June 2012

The Caporales

Today and yesterday

The name of this dance sounds like something authoritarian, but actually it is now one of the most sparkling dances of Bolivia.

By: Magali Dubois
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Lausanne – Switzerland


Caporales dancers, men and women
Photo: Courtesy of Bolivian community in Luzane, Suise

According to sources, the Caporales was created in the late 1960s by the brothers Estrada Pacheco. They were inspired by the character of the Caporal of the saya, an Afro-Bolivian dance. The product of a mix between African, Aymara and Spanish elements, the Caporales can nowadays be seen in many parts of Bolivia and in many festivals too. It is part of the Carnival of Oruro, which takes place in Feburary. It is also possible to see this dance in the party of the Grand Poder, in June, in La Paz and at the Festival of the Virgin of Urkupiña, in August, in Quillacollo, near Cochabamba. These parties are the most known for performance of the Caporales but this dance is often seen in many events throughout Bolivia.

A lot of people dance the Caporales, especially students. There are six fraternities specializing in the Caporales, the most known are the following:

  • “Caporales Centralistas” founded in 1969.
  • “Conjunto Sambos Caporales” founded in 1976.
  • “Caporales Enaf” founded in 1976.
  • “Caporales San SimĂłn” founded in 1978.
  • “Caporales CBN” founded in 1990.
  • “Caporales Centralistas” founded in 1996.

This dance gets its name from this figure. The word “Caporal” comes from the Latin word “capo” that means “head”. Caporal is the name, in many countries, of the chief of the army.

The personages that appear in this dance are the following:

  • the Caporal, the son of a white man and a black woman who, in the middle of the 16th century, served the “white people” and acted with rigor, teaching the others to be respectful.
  • the Cholita, a slave woman who helped black people in agriculture and domestic works.

Nowadays, the Cholita designates more of a fashion. It consists of wearing a skirt similar to what Spanish women wore in the past, the pollera, along with two braids and a hat.

  • the Achachi, the chief of the mine.
  • the Machotas, the female version of the Caporal.
  • the Machos Caporales, actual expression of the Caporal.
  • the Caporal-woman of the troop, a character of actual initiative who wears the same suit and dances the same choreography as men.

“When we think of the Andean dances, we do not imagine such a sexy and glittering costume.”

As described, this dance is built around personages that existed about 450 years ago, but it has only existed for about fifty years. Mr. Walter Sánchez, archeologist and teacher in the Institute of Investigation of Anthropology, corroborated that this dance is prevalent among by young people; it appeared by the impulsion of students at the university. Mr. Sánchez believes that all these folkloric dances have been used in a political way for about fifty years. Politicians need them to show the identity of the country, as a kind of a plurinational show.


Caporales group - Bolivian community in Luzane, Suzie.
Photo: Courtesy of Bolivian community in Luzane, Suise

In the opinion of Mr. Sánchez, Bolivian women claim to be conservative, but reveal another side at folkloric parties. These provide an occasion for women to express themselves and act freely from the constraints of their church, father and husband.

As explained in touristic guides, parallel to the development of the Caporales was the end of Bolivia´s revolutionary movement (1952-1964) and the beginning of the military dictatorship (1968-1982).

Nowadays, the Caporales is part of the Carnival of Oruro, in the same range as the Morenada or Diablada. The Carnival of Oruro has even been part of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity since 2008.

Every part of Bolivia has its own costumes and ways of interpreting this dance. For dancers of the Caporales, it is a sign of belonging. Clothes for this dance can be found especially in La Paz or Oruro, where the main carnival occurs. The costumes are colorful and it is a young, dynamic dance, with rhythms. It is even showed in other countries.

As Mr. Sánchez explains, belonging to one of these fraternities allows these young people to travel to other festivals, and they enjoy it.

For Lea, a young Bolivian girl living in Switzerland and dancing the Caporales, this dance shows the richness of Bolivia and allows new generations to access the cultural heritage of their country. Generally, one month is needed to create the costume but this is difficult because the dressmaker rarely has the time. It is a lot of work and you have to be ready to lose your holidays for it. She did it once!

The Carnival of Oruro is even part of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity since 2008.

When asking Lea what makes the Caporales unique from other dances, she noted the evolution of the music. If you listen to “Llorando se fue” from Kjarkas and "Veneno para olvidar" from Huella, you will straightaway notice the difference. The dance has evolved significantly; the steps Lea dances now are very different from the steps she learned in 2000.

Lea explains that this evolution makes the Caporales attractive for young people. The dancers are also changing along with the steps and music. From a European point of view, the costume is surprising and unexpected. “When we think of the Andean dances, we do not imagine such a sexy and glittering costume,” Lea says. She considers the swinging rhythm to be attractive. For her, this dance is beautiful.

The “quena”
The popularization of the “quena” into the urban atmosphere, along with the new ways to play this native instrument are due to a French musician: Gilbert (“El Gringo”) Favré. Born in Switzerland (19.XI.1936-12. XII.1998†), he first arrived in Chile and fell in love with Violeta Parra. After a torrid romance, he left for Bolivia (1965) where he soon became
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