Congo Dancers

by Mayra Thompson

When I last visited Panama, I was invited to attend mass in Portobelo. My Portobelo, so beloved to me in my memories. As a girl, when I lived 20 minutes away, I used to visit this town often. A town rich in Caribbean history and folklore and now I am visiting this town again and attending a very unique mass. The Congo dancers of Colon, grace this mass with their presence every other Sunday, serving in the choir and presenting the offerings; after the service - they "let their hair down" to enjoy and celebrate life.

The dancers trace their origin back to a population of immigrants that arrived during the 19th and 20th century to help build the canal. These group of people came from Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados to name a few. This West Indian population have kept their culture alive in their daily lives and one particular ethnic tradition they strongly identify with is their folk dance: Congo, is an upbeat Afro-Caribbean dance with drummers, singers, and dancers. These dancers also design their own colorful skirts and blouses-clothes. They use these mostly for ceremonial dances and parties.

I noticed that their style was unpredictable and improvised, yet their movements responded to each other in perfect synchronization. In the church of Portobelo, they were a bit more reserved, but outside, in the 15th century square, their laughter and delight was contagious. The queen, who is usually one of the elders of the group, sings to the beat of the drums and the dancers improvise and show off their handmade workmanship (skirts and blouses) with pride.

I thank Skip and Jill Berger for their invaluable knowledge and for their dedication with friends (like me) and tourists who wish to visit many of the beautiful areas of Panama. I wish you all the best of luck with your tour agency-Go "Gold Coast Expeditions".