makes me feel so darn un-cool in comparison. Never was this more true than this past weekend, when I attended a quinceañera in one of the barrios of Cartagena.
For those who don’t know, a quinceañera is a celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday which is popular in Latin American cultures, similar to the Sweet Sixteen in the United States. This particular quinceañera did not fit my preconceived notions of ballgowns and tiered cakes. It was infinitely cooler.
The family blockaded their street with plastic chairs, tables, and about a thousand balloons and streamers. Enormous speakers were set up on their neighbor’s front patio. Women in all of the neighboring houses pitched in by cooking, since one small kitchen was not sufficient to feed a hundred neighbors and friends.
Most partiers wore typical Colombian sombreros vueltiados, hats made from woven caña flecha. Instead of dresses, the impossibly cute birthday girl and her friends wore jeans and flannel shirts tied above the midriff. Aforementioned neighbors, tias, and mamás ran around on high heels serving fresh fruit juice and appetizers like bollo relleno.
When I arrived with my host family, one of the winners of Colombia’s Got Talent (Colombia Tiene Talento (yes, really)) was prancing around on a pony entertaining the crowd. Wait, is that a real pony? His eyes look a little… plastic.
With the revelers roaring in laughter and sipping jugo de maracuyá, the gaucho turned the crowd over to a live papayera band. Papayera is something like a Colombian version of mariachi, and they play music like cumbia and porro (and other types this gringa can’t remember). As soon as the band arrived, people jumped to their feet, shaking their hips and clapping. I hid safely behind my camera… until my host brother dragged me to my feet and everyone cheered for the scared gringa.
Just when Scared Gringa thought things couldn’t get more bizarre, they started passing out the party props. Masks, noise-makers, wigs. ”Take this and put it on. La hora loca is coming up!” Like a crazy Colombian Cinderella story, when the clock struck midnight, the wild factor turned up a notch. The music got louder and faster and someone’s dad started spraying foam and fake snow into the crowd of dancers.
After la hora loca, skewers of grilled meat and plates of arroz cubano were served with apple-flavored soda, followed later by cups of soup. Interestingly, I never saw anyone drinking any alcohol. For the rest of the night (and most of the morning), the man in the horse costume, the papayera band, and speakers blasting reggaeton and salsa took turns sustaining the party.
I’ve come to learn that music and revelry are inescapable on the weekends in Cartagena. In the States, the neighbors four blocks away would have called the police by 10:30. Here, the only solution is to get off your butt and join the party.
Another thing learned: I really need to learn how to salsa.