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I have learned from experience that “attending cultural dance performances” is not high on the priority list of most of my fellow backpackers. Don’t believe me? Test how fast the hostel dorm falls silent when you float the idea as a night of fun. Excuse me for loving being entertained!

Yes, they can be cheesy, yes, they are typically put on for tourists, and yes, they truly vary in quality — my entire family fell asleep during the performance I dragged them to in Thailand, though my mom and I still rave about the one we watched in Istanbul.

But I have a soft spot for these cultural shows, an not only are they a great primer on the history, music, dance, costumes, and customs of a new country, I think they are a great way to promote cultural pride in the communities that hold them. My interest was piqued as soon as I saw the Panama City Folkloric Show and Dinner come up in my Panama City research.

The best part about this particular show? It involved food. Really good food. I’m typically suspicious of any theatre that offers dinner options, but in this case the location is actually a restaurant that holds occasional performances rather than the other way around. And it showed!

Appetizer options included sancocho, a country-style chicken soup, and white fish ceviche, a local specialty. For my entrée, I bypassed option like pork loin with plum sauce and corvine fillet with cappers to try ropa vieja, a spicy shredded beef and the national dish. This was my first time trying ropa vieja, and it became a favorite throughout our time in Panama. By the time I polished off the tres leches cake for dessert, I had consumed so many calories I probably should have hopped onstage to burn them off.

While we noshed, a vibrant cultural education unfolded before us. Live music accompanied each of the different dances, all representing an aspect of Panamanian culture. The first performance of the evening showed off simple yet colorful costumes complemented by an equally charming dance – the kind that might take place during a celebration in a rural Panamanian village. Next up was an ovation-earning acoustic set by the live musicians, followed by a carnival-mask-inspired tap dance. The conclusion was a full-cast number that I could barely pay attention to I was so obsessed with the traditionl pollera, a handmade cotton dress worn with elaborate head jewelry. Throughout the show, narrators came onstage between dances to point out the influences of native Indian groups, Spanish conquerers and Afro-Caribbean immigrants among the evening’s performances — I only wish the English language translator would have spoken up a bit!

My favorite part of the performances was a tie — while I spent half the show scheming about how to steal a pollera to parade around Casco Viejo in, I was absolutely captivated by the unexpected vocals by the men in the show. I’d never heard anything like it, and it’s tough to describe — it wasn’t lyrical singing so much as melodic noise making, if that makes any sense. One thing is certain — it was uniquely Panamanian.

Throughout my time in Panama, I would learn of the country’s diversity of cultures and indigenous groups, a legacy that has resulted in a wealth of beautiful costume, elaborate dance, unique music, and delicious food. This show gave us a perfect preview. Especially if your time in Panama is limited, I can’t recommend this tour more highly as a way to get a taste (literally!) of the country’s special culture.

One word of warning, however — when we arrived there was some confusion about what menu we should receive and what was included in our voucher. Be sure that you receive a prix fixe menu and ask for a clear explanation of what’s included — I definitely wouldn’t have ordered a second Diet Coke if I didn’t think it was included!

For those on a budget, there is an option to attend the show independently for a $5.50 cover and a $13 food or drink minimum, and of course you will have to arrange your own transportation. A la carte menu prices range from $3-9 for a starter, $10-18 for an entree, and desserts are around $5.

Um, yes. I think my Halloween costume for next year is sorted then, am I right?

And so you can get a better idea of the magic, I made a quick little movie out of my iPhone video clips. I used the app , which is a partner of mine that I liken to iMovie for iPhones. While it’s not exactly Ander’s video quality, you can’t beat four minutes of editing time!

Are you on the cultural performance bandwagon with me? Or are you on the side of my hostel dorm-mates?

Note: I am a freelancer for Viator and participated in these tours in order to write a review for their site. I was compensated for my time and they did not request favorable reviews on either their site or my own.

  • The Guy
    March 14 2014

    Well I’d happily attend a cultural dance class or show with you Meihoukai. I wonder if the people you were asking in the hostel were a little too young or naive to experience these types of events.

    What you show above is that it can be an insightful and enjoyable experience.

    When visiting new places I feel part of the experience is to taste the culture and with this you certainly have.
    The Guy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 14 2014

      Agreed 🙂 Well, it’s not for everyone and that’s okay too! I was poking a little fun at both myself and my fellow travelers with that intro!

  • Allie
    March 14 2014

    I went to one of these shows in Barcelona! It was cheesy but super fun. And the free sangria did not hurt.

    It made me think of what a “traditional American cultural dance performance” would involve. At this point it’s probably twerking.
    Allie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 14 2014

      I just remembered I went to one in Grenada, Spain too! I was so young (and so not blogging) I almost forgot about it. It was awesome. And OMG at twerking.

  • Kristen Noelle
    March 14 2014

    I went to a cultural dance show in Thailand, too; it’s always interesting to see how different traditional dances can be across cultures, and how important song and dance is for them. Pair that with local food dishes and awing costumes — you can count me in. Great idea for Halloween, I’m with you!

    • Meihoukai
      March 16 2014

      The only hitch is that I don’t believe in costumes where you have to explain what you are the whole time…. and I don’t know if many people will know the pollera 🙂

  • Katie
    March 14 2014

    I make ropa vieja at home and it is so good! I’d love to try the “real” version one day! I’m heading to Bali in April, and might go to a cultural dance there… seems like they offer insight into the history, food and culture of a country. 3 birds, one stone! By the way – I loved your review of Alaya so much that we are staying there on our trip to Ubud. Its a bit of splurge, but it will be so worth it!
    Katie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 16 2014

      Yum! Maybe I should try making it at home… if only I wasn’t a complete domestic failure 🙂 And I am so happy for you that you’re heading to the Alaya! I can’t wait to return someday.

  • Jen
    March 15 2014

    I love cultural shows like these despite some of them being cheesy! My husband hates them and I have been dragging him along to about a dozen or so around the world. My favourite was in Lucerne Switzerland complete with fondue meal, yodellers and cow bell ringing. So touristy but I learnt so much about Swiss culture.
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    • Meihoukai
      March 16 2014

      I would be ALL OVER the fondue! Sounds like my kind of party 🙂

  • Sam
    March 16 2014

    Haha “excuse me for loving being entertained” – you’re adorable. I floated the same idea past Dale when we were in Hanoi – about a water puppet show. Granted it was actually the most painful thing to sit through, but I’m still a sucker for any show that involves cultural dress and/or food. Puh-lease tell me you’ll be in New Yawk for Halloween?
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    • Meihoukai
      March 16 2014

      I would be ALL OVER a water puppet show. Sadly don’t think I’ll actually be in New York this Halloween. Booo! PS: Are you on Twitter? I tweeted one of your Vietnam posts but I couldn’t tag you!

  • Rashaad
    March 17 2014

    I do love attending fun cultural events on vacation. And they’ve even better when they’re free.

    Once in Japan (where I used to live), I stumbled into a taiko festival in Kumamoto and it was so awesome. The only reason I knew about was because the venue was next to the bus terminal. Anyway, I was a member of a taiko group in Japan so I love hearing good taiko. That festival was so much fun!
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    • Meihoukai
      March 17 2014

      What an amazing stroke of luck! I love festivals and try to attend them wherever possible, but I can’t say I’ve ever stumbled upon one 🙂

  • Corinne
    March 18 2014

    Meihoukai, I love the cultural shows and oftimes will seek them out. Like you, I don’t always find them to be great, but it’s so difficult to experience this in a more organic way as I’m not usually in a country long enough to be invited to a wedding or whatever. Great post.
    Corinne recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 18 2014

      That’s a great way to look at it, Corinne! While I’m sure I could have seen some authentic pollera dancing somewhere in Panama, this was a much easier way to experience it 😉

  • Alana - Paper Planes
    March 19 2014

    That first photo is gorgeous – it looks like a still from an old movie!
    Alana – Paper Planes recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 21 2014

      Thanks Alana! This show was such a challenge to photograph, I definitely appreciate the kudos 🙂

  • tammyonthemove
    March 21 2014

    I don’t mind these shows, as sadly this is often the only place where you can still see traditional outfits like that.
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    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      That’s true. I like that it helps keep the culture alive not just for the tourists but also for the local people!