By Gigi Grimes
“One, two, three, four,” I counted in my head as I moved my feet back and forth and attempted to sway my hips to the beat. I paused, watching as the locals danced with their partners as if they had taken lessons their whole lives, swinging expertly between us Americans as we awkwardly tried to emulate their suave steps. A local girl was teaching my friends and me how to dance the Cumbia, a Latin dance, at a small concert in a village in the north of Nicaragua. Dance is one of the most dominant parts of the Nicaraguan culture, perforating nearly every aspect of life. From young ages at school showcases to nighttime fiestas in adulthood, dance adds zest and intimacy to the Nicaraguan life that isn’t present in the U.S.
In an American bar, people communicate by conversing with other people. But in Nicaragua? In Nicaragua, they communicate through the movement of their bodies and the rhythm of the music. I quickly learned this during one of my first nights out in Nicaragua (Nica, for short) while I was dancing with a local man. For the approximately ten minutes that we danced together neither of us said a single word; however, he made statements through his motions—closing and widening the gap between us, twirling and gliding across the floor. By the end of the dance, I knew him a little bit better and he knew that I had no idea what I was doing.
Even in elementary school, the students have as much rhythm as a Groove Theory captain. At one school performance, for example, the students danced traditional Nicaraguan dances in long colonial dresses, and, ironically, performed a number from Grease. Following the dances, the younger students were invited to play piñata. A blindfolded student swings wildly at the piñata while someone else pulls on the rope used to hold the piñata to pull it away from the student. Between each swing, the student has to dance to the music and if they don’t their turn ends. When the first little boy went to take his turn, I assumed he either wouldn’t dance or would dance like little kids in the U.S. do (jumping up and down and going crazy). But to my surprise, he began dancing the Bachata, moving his hips back and forth and stepping perfectly to the beat. Each student that followed moved with the same ease to the music and they were urged to keep dancing by the teachers. Laughs and smiles inundated the classroom until the piñata finally broke and the children swarmed to get their goodies. As the music kept playing, teachers and volunteers joined in with the students and the showcase transformed into a dance party. From an outsiders perspective the scene was comical—a room full of children that could be dance prodigies on Ellen with a couple American adults eagerly and awkwardly trying to keep up. But for us, it felt as if we were finally a part of their community.
Dance is one of the little joys in life for the people of Nicaragua that brings a passion and energy to their lifestyle. It acts as a second language for them, a way to express how they’re feeling through their movements. Dance also boosts confidence and is a way for children and adults to relax and have fun. Being able to understand the importance of dance’s many roles and participate in that aspect of their culture assimilated me into their community. Engaging in the local culture made my time in Nica feel not just like a summer internship, but like a part of my life. So whether you’re studying abroad in Barcelona or doing an internship in Boston, try to participate in some aspect of the local culture and become part of a new community—even if you have no idea what you’re doing.