This courtship dance has passed down generation after generation with little variation compared to cumbia music and is still performed around the world and in Colombia by folkloric dance troupes and amateurs alike at parties and street festivals.
Two cumbia dancers in traditional costume (source)
Cumbia is danced by men and women dressed in white. The women wore the long, multi-layered traditional skirts of the area and the men wearing white pants folded up and the ankle and a red scarf around their necks. The men carried bundles of candles or torches, which were lit and held as they gathered in a circle. Couples moved to the centre to dance with the women lifting their skirts, simultaneously pushing the man away and enticing them closer.
Cumbia evolved against rhythms surrounding them, the men attempting to win over the women with his dancing and by ritually passing her fire from his bouquet of candles. The men danced with one hand on his back and the other holding his traditional hat, putting it on and off. Cumbia was danced barefoot at night near the ocean, and many of its moves reflect the motions of the work the fishermen and farmers who danced it performed during the day.
Over time the look of cumbia has changed as the clothing has become brighter and the dance is frequently performed by troupes of women. However the basic steps and structure of the dance remains easily recognizable from its origins.
Cumbia parade in Colombia (source)
This is a video of traditional Colombian Cumbia. You can see the the stripped down basics of the cumbia rhythm performed acoustically and the traditional dress (both male and female) worn by the performs. The courtship elements of the dance are also shown.
Traditionalists are irked by the many modern “cumbia” dances which proliferate in response to the popularity of cumbia in Latin America. Modern cumbia dances have moved way beyond the Colombian folk roots of the music, especially in cumbia villera, the ghetto cumbia popular with the working class in Argentina. Compare the above video with the following, a televised performance of a cumbia villera song.
While the basic cumbia rhythm is instantly recognizable, the evolution of the instruments, vocals and dancing is clear. Interestingly the popularity of cumbia villera in Argentina is seen as evidence for the countries decent into vulgarity by its cultural purists. You can hear some of these ghetto sounds in the Cumbia Hiphop Remix in the Sounds page.