Shakira’s fiery Super Bowl performance is the talk of the town. As the Colombian pop sensation entertained audiences with her greatest hits on Sunday, what left viewers cheering wasn’t just her stunning vocals, or her stage presence. It was the inclusion of two Latin American dance forms from the singer’s home country. Searches for ‘Champeta’ and ‘Mapalé’ broke out worldwide after the halftime show, as curious fans looked up the fluid and energetic troupe that accompanied the Chantaje hitmaker. Much like the audience at the Super Bowl—screaming, swaying, stunned—we wanted to know more about the two folk dances, their origins, and where to catch them at their authentic best. Here’s our quick guide:
Background and origins
Champeta was originally used as an insult for African-descent communities in northern Colombia. It later emerged as a frenzied folk music tradition, combining Congolese and West African rhythms with indigenous Antilles music, and is a regional favourite in Cartagena, Barranquilla, Cali and capital Bogotá. Despite influencing chart-toppers today and being a hot pick on picós—Colombian sound systems—many of the country’s elite aren’t a fan of champeta’s African origins and rebellious energy. The music is strong, with a resounding bass line that’s easy to groove to, but the upper-class rejection is probably why champeta hasn’t gained visibility as much as other Colombian dances like vallenato—until now. Within a week, Shakira’s performance has spurred a viral Champeta Challenge online.
Mapalé likely came from Angolan slaves as a fisherman’s dance after long days out on sea. When couples dance the mapalé, the show isn't exactly PG-13, but pay attention to a solo performer and you’ll start to notice its characteristic jumps, short steps, and hip-and-shoulder shakes. Named after the Cathorops mapale fish, the dance goes with cumbia music, and is meant to mimic ‘being a fish out of water’. Costumes are simple short skirts for women and trousers for men, with ruffles, tassels and heels for added flair.
You can spot mapalé’s pulsating cumbia beats at the 5:30 mark, and champeta’s vibrant footwork in the dance break (13:00). The champeta choreography was set by 18-year-old Liz Dany Campo Diaz, who comes from Shakira’s birthplace Barranquilla. The showcasing of Afro-Colombian culture—often suppressed in Colombia—was a deliberate move on Shakira’s part: an homage to her mixed origins, and to empower and increase visibility for African and Latinx-origin communities living in the USA.
What’s the best place to see them?
Undoubtedly, the Barranquilla Carnival. The largest folkloric celebration in Colombia—and second just to Brazil’s Rio carnival—you can spot both champeta and mapalé in this massive party that cuts across religions, ethnicities and beliefs. Charismatic dancers come in guns ablazing—think frilly costumes, spicy routines—and the Carnival Queen gives you a demo on all dances from the area. Slated from February 22 to 25 this year, the parade is a Unesco-designated ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
Along the Caribbean coast, Bazurto Social Club in Cartagena is popular for champeta music and lively dance lessons. The city’s champeta scene thrives at nightclubs, but if showing off your skills on a public dance floor seems daunting, sign up for experiential classes offered by locals. In Barranquilla, clubs such as La Troja and Barullo have diverse playlists. Barranquilla is also the heart of mapalé performances, but they’re not as widespread as champeta. Companies like Crazy Salsa in Cartagena have specialised listings for mapalé amid bachata and salsa classes, while some like Nueva Lengua combine Spanish language classes with mapalé. If there’s no time for learning, you’re still bound to spot buskers and thumping Afro-Colombian beats year-round in these two coastal cities.
Getting there: India has two-stop flights from major cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad to Barranquilla and Cartagena. You could fly in to Cartagena, as the larger city, and then do a Caribbean coastal drive to Barranquilla (128 km) via the scenic Tronca del Caribe or Route 90A highway. Affordable shuttle or taxi transfers are also available.
Best time to visit: For both cities, it’s from December to April. The weather is warm without excessive humidity, and you can still bask in the ocean breeze.
In case you don’t have travel plans anytime soon, Shakira also released a quick choreography video of her Champeta routine from the Super Bowl. It doesn’t have the bellydancing and other Arabic touches from the actual show (Shakira is half-Lebanese), but it’s still quite fun. Watch it here: