Burn’s night

By Published On: January 29, 2007Categories: Living in Bolivia1 Comment on Burn’s night

There is a chunky Japanese guy below me in the Irish bar playing the Diablada, a Bolivian carnival song, on the bagpipes. An English man wanders past in a fine kilt, his sporran full of whisky and probably coca leaves. Yep, you’ve guessed it. I am at a Burn’s Night celebration in Bolivia. 

I had heard mutterings of a Scottish dance society in La Paz, but never quite believed it. To me, ceilidhs remind me of drunken sweaty halls of students at Edinburgh University, weddings of my Scottish and pseudo-Scottish friends, and being the only teenager at a new year’s eve party with my parents. I like a good whirl, but none of those memories made much sense in Bolivia. However when I got the email flyer promising a Burn’s night bash of music, dance and poetry, I thought I should find out and give Juliette an introduction to Scottish culture.

So we follow the shamrock sign of the ubiquitous Irish pub (guaranteed in every city worldwide) and burst into a room with Bolivian and expats prancing ably, men with white garters, kilts and ballet-like shoes and women with flowing white skirts, tartan scarves and embroidery. The Bolivian women are noticeably the most graceful and beautiful Scottish dancers.

I settle down with a beer with Rolando and his British wife, Emma two friends from La Paz. It reminds Rolando of the "good crack" he had on a visit to Dingle in Ireland the year before. "It’s great seeing this in La Paz. It makes you realise how small the world is."

Richard, the englishman in the kilt, tells me that the Scottish dance group has been going strongly since at least the 1960s. One of the members of the group, one of only two Scots, had been going along for 28 years. "Historical records show that there was a Scottish dance group in an Entrada (street festival) in 1906." Meanwhile a hundred years later in 2006, he tells me, the Japanese bagpiper is teaching children to play bagpipes in a school in El Alto  after they inexplicably received 16 bagpipes recently.

I loved the interculturality and surreality of it all, but I found myself impatient at watching experienced dancers and not being able to join in. For me ceilidhs are about everyone mucking in from the proficient to the incompetent and messing it up chaotically. But these dancers seemed rather over-serious about their dancing and their outfits, strangely more so than the Scots I remember from my time in Edinburgh.

It reminded me oddly of an Indian film, Bhaji on the Beach about a group of British Indian women heading to Blackpool. The women are all talking excitedly about Indian music and film stars with some family visitors from India. The Indian visitors look disdainfully and say: "mama-ji, that music is so old-fashioned. None of us listen to that any more." The British Indians are still clearly stuck in a romantic past.

Perhaps then expats have a tendency to rigidify old customs. But as I leave, Richard invites me along to their weekly dance next Saturday at 4.30pm. Who knows? I feel tempted. Perhaps I will go and join in and try introduce some cueca (traditional La Paz dance) and unprofessionalism into the mix.

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One Comment

  1. Hey Nick
    Today I found your blog, it´s interesting your point of view of our group.
    We are a group of friends and we enjoy the dancing and everything involved with this kind of dance.
    I´m copying your article to our blog
    a big hug and hope you visit us sometime.

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