Published March 14, 2024

The Beauty of Bolivian Dance

A line of dancers wearing gold and red move in step, the tassels and beads of their costumes shaking. Black shields on their chests are embroidered with sequined ants and snakes. Huge multi-colored masks with frightening round eyes and long curved horns rest on the men’s shoulders. The women’s masks have flames for ears and flowing manes of wild red and blue hair.

The dancers fall in step behind an angel dressed for battle. At the edge of the group are three big bears, working the crowd, somehow both adorable and demonic. For a moment, each dancer takes off their mask as they bounce forward in rhythm. Everyone is smiling.

It is Carnival in Fairfax, and the parking lot of this public middle school has transformed in honor of the Virgencita del Socavon (Virgin of the Mineshaft). Fundacion Socio Cultural Diablada Boliviana, a dance troupe and the event’s organizers, are performing the Diablada—the festival’s trademark dance.

Carnival comes from Oruro, Bolivia, a mining town 12,250 feet above sea level. Its a February festival, but Virginia’s Carnivales take place in March, since so many people travel to Bolivia to participate the month prior. Organizers of Fairfax’s Carnival on March 10 planned for 13 dances by 9 groups. In Oruro, Carnival is a week-long holiday, and thousands of performers dance 50 or more distinct styles. 

Fundacion Socio Cultural Diablada Boliviana perform the Diablada dance.

“We always present the Diablada as a fight between good and evil,” explained Nelly Zapata, the event’s organizer. Nelly and her daughter Paloma are working on a 2024 Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship together in Bolivian dance.

Paloma, who danced as a diablesa, is pictured third from left. Nelly (far right) performed as a K’acha Viuda, or beautiful widow.

Nelly emigrated to Arlington in 1987 with her two sons, Juan and Hugo, to join her husband. Paloma was born a year later.

Nelly’s mother was from Oruro, but Nelly didn’t start dancing until 1998, when she took ten-year-old Paloma to see the first public performance by Fundacion Socio Cultural Diablada Boliviana.

“I was immediately drawn to it. I saw people like me dancing and I really wanted to be a part of it,” Paloma said.

Paloma on why she loves dancing Diablada

Paloma struggled with asthma as a kid, so Nelly took her to the doctor, who suggested exercise could actually be helpful to her condition. “My mom fought a lot for me to be a part of Diablada and did everything she could to get me costumes and be there with me, because she danced as well,” Paloma said.

“Paloma never went back to the hospital after she started dancing,” Nelly explained. “I think it was my gratitude, my devotion to the Virgin, that pushed me to be more involved with the dances and the community. And I always put all my heart into anything I do.”

Nelly and Paloma have been dancing Diablada with the Fundacion for 24 years, with Nelly serving as president for the past 4 years. Her Fairfax home is a kind of headquarters for the Bolivian dance community—if you need a specific accessory she will either have it or track one down for you.

Elaborate costumes are bought new or updated for each Carnival, and they are intentionally purchased in Bolivia to support the traditional artisans that make them by hand. 

“My Mom has found ways to connect with Bolivian people from all over the country. Some of the outfits she gets from Bolivia she sends to New Jersey, Arizona, other states. They’re able to get a costume from Virginia because we’re such a Bolivian powerhouse in the United States,” Paloma said. (Virginia is home to the largest Bolivian population in the US.) 

Diablada dancers at Carnival, Oruro, 1960s. Courtesy photovintagefrance.

Carnival is celebrated in devotion to the Virgin Mary, who is said to have appeared in an Oruro mine in 1789. 

This Carnival opened with members of the participating dance troupes carrying statues of the Virgin Mary in a somber procession. They circled the parking lot before arranging the statues and flowers on an altar staged on a shipping container. A Catholic priest offered a message, a prayer, and a blessing as families set up chairs along the sidelines to watch the dancing.

“Carnival is a beautiful way for Bolivians to show devotion to the Virgin Mary, to be in the footsteps of our ancestors, and also to release stress that may have been built up in the year.”

Paloma Zapata
Mentor artist Nelly Zapata, left, carries a palanquin holding a statue of the Virgin Mary.

While Carnival has been celebrated for centuries, the first modern Diablada troupe was organized in Oruro in 1904.

The dance mixes complex symbolism from two parallel, but intertwining, Bolivian traditions: ancient indigenous beliefs and Spanish-introduced Catholicism. In 2008, Diablada was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Diablada dancers act out a story that Nelly explains: Miners desperate for income sold their souls to the devil in exchange for silver and gold. The Virgin Mary appears in the mine, admonishing the devil to leave the miners alone. Saint Michael the Archangel appears and fights the devil, returning the souls to the people. He is surrounded by a moving cast of characters: There’s Lucifer the Devil and his consort China Supay, a condor and jukamaris (Andean spectacled bears) who protect and lead the way, the soulless diablesas and diablos, K’acha Viuda (beautiful widows), young angels, and more.

Diablada dancers act out a story in which Saint Michael the Archangel appears and fights the devil, returning the souls to the people. Freddy Medina dances the role of Archangel for Fundacion Socio Cultural Diablada Boliviana.

Freddy Medina dances the role of Archangel for Fundacion Socio Cultural Diablada Boliviana, and he was also one of the group’s founders. Freddy is from Oruro and his family danced in Diablada Ferroviaria, a troupe formed in 1956 by men from the national railroad workers union. This famous group became known as the “men in red.” For this reason, Fundacion’s rehearsal uniforms are red.

Rehearsals happen as often as weekly, and in Bolivia, elaborate dress rehearsals, called Convite, are hosted leading up to Carnival. Convite in Fairfax took place on November 12, also at the James W Robinson Jr. Secondary School parking lot.

The hardest part about translating Carnival from the streets of Bolivia to Virginia is access to appropriate public space. Finding places to rehearse and perform is Nelly’s biggest challenge as Fundacion president. “We go from parking lot to parking lot,” she explained.

On Carnival morning, in between parked cars, dancers of all ages braced against the chilly early March wind, taking off their coats to reveal costumes and primp final details. Women braided each other’s hair, pulling strands tight and weaving extensions and colorful yarn tulma (or tassels) into the ends.

It is this transformation—from the ordinary to the spectacular—that is the beauty of Bolivian dance in Virginia. It is the sparkles, but also the teamwork, the platform heels and the reverence for the Virgin Mary. It is the joy and exertion, the exuberant togetherness, the worship, the music and movement.

For Nelly and Paloma, dancing Diablada together is also a way to support each other.

“I’ve learned to share my culture and other skills, like teaching and organizing,” said Paloma, who sees her mom play all the roles, from renting the port-a-johns to dancing as “a short” Lucifer if there are not enough men. 

“I am able to do what I like to do because of Paloma, she was the one who pushed me to dance,” Nelly said. “Otherwise, I would just be working, working.”

Nelly Zapata, left, is apprenticing her daughter Paloma, right, in traditional Bolivian dance.

With 5 more dances to go and 3 groups left to perform, Sunday’s Carnival was cut short by Fairfax County Public School staff and police following noise complaints. 

The dancing, which was building towards a crescendo and grand finale, stopped. Smiles faded to disappointment as people began to pack up and dismantle the altar. A police car pulled into the parking lot. A young figura struck a pose, resisting, for a moment.

A dancer poses for a photo as Fairfax County police order the parking lot cleared on 3/10/24.

Almost immediately, Nelly’s mind turned towards plans for next year’s celebration. She will need to rent a new performance space. 

“My Mom is a pioneer for Bolivian tradition and culture here in Virginia,” Paloma said.

“I just want to keep dancing,” Nelly said.

Source: Lecount, Cynthia. “Carnival in Bolivia: Devils Dancing for the Virgin.” Western Folklore, 58 no. 3/4 (Spring – Autumn 1999) 231-252.