When Children Rehearse in Cusco, It Is Much More than Dance

Cusco’s main square beats to the sound of rhythmic flutes and drums. All day long, it seems, one group or another—a couple of quena players and a drummer—play while children dance. These rehearsals do not just take place in the city’s center, they happen where ever there is a school or a public space.

Beginning Thursday, Cusco’s center will be the stage, every day, for one set or another of Cusqueños to show off their collective prowess as interpreters of traditional dance and to show their place as part of the array of groups that make up Cusco, the city, and the region.

Children start learning to perform the steps and emote to the rhythms very early. While they may learn in their homes watching family members practice steps or try on typical costumes, they definitely learn once they begin attending daycare or kindergarten. 

Children rehearsing in the Plaza de Armas (David Knowlton)
Children rehearsing in the Plaza de Armas (David Knowlton)

These are the little children that have been working their steps, some haltingly and others more adroitly, to a drum and quena, traditional flute.

These children grow up in a city where the mall, with its focus on meeting individual dreams has become central, and reggaeton and English hip-hop on the radio.  They all celebrate individual accomplishment and love, the ostensible apotheosis of the self in another.

Yet, in these rehearsals that tire them, they learn something else. They attune their bodies and selves to the notion of an identity for their city as something much more than an agglomeration of individuals. 

It is the “Imperial City”, the “Navel of the World” and they, even as little kids, bear a “millennial culture”. They are “Incas” and knowing how to perform typical dance proves it.

Besides learning these tokens and emblems of a collective culture deeply, in their limbs and lungs, they children also learn something else. They learn to dance uniformly, to make the same steps and turns to the pulses of the music. They perform in lines and as a collective body.

Sure, their families will be there watching them perform, and each mother will see in her child someone special. They will celebrate that their child started a public life in Cusco dancing around the plaza. Though this might seem individual, it is about connecting the child and their abilities and personality into the flow of groups that together make up this “great city”.  Being a Cusqueño is not a spectator sport nor a spectator culture, where you turn on the TV or Youtube and watch elites perform your culture for you. Instead, it requires your body, your heartbeat, and your actions in dance.

Children rehearsing in the Plaza de Armas (David Knowlton)
Children rehearsing in the Plaza de Armas (David Knowlton)

Individualism may be the game of the market economy, with a common, international set of dreams people can purchase and carry out, even if simply as a spectator, but in Cusco the local identity and culture is strong. It is about being more than an individual. It is about knowing the steps and choreography to dance together as a troupe. 

This togetherness and strong group identity, built into their muscles and bones, is what Cusco’s little children learn while trying to dance, getting corrected, and having back at it all the while the flute and drum play. Thursday, they will dance around the plaza before judges and the city.

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