How to Dance the Congo Dance

The Africans had a secret, one that could lead to the demise of all the enslaved Africans in Portobelo. Defying their masters and risking crippling slashes of the whip or worse, the Africans- free and enslaved- convened in a secret location on the last Sunday of each month to dance, fellowship, and prepare a big soup to share. To their consternation, the slave masters couldn't figure out how the Africans managed to organize themselves and share information about where the meeting would be held each month. The masters tried to eavesdrop on the conversations of their slaves, but found that they could not make sense of what they heard.

Although they were stolen by the Spanish from divergent lands- Angola, Cameroon, Guinea, and The Congo- the Africans passed on messages undetected through an intricate network of drums and their own secret dialect. To confuse the masters, they spoke to one another in the inverse (a sort of spoken “pig Latin”) where one African would tell another to take a right with the understanding that the other person knew he meant left. Thus, when a master followed the directions as he’d overheard them, hoping to catch his slaves at their secret gathering, he found himself lost deep in the jungles of Panama, "Cimmarrones" territory.

congo dance

Unable to accept the bondage of slavery, many Africans escaped into the untamed mountain jungles of Panama rather than accept a life of dehumanization and subjugation on a Spanish plantation. They jumped from slave ships and swam to shore, escaped during the confusing bustle of the slave market, poisoned their masters, and did anything else they could do to regain their freedom. These escaped slaves were called “Cimarrones,” meaning “wild” or “runaways.” With their faces painted black out of pride and as a means of camouflage, a staff in hand with a dolls head perched atop to symbolize those they left behind in Africa, and a satchel to fill with provisions,  the Cimmarrones constantly raided Spanish plantations and caravans.

They recognized, however, that their freedom was tenuous- at any moment a Spanish militia could attack and re-enslave them all. Thus, in the art of guerrilla warfare, they subscribed to the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Cimmarrones aligned themselves with pirates like Henry Morgan to wreak havoc on Spanish ships and ports. Facing crippling physical and economical losses, the Spanish agreed to the terms put forth by the Cimmarrones during negotiations: the Cimmarrones were acknowledged formally as free men, able to live without the constant fear of attack and re-enslavement. They became known as “Congos”.

Meanwhile. the enslaved Africans were led by a court that included the Queen, Merced, Juan de Dioso, the King, Prince Pajarito, and the princesses known as Mininas. However, this simple act of self-determination was seen as a threat by the Spanish who continued to lose slaves to the palenques (fortified villages of runaways in the mountains) . Finally, tired of being outsmarted by those he’d deemed inferior, one master resorted to an act of cruelty all too familiar to the Spaniards back then: kidnapping. He kidnapped Pajarito and brought him to his plantation. Each day, the master asked the prince how the Africans knew when and where to meet, and each day the prince refused to answer. This went on for days with the prince growing more and more defiant as the master became more desperate to know the Africans secrets. Finally, he did the only thing he could think of to break the princes spirit, he subjected him to humiliating, back-breaking labor.

The master forced the prince to use a brush no bigger than a toothbrush to scrub the palatial wood floors of his plantation home. The proud Pajarito found himself on his hands and knees, head bowed. He scrubbed until the day turned to night, only to have the master stomp into the house with his muddy boots and order him to start over again. This went on for days until Pajarito broke down in tears. The master had been waiting for this moment. He slid over to the prince’s side and consoled him gently, “If you just tell me when and where the Africans will meet, I will let you go home.”

Tired and missing his family, the boy looked up at the master’s face with tears in his eyes. The master waited expectantly, trying to mask his glee at seeing the prince in this broken state. Finally, Pajarito told the master all that he knew and how he could identify the Queen, the seat of Congo power, in all her splendor. An enslaved woman had been listening at the door to Pajarito’s confession. She immediately dropped her basket and ran to to warn the Queen and her court of what was to come.

Rather than cancel the gathering that Sunday, January 20th, the queen prepared her court to go to war and throw off the chains of bondage once and for all. On Jan 20th, all the Africans- free and enslaved- gathered to dance. As the drumming grew louder, the Queen entered the circle with her golden crown embellished with multicolored ribbons perched high atop her head, a multicolored pollera gently sweeping the floor with each step, layers of beads called lágrimas de la Virgen (tears of the Virgin Mary) ornately strewn around her neck, and flowers pinned in her hair. She carried a large cross to protect herself and her people from the encroachment of the Devil (the slave masters). Silence fell upon the crowd as she began to dance in her pollera. She danced with the wild and joyous abandonment, waving her pollera seductively as the sound of a chorus of women singing accompanied the drum. The dance was improvised; there was no choreography as her barefeet hit the floor, just the memory of Africa. As the Queen danced, her movements speak of joy, sadness, pain, liberation, playfulness, regret, and, most of all, defiance.

Pajarito quietly entered the circle and bowed before the dancing Queen and, with that single gesture, the Spaniards descended upon the celebration. The Africans had been anticipating this attack and fought back fiercely.  The Africans bravely carried their banner into war: a black and white flag with the white part bound to the pole while the black part billows free in the air, forever free from bondage. The Queen ordered the men to protect the princesses at all costs, for they were the only ones who could carry on the traditions of the Congo people.

Having caused significant casualties amongst the Spanish who had not anticipated a counter-attack, those who survived the battled escaped and joined the palenques in the mountains, carrying to safety the Mininas and, therefore, the Congo traditions.

Each year around Carnival time, drummers assemble to recreate this fight with the Devil. As the chorus sings, women from Portobelo, Panama dance with brazen, joyous abandonment in their polleras. Heads held high, they are ready to fight off the Devil, if he dares approach, because to dance the Congo dance is to honor the freedom the ancestors fought so hard to gain.

congo dance
panama devil congo dance



This story was reconstructed using the oral tradition passed on by Mama Ari at the cultural center in Portobelo. As Afrodescendents- black people- we often dance without knowing the history behind the music, as if it was the music moving us from a time long ago rather than us moving to the music. However, if we lose our culture and history, we are enslaved once more.  Thus, I’ve tried to retell the story of the people of Portobelo and capture the spirit behind the Congo dance so that we know, in this instant, why we dance.

Other resources: Picturing Portobelo and the Fundación Bahía de Portobelo