Four colorized dancers against a zigzag background

Four South American Dances


For many, the ideal musical experience involves a kind of erasure of the body. You arrange yourself upon cushioned chairs or sprawl out on a bed, headphones nestled into place, the goal being total immersion in sound. 

For others, that immersion is impossible without movement – without dance. The connection between music and dance is one that holds true the world over, and there is perhaps no other region richer with this tradition than Latin America. 

Popular dances, and the music that goes with them, range from the nationally endorsed to the hyper-regional. The Argentine tango is perhaps the most well-known example, having been exported, reinterpreted, modernized and classicized ad infinitum. Still, one of its more remarkable features might be its place in a sea of unique traditions. To that end, here’s a look at four South American dances that provide a fascinating take on the interplay between movement and sound.


Sanjuanito dancers

Saruymanda – Danza Nacionalista Del Ecuador – San Juanito

Despite its name, the sanjuanito is rooted in pre-Colombian dances that date back at least to the 15th-century Incan Inti Raymi festivals, which celebrated the winter solstice. More likely their origins go back even further. Now regarded as the national rhythm of Ecuador, the sanjuanito is a blend of indigenous and European influences. The musical accompaniment incorporates Andean flutes (like the rondador, the pinguillo and the zampoña), an Ecuadorian chordophone known as the bandolín and a mixture of Western stringed instruments, drums and occasionally electronic elements. Really, any instrument can join in – the sanjuanito is a dance of participation, with everyone, regardless of skill, meant to dance and play along. 

However, steps do exist: Dancers frequently perform in paired ensembles, wearing brightly colored capes and ponchos and stepping to a lively 2/4 time. Lyrical content can cover a range of topics – from heartbreak to the challenges of manual labor – but the dances themselves are joyous celebrations meant to honor the unity with mother earth, traditionally known as Pachamama. 


Four men dance the malambo

Laborde 2012 Cuarteto malambo combinado (Santa Fe)

It may be inching (or stomping) its way along to dethrone tango as the favorite Argentine dance, and with good cause: Watching the malambo is terrific fun. This is an aggressive, competitive dance, originally performed by gauchos (South American cowboys) in the pampas (lowlands) of Argentina. Its origins date back to sometime in the 1600s, but, similar to the sanjuanito, it was likely influenced by pre-Colombian step-dancing traditions. 

Essentially, the malambo provides a chance for young men to prove their vigor, strength and agility. The dance consists of complicated footwork, frequently performed in leather boots. Like tap dancing, the footwork becomes its own music, with small ensembles – a guitarist, drummer and maybe one or two other instrumentalists – frequently accompanying performances, but always taking a back seat to the rhythm prescribed by the dancers. However, there are some consistencies in the music: Rhythms frequently take on an upbeat, 6/8 meter, with harmonies cycling through predictable patterns. Complex syncopation is rampant. More interesting in the musical realm are the pieces written to capture the spirit of the dance, if not to accompany it: Alberto Ginastera wrote a number of pieces after the malambo; more recently, Argentine “digital folklore” trio Tremor released their vision of this music. 

While the ultimate goal of serious malambo dancers is to perform in the annual Festival Nacional del Malambo in Laborde, Argentina, non-Argentine fans don’t have to travel so far: Dance troupe Che Malambo tours internationally.


samba dancers

Basic Samba Dance Lesson

This is likely the most familiar dance music here, but samba deserves recognition for, among other things, its endlessly sophisticated rhythms – polyrhythmic and sometimes asymmetrical in nature – and for fostering worldwide appreciation of massive percussion ensembles. Not to mention its many interpreters, from João Gilberto to Marcelo D2

Nowadays, samba is synonymous with Brazil’s Carnaval (and to some, Zumba classes), but it didn’t start that way. It was communities of former slaves living in favelas – slums outside Brazil’s urban centers that still exist today – who gave shape to the samba, with the first recorded rendition gaining popularity in 1916. Samba can thank its origins in West African drumming for its complex rhythmic structure. Broadly, one can perceive the samba in duple meter, but due to the multiplicity of syncopated patterns within a given phrase, other meters – or simply the impression of them – may arise. This overlapping quality carries into samba’s dance moves, and their interplay between feet, hips and arms: It’s a whole-body kaleidoscope. 


Joropo dancers

Xarop joropo en Arauca

The joropo is both a dance and an entire musical genre, with a variety of subsets such as the frenetic “golpe” style and the more subdued “pasaje.” Typical of many South American dances, it is a creole invention, mixing indigenous, African and European styles. This particular dance originated in the Orinoco River plains region (los llanos) of Venezuela and Colombia. Despite Venezuela declaring the joropo as its national dance in 1882, the tradition didn’t gain larger popularity until the widespread use of the radio nearly 50 years later. 

Like the malambo, the joropo emphasizes footwork to a mesmerizing effect. Unlike it, this is a couples’ dance, with both men and women stepping to breakneck triple meters. Musically, the joropo showcases a virtuosic string ensemble, made up of the plains harp (arpa llanera) at the forefront, a four-stringed guitar known as the cuatro keeping harmonic (and percussive) rhythm and a bass supporting the lower registers of the harp. Maracas are the only purely percussive instrument in the ensemble, but their timbre and dizzying rhythms are essential to the sound. Performers are expected to improvise – that also applies to singers, who, in regional competitions, will hurl witty, insulting verses at each other on the spot.

The joropo continues to gain popularity, largely thanks to groups in pursuit of an international audience. One of the more notable of these is Cimarrón: Their 2004 album, “Sí, Soy Llanero,” was nominated for a Grammy. Cimarrón also boasts Ana Veydó as lead singer – one of the few women who has made a place for herself in a largely male-dominated genre. 

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Elizabeth Nonemaker

Elizabeth Nonemaker is a composer, writer and managing editor for She writes about classical music for The Baltimore Sun and has worked for Children’s Radio Foundation and KPCC’s “The Frame.” As a composer, …more 

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