On an ordinary night in Panama, I set out for Las Tablas and a quiet dinner with friends. Or so I thought. I arrived to find a local festival in full swing, complete with a crowd of folk dancers and musicians.
Maybe I should have expected as much, since Las Tablas, the capital city of Panama’s Los Santos province, is widely recognized as the heart of folk music in Panama. The evening I spent there, learning Tamborito rhythms and listening to townspeople recounting generations’ worth of local pride, went down as one of my favorite nights out in Panama.
If you take a closer look at any one aspect of Panamanian culture — whether it’s food, music, dance, dress, or customs — you’ll find evidence of the rich cultural fusion that occurs in Panama as a result of the country’s location at the crossroads of North and South America and the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. There is no better example of this than in the extravagant dances of Panama. Dance is one of the most vibrant living testaments to the diverse influences that have shaped Panamanian culture over the years — and in my opinion, one of the most captivating!
Panama’s national song and dance, the Tamborito is led by a female vocalist supported by rhythmic clapping and shouting from the crowd as both men and women whirl and shuffle around the dance floor. Audience participation is key, making each performance a social event. True to the idea of “authentic Panamanian” as a complex cultural mix, the Tamborito blends both Spanish and indigenous dance styles with accompanying African rhythms.
Travelers looking to immerse in the folk culture of Panama can head for the interior, or countryside, where local folklore is expressed through festivals, dances, and celebrations occurring throughout the year. Each town puts its own twist on dance and weaves threads of its individual history into the lyrics for a unique location-specific stamp evident even to newcomers and dance novices.
Dancing a Path through Panama
From Latin to Caribbean dance styles, from the Congo (introduced in Panama by Caribbean immigrants) to Salsa (straight from Cuba), there’s a rhythm for everyone. And within Panama City a few famed dance halls invite both the graceful and the two-left-footed to enjoy the energetic crowds and music of a Panamanian night out.
Calle Eloy Alfaro y Calle 12 | Barrio San Felipe, Casco Antiguo, Panama City
Habana Panama brings in a diverse crowd, from young singles to couples celebrating their 50th wedding anniversaries with a night of dancing, and everyone is in the mood to celebrate. Last summer, our Isla Palenque Island Interns had the opportunity to spend a night at Habana Panama during their time in Panama City and they had a blast!
You’ll witness all types of dance from traditional to modern, and if you’re lucky, one of the sparkly dance instructors will give you a tutorial on the dance floor.
Platea Jazz Bar
Calle 1 between Avenida A y Central | in the heart of Casco Viejo
For a more tranquil experience, Platea is your best bet. True to its name, Platea offers live jazz music and an upscale atmosphere. It’s a great place to go and chat with friends earlier in the evening, and if you stay late enough you’ll see it transform into a more chaotic spin of dancing couples.
Depending on the mood, you can grab a partner and jump into a festive community dance, or put on your best evening attire and sashay into a memorable evening in the city. The challenge of learning new steps and the breathless fun of dancing will amaze you with how much you can learn about Panama from just a few turns around the dance floor!