Sunday, December 13, 2009

We Wititi

Wititi is the official dance of the region of Arequipa, and the Colca Canyon is the center, the source, the font, the beating big bass drum of it. The first question everyone asks is why the men are dancing in long skirts. Long ago, so the story goes, Cabana men disguised themselves as women to sneak in and woo the beautiful but highly protected Collagua women. They danced together, in seeming innocence, but when the supposedly sequestered ladies started showing their big bellies some months later, the deceit was discovered, and the legend born, followed in short order with the birth of many a Cabana-Collagua wawa (baby, of course—the easiest word to learn in Quechua).

December ninth through the eleventh is the annual Wititi festival in Chivay, and we are eager to participate to the fullest extent possible. That requires dressing the part.

Between our friends Cusi, Cesi and Herminia we piece together the complete traje (outfit) for each of us, and as soon as we show ourselves in public, the gawking and exclamations start. Apparently the sight of two gringos in traje tipica is a rare and noteworthy event. As we continue out the door and down the street we can see the heads turning and hear the comments ripple along with us as we pass. We are greeted with big grins, thumbs up, and handshakes. This is to continue for the three days of the festival, with strangers stopping us on the street to be photographed with us. A couple of young women from Arequipa gushed over me “You look like a Barbie!” Yeah, Colca Barbie, with pollera and accessories. I felt like I was everyone’s doll, as the first day Cesi had to readjust my sash, another day Leo from the jewelry store grabbed me off the street as we were walking by and dragged me into the shop to make repairs. The fashion police were alert to infractions Russ was committing as well, but he got off with a retying of the honda (a ropelike slingshot fashioned into a belt) and a warning.

The other Peace Corps volunteers here for the fiesta had similar experiences-- it takes a village to dress a gringo. Here are the parts involved for Colca Barbie to be fully dressed: polleras –at least two (fancy long velvety skirts with many rows of embroidery and flashy trim starting at the hem and going up knee high or higher for the outside layer, with numerous other long skirts underneath possibly of lesser flash, but some trim), blouse, also with embroidery around the cuffs and neck, embroidered vest (as snug a fit as possible). Embroidered belt tied tight to give Barbie the tiniest waist possible (she’s a doll, she doesn’t need to breathe), optional jacket with more embroidery for when the temperature drops. Barbie has two hat options, but she must wear a hat. The Collagua hat is similar in shape to a straw boater, but it is white, and sports a solid glitz hatband with a starburst rosette of ribbon glitz worn on the left side. This Barbie chose the hat of the Cabanas, a more sedate felt option featuring a wide (embroidered, of course) brim worn snapped up in back, down in front.

And what of Colca Ken? Two polleras, as previously described, with the top one hiked up coquettishly in front to show a peek of the one underneath. He wears a montera on his head, which is a two story pith helmet covered with fabric and decorated with rows of fringe which has two practical functions. First, it hangs in front of his eyes, adding to his disguise, and second, it swings about merrily when he dances, adding swash to his buckle. The montera is held on with numerous straps, further covering the sneaky bastard’s face. In between the polleras and the hat the well dressed wititi man wears a long sleeved military style shirt, with two bright sashes crossed like bandoliers across his shoulders all secured by a precisely tied honda (see above). The sashes also provide a place to carry a whisky bottle. Now, finally we are dressed. On with the party.

And the music? A brass band with trumpet and “bajo” (euphonium) plays the same song in two sections, trumpet and bajo, all night long, without rest. The. Same. Song. The trumpets compel the dancing--when the trumpets take their turn, so do the dancers, swirling frenetically to make the skirts stand out and swing. Miles and miles of glitter trim on the hundreds of hats and skirts sparkles and flashes in the light from the street lamps. When the euphoniums take over the mad swirling stops and the dancers advance, flowing around the plaza or down the street. At times there are three bands blaring independently (and out of sync) and so many dancers crowded together we bang into each other during the twirling. Although it seems like the whole town is dancing, the streets are lined with observers, or maybe they are just resting a bit before they dance again.

During dinner at the neighborhood host’s home, it is decided that Russ will be the Machu Wititi on the first night. Machu means old, or grandfather, in Quechua. It also means he leads the parade from the house to the plaza, and around the plaza, with a beer bottle in one hand and his hat in the other. Cheers and applause for the greying gringo.

The party lasts three days. During the day, there are dance competitions with choreographed groups of dancers in matching polleras strutting their moves in front of the judge’s stand. One night is the band competition, with the winner being the band that plays the longest into the night before their lips flap off into the sunrise. Another night is the competition between the three neighborhoods of Chivay. I think the winner has something to do with how many dancers you bring to the event. We danced with our Ccapac neighbors, but I don’t think we won.

In short, we dress, get redressed by Peruvians, eat, eat more street food (hot chocolate, alpaca on a stick, alpaca hamburgers, arroz con leche) dance, dance, drink beer and chicha, and dance. So does practically all of the community, little boys in polleras, tiny girls in polleras. Old dancers, young dancers, all swirling for the joy of it. No one is fooled by the disguises any longer, but the locals say there is still a noticeable spike in the birth rate nine months following the wititi.


  1. excellent article! I just visited the Colca Valley and saw the Wititi Dance performed