From the Land Abundant of Butterflies and Fish

Ballet Folkl?rico Paname?o at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre

By Hyun Joo Chung
Published on LatinoLA: August 23, 2003

From the Land Abundant of Butterflies and Fish

Pollera, the flowing dress made of lace, is related to the Panama?s proud tradition of elaborate stitching, a symbol of the cultural diversity consisting of Indians, Africans, and the Spanish.

The performance by the Ballet Folkl?rico Paname?o directed by Elisa De C?spedes at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre recently mimics the painstaking, slow, meticulous, and delicate procedure of a needle plunging over and under a cloth to produce a clothing valued more than twenty-thousand dollars.

The pollera is a traditional Panamanian dress that is so cherished. The heavy drapes alone shape the movements of the female dancers to the sounds of a live band consisting of a guitar, accordion, conga, maracas, and a bongo.

Justine Pasek, 2002's Ms. Universe, discussed the pollera and why it was so special. The pollera took ?nine months to be done.? The pollera also consisted of gold and elaborate jewelry and headdresses with more jewels than that on crowns.

Enthusiastic dancers of the Ballet Folklorico Paname?o helped to celebrate the Panama Centennial in Los Angeles for the one hundred years of independence, one they achieved in 1903. The performance was dedicated to ?Our green vegetation? of Panama.

The name of the Central American nation comes from the Indian word meaning ?abundance of butterflies and fish.? Rightfully named, because Panama is situated between both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, like the United States, but is even more surrounded with water.

Most Indians in Panama live in rural areas, according to the World Book Encyclopedia. The main groups of Indians include Choc?, Guaym?, and Cuna. The Guaym? make up nearly half of the Indian population and has a tradition of hunter-gatherers.

The Cuna Indians, who occupy nearly 40% of the Indian population, were able to hold on to many of their pre-colonial traditions because they lived on the San Blas Islands on the northern border of Panama. The Cuna economy was based on agriculture and fishery. The Choc?, the group in minority and consisting of less than ten-percent of the Indian population, have intermarried with the Spanish and the Antilleans and mostly live near the Colombian border.

Among the Indians and colonists were Africans. The African heritage is important in Panama?s history because one of their greatest influences was on music. The word cumbia comes from the African word meaning ?to make noise.? The British brought Antilleans, blacks from the British-occupied Caribbean Islands. The Antilleans were to work the canal that would forever connect the Western and Eastern Hemispheres.

Because of the tropical climate, the traditional attire of Panama is light.

The first dance in the performance was a great show of women?s blue, red, pink, and green skirts. The men wore simple white shirts called montunos, straw hats, purses, and dark slacks. The dancers move in circular steps. The intimidating heavy headdresses alone with flowers, diamond-like chains, and gold pins are enough to guillotine the women?s necks. The polleras are very expansive. They go from a woman?s waist all the way to her feet. Her shirt is a smaller version of the grand skirt. The polleras are white with dark dyed prints. They are hand embroidered.

The dancers generally maintain a circle in relation to each other. The formation then changes into two straight lines. The formations continually alternate between circular and straight lines.

The movements are serene.

The members of Ballet Folkl?rico Paname?o rotate in a planetary motion, spinning around them, and around a nucleus. There are no big movements. The dance is all about minimalism. The men maintain the crescent shape of their arms. The women keep their arms closed with a white lace fan and only to occasionally raise a single arm to imitate the crescent shape of the men?s arms. The curve of the lines repeats in the polleras, arms, and men?s feet.

The wedding dance called ?El Punto? is described by the maestro as ?the most elegant? and most ?aristocratic? of the Panamanian dances. The dominant sound of the band is the stirring of the guitar. Unlike the other dances, there is only one couple dancing. The movements are close and utilize slow, detailed movements.

The woman rolls her shoulders to the guitar like her hips. She keeps her hands holding the skirt of her pollera, never releasing her hands from their grips. The accordion adds to the dominant guitar, almost giving music a tango-like mischievous ambiance.

The couples slow down their movements just like a musician slows down the tempo when approaching the end. Then, ten couples join the wedded pair. The women display a very subtle version of moving their hips in fast vibrato. The men stamp their feet, but again, utilize very little space. The men?s arms and the skirts of polleras echo the visual theme of semicircular curves, like the ocean waves of the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Another dance, which showed off the men more than the women, was called ?atravasao.? The men raised their hats in raised arms. The men showed fast footwork, displaying quick weight changes on the balls of their feet.

The dances do not involve the holding of hands even though the women and men are paired. The limbs of men and women remain independent even though a longing face tilts towards a woman?s neck now and then.

Like most Saturday morning concerts at the John Anson Theatre, this one was chaotic. There are people knocking at your knees. People spill muffin crumbs. Runaway babies are promptly retrieved underneath parent?s arms. Children dance without inhibitions in the aisles. Some aspiring mountain climbers use the stage as practice. Mothers wave PB& J sandwiches. Shrieks are not uncommon. Toddlers discover the two chubby stumps below their tummy make great transportation.

But that?s all part of the fun.

Be sure to bring your passport stamped for a free T-shirt after six performances. Bring fan. Bring water money or your own portable bottles. Dress light. Use your program to fan yourself in the humidity. Then again, bring an even larger fan.

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