Delia Zapata Olivella Papers

Identifier: MSS.0927

Scope and Contents

The Delia Zapata Olivella collection encompasses her work as an ethnographer, dancer, choreographer, professor, and Colombian folklorist. While she lived in Cartagena, Calí, and spent time researching in the pacific and atlantic regions of Colombia, she built her career in Bogotá. Zapata Olivella was born in Lorica, Colombia to parents with Afro-Colombian and Indigenous heritage, and evidence of her work to explore and promote Colombia’s tri-ethnic roots are provided in the collection. Her performances and those of her dance groups met acclaim from Colombian and international audiences.

The Delia Zapata Olivella papers contain an array of materials from her personal life and career. The collection is divided into 11 series: Personal, Career, Newspaper and magazine clippings, Spirituality, Posthumous, Original art, Photographs, Posters and Flyers, Oversize, Realia, and Audio Visual. Within these series, the particulars of her multifaceted life unfold.

Series 1: PERSONAL Materials demonstrate her family’s parallel interests in Folklore, Afro Colombian and Indigenous identity in Colombia, and writing. The categories include her daughter Edelmira Massa Olivella’s career-related and personal papers and writings by her brother Juan Zapata Olivella.

Series 2: CAREER Correspondences - Incoming and outgoing letters related to Delia Zapata Olivella’s projects throughout her career. They are organized by date and indicate the process of productions, administration, and invitations. Highlights include correspondences surrounding the performance at Radio City Music Hall (1974), a letter from President Belisario Betancur (1982), and updates about her book “Manual de danzas del litoral pacífico y Chocó de Colombia” (1998).

Administration - Documents from the administration of her various projects including the Fundación Instituto Folclórico Colombiano, Danzas Folclóricas Colombianas, and El Palenque.

ATABI - Collection of materials related to the 1977 production. Includes sheet music, reviews, and a resignation letter from the composer, Raul Mojica Mesa.

Programs - Mostly booklet style programs that include descriptions of folkloric dances. There are a few hand-designed programs in the collection. The materials are organized by performance location nationally and internationally.

Posters and Flyers - These legal-size or smaller materials promoted performances, conferences, and festivals including the Primer Festival Mundial de Folclor and the Primer Congreso Mundial de Brujería.

Fieldwork - This sub-series includes transcriptions of interviews in rural Colombia, guides to ethnographic research, and essays based on the locations she visited.

Teaching - Administrative documents, lecture notes, student essays, theses, and educational projects are arranged by higher education institutions. These collections from her academic career focus on her work at Universidad Nacional and Universidad Antonio Nariño.

Cultural education - Document related to non-profit and governmental programs designed to build cultural literacy in communities. These are primarily proposals for workshops or materials related to their administration.

Professional affiliations - Meeting notes, decrees, and committee lists comprise this sub-series of materials. Some affiliations include Association of choreographers and dancers (ACOBALA), Conseil International de Organisations de Festivals et d’Arts Traditionnels (C.I.O.F.F) International folk festival council, and Fundación Colombiana de Investigaciones Folclóricas.

Conference proceedings - Essays, guides, and attendee lists for conferences related to folkloric and black culture. Highlights include presentations for the First International Conference on Witchcraft, presentation on Vallenato at the IV International Book Fair in Bogota, and 13th Congreso de COTAL performance by Delia Zapata Olivella group.

Writings - Includes handwritten, typed, and published texts by Delia Zapata Olivella. Drafts of her book “Manual de danzas del litoral pacífico y Chocó de Colombia”, descriptions of folkloric dances with handwritten sheet music and choreography, essays on folklore culture, and her autobiography stand out in this sub-series.

Folkloric dance - These texts and choreography diagrams are about specific folkloric dances by region in Colombia. Highlights include handwritten diagrams and essays on dances in Antioquia, Sucre, and Riohacha. It also contains an essay on Cabildo in Carnival in English.

Folkloric history - A grouping of texts related to folkloric history in Colombia and abroad. These include music, legends, essays on particular regions of Colombia. Highlights include a series on folklore by Octavio Marulanda, an article on witchcraft in Boyacá, and an essay about the cultural history of Cauca, Valle, Nariño, and Chocó.

Indigenous history - Articles and essays on Indigenous peoples in Colombia. Includes a Manuscript on 500 years of Wayuu history and a booklet on music of the Guambiano.

Readings - Articles and essays on dance, music history, general folklore, and reports.

Festivals - Listings and information about folkloric events in Colombia and abroad.

Sheet music - A collection of handwritten and published music. Mostly centered on Colombian folkloric styles including the bambuco and contradanza.

Lyrics - Handwritten, typed, and/or published lyrics of original and folkloric music across Colombia. Highlights include Bullerengues from Evitar, Colombia, “Gaita negra para Delia Zapata”, various songs for the “Cumbia” dance, and “El Fandango” written for Manuel Zapata Olivella.

Theater - Essays, performance reviews, and notebooks focused on theater. Examples include, Analysis and descriptions of scenes in “Rambao,” Booklet on staging “Mojiganges de Torbellino”, and CV for director, playwright, and professor Rosario Montaña de Forero.

Scripts - An assortment of typed scripts for folkloric and contemporary presentations. Many scripts contain handwritten notes and multiple drafts. Highlights include “Río Sinú - Leyenda Sinuana” by an unknown author, “El hojarasquín” by Octavio Marulanda, and “La conquista de la miel” by Rosario Montaña.

Short stories - Texts featuring legends, contemporary reflections, and folkloric tales combine in this sub-series. Examples include: “El barco de silencio” by Luis Alfonso Obando and Legends written by Luis Delio Gomez.

Poetry - This sub-series contains typed, handwritten, and published poems of which Delia Zapata Olivella had a significant collection. Examples include: “Un poema de Gabriel Obregon” featuring Delia Zapata Olivella and “Romance de la muerte del negro candelario” by José Manuel Vergara.

Original art - This sub-series contains a collection of two-dimensional works on paper. These include handmade presentations of folkloric dances and costumes and drawings of costumes by Edelmira Massa Olivella, which were used for programs and to illustrate the “Manual de danzas del litoral pacífico y Chocó de Colombia.”

Related materials - Ranging from programs of international folkloric groups to handwritten inventories of Delia Zapata Olivella’s items, this collection of items demonstrate her broader interests.

SERIES 3: NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS AND MAGAZINES Newspapers and magazine clippings provide insight into the dancer, director, and choreographer’s reception nationally and internationally. These are organized by year and location of publication. The related materials section contains her collections of magazines and articles on folkloric and political topics. Some of these are available in digital files. SERIES 4: SPIRITUALITY This series focuses on Delia Zapata Olivella’s collection of texts and hand-written notes on the subject of spirituality. These materials reflect her interests in world religions and spiritual practices. It is not clear which of these she practiced personally. Highlights include a prayer book in Guajiro language, prayer to mother nature, and handwritten prayers.

SERIES 5: POSTHUMOUS This series contains newspaper clippings, homage performance announcements, and condolence cards honoring Delia Zapata Olivella. These demonstrate the reactions to her death and impact of her career.

SERIES 6: ORIGINAL ART This series contains two-dimensional works of art (mostly on paper) that Delia Zapata Olivella collected. These include figurative line drawings, paintings/drawings by Edelmira Massa Olivella, and mixed-media works.

SERIES 7: REALIA The series contains assorted objects within the Delia Zapata Olivella collection. Highlights include a two-dimensional face mask, hand-elaborated cassette tape cases, and a faux leather pouch.

SERIES 8 : OVERSIZE The oversize collection consists of original art, documents, certificates, and sheet music that are larger than legal size paper. Highlights include a pair of original artworks by Edelmira Massa Olivella, Award for the Comité del desfile del dia de la raza in New York City (1966), and a participation certificate for Primer Congreso Mundial de Brujería.

SERIES 9: OVERSIZE POSTERS AND FLYERS A collection of posters and announcements for performance in Colombia and abroad. Related materials include posters for conferences, festivals, and performances that were not focused on Delia Zapata Olivella. Highlights include posters for a Colombian presentation at Russian national assembly (August 26, 1957), Danzas Folclóricas Colombianas de Delia Zapata Olivella 3-color print for “Cabildo en Carnaval” designed by Edelmira Massa Olivella, and “ATABI” at Teatro Jorge Eliecer Gaitan (March 12).

SERIES 10: PHOTOGRAPHS The photograph collection includes over 400 photographs featuring Delia Zapata Olivella’s travels, performances, conferences, and family. A group of these photos featuring folkloric dance and attire are available in digital formats.

SERIES 11: AUDIO VISUAL The audio visual collection for Delia Zapata Olivella features records, CDs, floppy diskettes, cassette tapes, 8mm film, and VHS and Beta videos. A group of 15 VHS tapes are available in digital formats. These contain footage of folkloric dances from field investigations in rural areas of Colombia and folkloric ballet performances on stage.


  • 1947-2013; bulk circa 1960s-2001

Conditions Governing Access

This collection may be viewed only in the reading room of Special Collections in the Jean and Alexander Heard Library. Collections should be requested 2-3 days prior to visiting in order to facilitate easier access. For questions or to request a collection, contact

Biographical Note - Delia Zapata Olivella

Born in Lorica, Colombia in 1926, Delia Zapata Olivella committed her life’s work to recording, disseminating, and promoting Colombian folkloric culture. While she lived in Cartagena, Calí, and spent time researching in the Pacific and Atlantic regions of Colombia, she built her career in Bogotá. She received awards for her contributions to dance and Colombian national patrimony. Her attention to using authentic attire, musical instruments, and dances with her touring groups was demonstrated in the folkloric presentations by Danzas Folclóricas Colombianas de Delia Zapata Olivella. With the non-profit Fundación Instituto Folclórico Colombiano, she established a place for community outreach. She taught courses for dancers and educators to learn folkloric dances. As a professor of theater and dance at the Universidad Antonio Nariño, she prepared future generations to create performances connected to authentic Colombian traditions. Tracing the folkloric customs to their roots in Indigenous, Spanish, and African practices, Delia contributed to a global understanding of Colombia’s tri-ethnic heritage.

Delia began her artistic career in visual arts. She studied sculpture at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes and taught drawing in Cartagena and Bogotá. She was named a professor of drawing at the Universidad Nacional in 1950. In 1955, she won an award for her carved-wood sculpture, La Mendiga at an exhibition in Barranquilla. Brochures from artists and exhibitions indicate that she remained interested and participated in the contemporary art scene in Bogotá. A letter written by her brother Juan Zapata Olivella to prominent Colombian artist Enrique Grau about a painting of Delia also speaks to her relationship with Colombian visual art.

While she did not pursue a career as a visual artist, her quotation “Hago esculturas vivas, las modelo espiritual y físicamente...esto es el arte” (Translation: I make living sculptures, I model them spiritually and physically ... this is art) suggests that she approached dance with the same creative inspiration as sculpture.

Delia's field investigations with her brother Manuel Zapata Olivella, a leading author, poet, doctor, and researcher, were centered on African-based dance and music in the coastal regions of Colombia. They traveled into remote communities to interview locals about their cultural traditions. Using an analog recorder she gathered ethnographic details that were often only transferred through oral histories. The information she compiled was the beginning of her interest in regional folklore and influenced a book she published with her daughter Edelmira Massa Olivella decades later entitled, “Manual de danzas de la costa pacífica de Colombia.” Having Indigenous and African ancestors, the research and associated creative work they made had personal significance to the siblings; they were spaces to share the heritage of their ancestors.

Following Manuel and Delia’s investigations in Chocó, they formed a touring group of folkloric dancers that they had met through their explorations of the coastal regions. The troupe, named Danzas Folclóricas Chocoanas de Delia Zapata Olivella, was composed of 23 people from the region such as fishermen, cotton and tobacco farmers, and gold miners. They later brought the sounds, movements, and attire of the Coast to the Teatro Colón in Bogotá to much acclaim. Delia’s international performances of folkloric dances with the group garnered attention from the foreign press and placed Colombian folkloric culture on the world map.

In 1954, Delia organized her own folkloric dance group, Danzas Folclóricas Colombianas de Delia Zapata Olivella, which toured throughout the country and internationally. As director and choreographer, she promoted authentic Colombian folkloric dance, attire, and instruments through her productions. In 1957, Delia was invited to Paris where she and her group of traditional dancers pulled from remote regions of Colombia performed. She extended the trip to include a tour through the Soviet Union, China, Czechoslovakia, and East and West Germany. The trip concluded at the Gran Festival Hispánico de Cáceres, Spain where the group one first place. The composition of dancers and incorporation of new dances continued throughout Delia’s leadership until 1998.

In the 1960s, Delia Zapata Olivella continued her folkloric research, directing performances, and teaching. In 1963, she accepted a position as head choreographer and director at the Instituto Popular de Cultura in Calí where she worked until 1969. Her group was invited to perform at the 4th Festival Nacional de Artes de Calí and an arts festival in Panama. While in Calí, Delia continued her field research. In the Colombian state, Cauca, she researched customs based on African and Indigenous influence from Guapi to San Sebastián de Guangüí. From her fieldwork and the work done previously in Chocó, she gathered information on 45 regional dances.

Delia Zapata Olivella received a scholarship to teach and study in the United States in 1965. This included teaching in the music department of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C. and a residency in New York City studying African dance with Katherine Dunham. There she met leading figures in North American modern dance: Martha Graham, JoséLimón, Merce Cunningham, and Judith Hanna. While there, she formed a group and participated in the Día de la Raza parade and won a merit award.

In 1967, she became faculty of the art department at La Universidad Nacional. This is where she began developing her unique approach to teaching dance using folkloric customs. Teaching was a substantial part of career: Drawing at Colegio Fernández Baena (1953-55), Danzas Folclóricas Colombianas de Delia Zapata Olivella (1954 - 1988), Telecom dance group (1959-61), Instituto Popular de Cultura de Calí (1963-69), Hospital Militar (1968-9), and the Corporación Ballet de Colombia (1970-72). Later she continued teaching in higher education at La Universidad Antonio Nariño, and in 1976 she collaborated with playwright and professor Rosario Montaña on a degree in theater and dance.

Delia received recognition for her work promoting and preserving folkloric culture. La Sociedad de Autores y Compositores de Colombia (SAYCO) granted Delia a merit award for her support of Colombian national culture in 1969. She was honored as the best folklorist and Black dancer by the school, La Fundación Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. The Patronato Colombiano de Artes y Ciencias gave Delia a medal for her preservation of folk culture. The governor of the state of Bolívar in Colombia issued a decree that Delia be honored now and in future generations for her cultural work. In 1993, she received a merit award for her efforts in support of popular culture from the Mayor of Bogota’s office of culture and tourism. This abbreviated list gives a sense that Delia was highly regarded and well-known around the country.

In 1974, Delia Zapata Olivella launched the Fundación Instituto Folclórico Colombiano as a non-profit that could house her efforts to encourage encounters with Colombia’s folkloric traditions. It was housed in what was called “La Casa de Delia” in the La Candelaria neighborhood of colonial Bogotá. The home also became the location for the restaurant and performance space Delia owned, El Palenque. The foundation promoted performances, community outreach, and teacher training. She was careful when teaching the coastal dances to people in the interior. Her methodology to train dancers included selecting foundational steps from folkloric dances and combining them with techniques she acquired through the Katherine Dunham school. Through the Instituto Folclórico, Montaña and Delia Zapata Olivella collaborated on the productions including “ATABI” (1977), “La Natividad Negra,” and “Cabildo en Carnaval”(1980). In 1986, the foundation hosted the “Primer Festival Mundial del Folclor” in Bogotá. While the event was an international cultural success, the debts from this event plagued the Fundación Instituto Folclórico Colombiano for years to come.

The 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and into 2000 Delia continued directing productions around the world. In 1974, she choreographed a folkloric ballet performance at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Delia was named the director of the Danzas Negras de la Corporación Ballet de Colombia. In 1977, she brought Colombian folkloric dances to Washington, D.C. The group performed in France, Puerto Rico, Italy, and Ecuador in the 1980s. International tours in the 1990s included Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil. In 2000, Danzas Folclóricas Colombianas de Delia Zapata Olivella was invited to perform at the Centro Cultural Latino Internacional in Chicago. The state of Illinois declared July 19, 2000 “Doña Delia Zapata Olivella Day” because the debut of her folkloric dance group was a historic event for the city and its Colombian community.

An intellectual, Delia published and presented papers about folklore in Colombia. Her group would sometimes perform, too. A few key conferences include: Indiana University (1966), Seminario sobre Teatro Identificar in Guadalajara, Mexico (1974), Primer Congreso de Cultura Negra de las Américas in Calí (1977) and presentations in Bogotá on Colombian culture at the Expomilitar (1997), and the Museo Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá(2000).

She published articles in the newspaper “Paginas de Cultura” in 1964-65, the magazine Colombia Ilustrada (1969 and 72), and the journal Letras Nacionales 1975. The book Manual de danzas de la costa pacífica de Colombia (1998) contained details of dance history, steps, attire, and instruments.

In 2001, Delia and her daughter, Edelmira, traveled to the Côte d’Ivoire for a workshop on African dance and instruments. The expense-paid trip offered Delia the opportunity to connect with the roots of the Afro-Colombian dances that she had dedicated so much of her career studying and disseminating. She contracted malaria in Abidjan and returned to Bogotá. She was admitted to La Clínica Nueva on April 4 and died May 24, 2001.

After Delia passed, newspapers across Colombia published articles about her life and contributions to Colombia’s cultural patrimony. A testament to her reach, the president of Colombia, Pastrana Arango, sent a condolence letter to her brother Manuel. Productions and events marked her passing such as Lumbalú funerary rituals hosted at her El Palenque in Bogotá and the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Cartagena. Homage performances at the energy company in the capital city and at the Universidad Nacional featured an array of folkloric dances from different regions of Colombia. Her daughter has upheld her legacy, and in 2004 published a book that she and her mother collaborated on, Manual de danzas de la Costa Atlántica de Colombia.

The Delia Zapata Olivella Papers at Vanderbilt University provide background on her work as an Afro-Colombian choreographer, dancer, ethnographer, professor, and community activist. Her fieldwork served as the foundation for her creative productions. She strived to help Colombian people and those in the global community experience what she had witnessed in some of the most remote locations in the world. The dance groups she led and the students she taught learned about the roots of the movements, the music and the instruments, and the traditional attire. Her career was dedicated to going beyond appropriating the styles of other regions; it was a consistent effort to uphold and honor folkloric traditions, especially as they related African and Colombian performing arts.


50 Linear Feet (87 Hollinger boxes; 20 large flat folders)

Language of Materials

Spanish; Castilian


The Delia Zapata Olivella collection encompasses her work as an ethnographer, dancer, choreographer, professor, and Colombian folklorist. While she lived in Cartagena, Calí, and spent time researching in the pacific and atlantic regions of Colombia, she built her career in Bogotá. Zapata Olivella was born in Lorica, Colombia to parents with Afro-Colombian and Indigenous heritage, and evidence of her work to explore and promote Colombia’s tri-ethnic roots are provided in the collection. Her performances and those of her dance groups met acclaim from Colombian and international audiences.

Physical Location

Offsite Storage, Special Collections & Archives

Finding Aid for the Delia Zapata Olivella Papers
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Vanderbilt University Special Collections Repository

Jean and Alexander Heard Library
419 21st Avenue South
Nashville TN 37203 United States


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