Places to Dance-
Our Real Latin America Expert
Like many people, I used to be shy about dancing. But even if you feel as uncoordinated as a headless chicken, being spun around in time to the Latin rhythm by someone who does know what they’re doing can be exhilarating, and the more you lose your inhibitions the more you want to try your hand (or feet…?!) at other moves, other beats and other sounds. These can range from the nostalgic Peruvian criolla, to the rapid steps of Brazilian samba, to the seductive tango melodies in Buenos Aires, to the irrepressible beats of Cuban salsa. No matter where you go in Latin America you will get a real feeling for people’s passion for music and dance and the joy it gives them… and you’ll soon find out that they are more than willing to help you (drag you if necessary!) onto the dance floor, to their family party or into the carnival parade to give you a taste of it too!
Peru and Bolivia, whose border is bisected by Lake Titicaca, have incredibly rich and strong indigenous traditions, and central among them are folkloric music and dance. One of my absolute favourite places to take all this in is at the Fiesta de la Candelaria in February in Puno, on the edges of the lake. Here you’ll see traditional dances from the area like diablada and morenada among many, many others!
Some other traditional carnivals that offer the chance to see – and join in with – traditional Andean dancing include the Fiestas Patrias (national festivals) of Arequipa in November and Cajamarca in February. Meanwhile the Oruro Carnival is Bolivia’s answer to Rio and features days of parades in which costumed dancers follow elaborate routines in a celebration more than 2,000 years old.
Cartagena is a historic treasure trove and its colonial core, buttressed within huge, pirate-deterring city walls, is so well-preserved it can seem like a relic of another era – but as soon as you set foot in one of the atmospheric bars after nightfall you’ll see that it is anything but sedate. Salsa rhythms will urge you to move to the beat, but if you’d just like to watch, head to a city square at night to see the vibrant Afro-Colombian dancing and drumming.
If you are a true salsa aficionado however, you should plan a visit to Cali in western Colombia, which bills itself as the world capital of salsa. Considering the sizzling nightlife and dazzling dance floor moves of the locals, I’d be inclined to agree with that claim.
When in the home of tango, joining in with a traditional tango dance or milonga should definitely be high on your ‘to do’ list. My favourite place in the city for dancing is La Catedral (Sarmiento, Palermo), which doesn’t get going till very late – even by Argentinean standards – but is extremely popular with the younger bohemian crowd, hosting live music and tango dancing in a dark atmosphere. A more touristy but still excellent option is La Confiteria Ideal (Avenida Corrientes, Central Buenos Aires), which is a traditional tango hall with both afternoon and evening milongas.
If you’d like to take some classes before hitting the dance floor I can highly recommend Rosalia y Alejandro (easily found via Google), who give attentive, one-on-one 2-hour classes. If you’d prefer a group environment, La Viruta is a very good school with a vibrant crowd of all ages. Their classes turn into milongas at the end: a great way to get into the swing of things.
Of course, when you think of Rio, Carnival immediately springs to mind – and there’s no doubt that if you’re a dancing queen or king this is the chance of a lifetime to strut your stuff! However at any time of year, come rain or shine, and no matter the hour, this is a city that loves to dance and the opportunities to join in are countless.
The resurgent neighbourhood of Lapa, once a down-at-heel district, is now undisputedly the place to go for music, nightlife and dancing. Crowds of locals spill from every samba bar onto atmospheric streets lined with crumbling colonial façades, centring around the distinctive aqueduct Arcos de Lapa. Amongst the best of the bars are Carioca da Gema (Avenida Mem de Sã), Santo Scenarium and Rio Scenarium (both Rua do Lavrádio) – start off with some Brazilian tapas-style bites as you watch the live bands, then get up for a boogie once the mood takes you. I also love Democráticos (Rua do Riachuelo), a more old-fashioned dance hall that gets going late but is a fantastic place to absorb the local passion for samba and forró.
I tried to choose just one place in Cuba, but really you could go almost anywhere in this exuberant, music-loving island nation and have the time of your life dancing away at one of the ubiquitous music halls known as casas de la música and casas de la trova. Some of the best and most atmospheric are those in Havana and Cuba’s second-city of Santiago, but the stunning cobbled streets of Trinidad are another unforgettable place to move to the salsa beat: the casa de la música is in an open-air courtyard where you join in or simply sit and watch the incredible dancing scenes play out around you. If in Havana on a weekend, make sure to also swing by the Callejón (alleyway) de Hamel, with its fantastic live outdoor rumba on Sundays 12-3pm, and check out Sábados de la Rumba at Gran Palenque on Saturdays 3-5pm to witness an explosion of infectious percussion and some of the best dancers around.