Behind the Swing Criollo: An underground dance
The journey from the lower class youth of the Central Valley in the 60’s to the nightclubs around the country and international dance competitions. Usually one of the characteristics which describes Latin people is rhythm and
The journey from the lower class youth of the Central Valley in the 60’s to the nightclubs around the country and international dance competitions.
Usually one of the characteristics which describes Latin people is rhythm and by that I mean dance, joy, laughter and to be comfortable in your own skin. Part of the cultural common knowledge of dancing is that almost every country in the world has a typical dance that represents them, such as the argentine tango, the brazilian samba and the dominican merengue. In Costa Rica one of them is the “Swing Criollo” or the “Costa Rican Swing” as it is also called by many.
An interesting thing about Swing Criollo is that is more of a way of dancing than a musical rhythm, because in the decade of the 1960s dancers of nightclubs in San Jose or truck drivers who traveled through Central America to the US in the 50s, combined the melodies of the American swing and the Colombian cumbia, but there is no conclusive reason behind the types of body movements and dance steps, nevertheless, many historians think that also rock and roll was a big influence for its style. The roots came from the original swing but then the Costa Rican interpretation of cumbia was put into the mix and a new rhythm was created based on the “Pura Vida” spirit.
By the 1970s it was popularized by well-known dancers from “the old guard” as they were called by locals because the signature movements were quick steps, almost like jumps, alternating the feet and with one hand being sequentially released to hold their partner’s hands and take turns. The bounce and opportunity to improvise, gave the dancers more freedom to take advantage of the base on six beats.
These quick steps were branded as vulgar and linked to the lower and working class of the capital as they drew the attention of a wider audience. In many nightclubs, the owners hung signs that clearly stated and warned: “Swing Criollo is prohibited” and kicked out anyone who attempted to practice the so-called tasteless steps. And if history has taught us anything, the power of the forbidden is undeniable and creates a sort of mischievous atmosphere among the followers of this exciting dance.
In addition to this, the outfits the dancers wore to go dancing ended up complementing that image of being a low class invention that also extended to the very act of practicing Swing Criollo and going to those places where their dance moves were allowed.
The moral norms imposed at that time, made possible the assumption of the elite, who believed the working class created a transgressional social dance that promoted promiscuity and bad habits. The fact that this rhythm was invented and danced at nightclubs, where lower social sectors attended and other low prestige tunes were practiced, made it difficult to differentiate from its popular origins.
And even though each dancer moved in different spaces, such as work, family, friends and the neighborhood in which they lived, their relationship with this dance and their attendance at certain places to practice, were enough to the dominant class to group them under the same social category.
Change in time
The 21st century came with an acceptance of this dance as part of popular culture or urban folklore, but it wasn’t until 2011 half a century later of its genesis, and after an executive order was publish a year later in the official newspaper “La Gaceta” by the former President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla Miranda, that defined the Swing Criollo “as an intangible cultural heritage for Costa Rica”, that everything changed for the better. A new era for the dance expression in the central american country began, because it stated that the dance belonged to all social classes and that it was a cultural representation of a specific time frame in Costa Rican history.
Millennials are the first generation not to be discouraged to learn and practice the Costa Rican Swing, because when dance academies such as “Merecumbe” started teaching all the different latin rhythms, the Swing Criollo was a big favorite and open the possibility to take those “risky” and not so long ago prohibit moves to the mainstream media with competitions such as Costa Rica’s Dancing with the stars, a take from the US format.
If someone wants to practice what they learn in classes or just have fun with loved ones, many nightclubs in the central valley offer wide dancefloors, live orchestras and probably the best dancers you will ever witness. There is a clear generation barrier between the dancers in their forties or older that know the tricks of Swing Criollo and the ones who don’t, but try to do it better every chance they get.
For educational and general knowledge purposes, I’ve tried dancing a few times but it is a really energy consuming dance and you have to be in shape to jump as quickly and coordinated as the more experienced dancers at the Tipico Latino in Heredia, a club that is well known for its nightlife and incredible dancing couples. Other places where you can try to understand the art behind Swing Criollo are Fiesta Latina, Tipico Copey, Rancho Garibaldi, El Gran Bingo Multicolor, Recuerdos d’ Kilates, Tunel del tiempo and La Terraza.
Many families have started when their parents met on the dancefloor of the different nightclubs, so it is exciting the amount of generations who have been able to enjoy the wonders of Swing Criollo. Some foreigners learn the basic steps and are able to understand a little more about the “ticos”.
The reinvidication of an entire way of enjoying life by using a few simple steps, is one of the greatest cultural wins that a dance can accomplish. Unity in the name of a joyful custom that teaches people their cultural value and the power of music is what the Swing Criollo wants to be recognized for, because its roots come from figuring out a way to make something that already exists into a modern style that resonates with Costa Rica’s essence.
Ilse Cordero July 29, 2022
Excellent description of dance/culture. I can almost hear the stomping shoes setting the rhythm on the dance floor.
Rafael Valverde July 30, 2022
Thank you for your comments. Please let us know what else you would like to learn about Costa Rican culture.