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‘Mexican Native Dances’ illustration by Luis Covarrubias

Did pre-Columbian dances survive the Conquest?

In response to queries sent in to Mexicolore by two friends, here we attempt a brief answer to what is a tricky question, largely because so little was written down by the Mexica, and by subsequent Spanish and Mexican chroniclers, by way of descriptions of pre-Hispanic dances as they were actually performed... (and in any case, how DO you document a dance choreography just using words?! (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Group of dancers (male and female), Colima culture: possibly an open round dance linked to fertility. Anahuacalli Museum of Diego Rivera, Mexico City
Pic 1: Group of dancers (male and female), Colima culture: possibly an open round dance linked to fertility. Anahuacalli Museum of Diego Rivera, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Mexico is a land rich in folklore. Music and dance, two of the oldest expressions of cultural form throughout the world, were intimately linked, in ancient times, to agricultural and ritual festivities and calendar cycles, and were patronised by specific deities, to whom offerings were regularly made. Tiny statuettes of jade, stone and clay show clearly that dance, probably associated with invocations of rain, was already well developed in Mesoamerica as early as 1500 BCE, in the Preclassic (‘Formative’) period. From the few descriptions handed down to us by Spanish and Mexican chroniclers (Sahagún, Torquemada, Motolinía, Mendieta, Landa, Durán, Clavijero) we know that by the early 16th century dance had not only evolved into carefully choreographed mass ceremonial spectacles - in which hundreds, if not thousands took part, including the emperor, in perfectly coordinated concentric circles - but was directly associated by the Mexica with individual health and medical cures: the god Ixtlilton (patron deity of dance) was the brother of Macuilxochitl and Xochipilli (gods of music, song and games), all three representing different aspects of good health, pleasure and general wellbeing.

Pic 2: Dancing in the atrium of the church...
Pic 2: Dancing in the atrium of the church... (Click on image to enlarge)

There’s little doubt that the indigenous dances of Mexico today are but a pale shadow of the great ceremonial dances of Aztec times; and yet - unlike in literature, sculpture and other forms of artistic expression - dance per se was not always prohibited by the evangelizing Spanish: after unleashing an initial wave of destruction of Aztec culture, they attempted to incorporate native dancing into Catholic ceremony, to encourage native peoples’ acceptance of Christianity, even for a while allowing dances to be performed inside Christian churches. When, later, native dancing was banned from churches and relegated to the adjoining open-air atria (pic 2), this move was welcomed by Nahua peoples who had traditionally performed pre-Hispanic ceremonies in large open spaces outside their temples. With time a new, hybrid dance form emerged. By introducing new characters into the ‘play’, the descendants of the Aztecs succeeded in disguising, hiding - and, above all, keeping alive - some of their ancient customs, beliefs and deities. Duels between Eagles and Jaguars became struggles between Moors and Christians; Catholic saints replaced native gods; Passion Plays vied with ancient rain god ceremonies; the Sun (Tonatiuh) was re-named Jesus Christ...

Pic 3: A scene from the ‘Danza de la Pluma’ (R); close-up (L) of the mirror-trimmed main headdress
Pic 3: A scene from the ‘Danza de la Pluma’ (R); close-up (L) of the mirror-trimmed main headdress (Click on image to enlarge)

A classic example of a dance that appears to portray a single historical event (the Spanish Conquest of Mexico) and yet has a strong pre-Hispanic soul is the Danza de la Pluma or Feather Dance, from the southern state of Oaxaca (pic 3). The full performance of this dance lasts several hours and features key characters and stages in the Conquest story. But - to quote Luis Covarrubias -
If we consider the details, like the costume of the enormous mirror-trimmed and plumed headdress and the heart-shaped sceptre held in the left hand, or the majestic forward, backward and circular movement, and the ritual bow to the four cardinal points, we discover that the modern significance is only a disguise for an ancient ceremonial rite. Furthermore, the headdress, the use of a bright-coloured cape, the silk-banded, gold-fringed pantaloon, the apron covered with silver medals and coins, all suggest the appearance of a brilliant, crested bird. This is Quetzalcocochtli, the bird that sings at dawn, and is the image of Macuilxochitl whose feast, Xochilhuitl, festival of the flowers, is still celebrated in the city of Oaxaca. In this moveable feast, which ordinarily falls on the fifth day of its calendar sign, an individual dresses as the god and carries his heart-shaped sceptre.
All these details leave little doubt that the dance nowadays performed in Oaxaca as the Feather Dance must have been that of Macuilxochitl, the god of music, song, dance and courtly nobility.

Pic 4: Pueblo Indian Eagle Dance, New Mexico
Pic 4: Pueblo Indian Eagle Dance, New Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

In Chapter 11 (‘Relics of Ancient Dances’) of their pioneering 1964 study of pre-Hispanic dance forms Dances of Anáhuac, Gertrude Prokosch Kurath and Samuel Martí trace ancient Mesoamerican dance strands through several sources of clues: the eagle dance (pic 4) and open round (aka snake) dance that persist in the southern USA as part of the cult of the plumed serpent; the circuits of Pueblo Indian ceremonial dances (that ‘evoke visions of the Aztec ceremonies in their full splendour...’); dances from modern Mexico and Guatemala; comparisons of dance structure, organisation, movement components (impersonations, animal masks, combat, trance dances, offerings, processions, body movement, formations), and finally style of performance, consistently finding traces of a (particularly Aztec) past...

Pic 5: The ‘Quetzales’ bird dance from the Sierra de Puebla (L); illustration (R) by Luis Covarrubias
Pic 5: The ‘Quetzales’ bird dance from the Sierra de Puebla (L); illustration (R) by Luis Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

‘In all ceremonial dances’, stress the researchers, ‘the Indians express their devotion to gods and land. They love their fiestas, but they put their heart and soul into dances inherited from their fathers for rain and crops. In these they retain memories of the past.’ Some dances extend the link to agricultural ritual to worship of the sky, the sun and to ancient calendrical cycles. Within this genre the Quetzales dance from the Sierra de Puebla (pic 5) is a useful example. Linked to the much more famous Voladores (below), this dance, with its Totonac cousin the Danza de los Huahuas, apart from being one of the most colourful in the Mexican folk repertoire, is well-known for the spectacular circular - and solar-like - headdresses, formed from a framework of reed, paper strips, ribbons and feathers (the rest of the costume is clearly of European origin). Key to the performance is a finale in which some of the the dancers mount a wooden contraption consisting of a rough spoked wheel on an axle suspended by tall stakes. With their headdresses swaying majestically, the dancers revolve slowly, mimicking the rotation of time and the universe (pic 6).

Pic 6: The cycle of time evoked through dance: ‘Danza de los Huahuas’ (L - illustration by Alberto Beltrán) and the ‘Voladores’ ceremony (R)
Pic 6: The cycle of time evoked through dance: ‘Danza de los Huahuas’ (L - illustration by Alberto Beltrán) and the ‘Voladores’ ceremony (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

The Totonac Voladores or Flying Pole ceremony (pix 6r and 7) is one of very few pre-Hispanic dances (incredibly the musician and flyers at the top DO dance!) to have survived the Conquest. Whilst it has lost virtually all of its original meaning and today is often performed, much like a sport, simply as a tourist attraction, its ancient roots are self-evident, and its form remains remarkably close to the original. Precursor, some say, of the Aztec tree at the centre of the Xocotl Huezi ritual (both ceremonies took place at the same time in the pre-Hispanic calendar), the flyers perform on top of and leap off from a stripped pine trunk some 80-90 feet high, buried eight or ten feet in the ground, and with its base supported by boards and wire. The distinguished English ethnomusicologist Rodney Gallop witnessed both Totonac (with four flyers) and Otomí (with six) versions of the ceremony in the 1930s, and begins his lengthy analysis with a description of the ritual selection and ‘planting’ of the tree...

Pic 7: The Flyers Ceremony - illustration by Luis Covarrubias
Pic 7: The Flyers Ceremony - illustration by Luis Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

Five hundred Indians [entered] the jungle to choose as straight as possible a tree of the necessary height. To measure the height they had paced off the required length along the ground, turned their backs on the tree and looked at it between their legs. Selecting one of which the top just showed from this unconventional viewpoint they had felled it, lopped off the branches and using no other gear than Liana ropes had hauled it with songs and shouts into the town. There it had been planted in a deep hole in the ground into which, with a ritual more pagan than Christian, a strange assortment of sacrificial objects had first been thrown; hard-boiled eggs, sugar-cane brandy, tamales, pieces of cloth and a dead hen, all to propitiate the pole lest it should “devour men”. The tecomate or apparatus that is key to the success of the performance (pic 8) consisted of ‘a wooden, mortar-shaped cap, about a foot high and two feet in diameter, hollowed out so that it fits on to the top of the pole. This cap forms, as it were, the hub of a hexagonal wooden frame which hangs from it by cords fastened to the angles. Round the top of the mast, just below are wound [the] ropes, each long enough when unwound to reach almost to the ground.’

Pic 8: The flyers about to leap like birds into the air...
Pic 8: The flyers about to leap like birds into the air... (Click on image to enlarge)

The costumes are the same as those of other dances of the Puebla highlands, a far cry (thanks to the Spanish) from the splendid eagle and other bird costumes worn by the participants’ ancestors. Positioned perilously atop the tiny platform (a foot in diameter!) the musician alternately stands and sits, jumping/dancing, swaying backwards and forwards, greeting the four cardinal directions, all the time playing a small reed whistle and tiny drum (according to Kurath and Martí each stage of the ceremony has a special tune). Encouraged to leap several inches into the air, the role of dancer-musician is singularly dangerous (Gallop recorded a death two years previously), and the performer is chosen a year in advance: ‘during that whole year he is treated with special consideration, overwhelmed with attentions and granted his slightest wish’ - a striking parallel with the Aztec youth chosen to be Tezcatlipoca impersonator in the annual Tozcatl festival.
Witnessed by Bernal Díaz and mentioned by Diego Durán, it was Fray Juan de Torquemada in his book De la Monarquía Indiana of 1612 who has left us the most graphic description. Noting that the four flyers each described 13 circles around the pole during their descent - giving the magical sum of 52 - his attempt to grasp the meaning is illuminating:-

Pic 9: A highly Europeanised depiction of the Voladores ceremony in the Codex Azcatitlan, plate XXVII
Pic 9: A highly Europeanised depiction of the Voladores ceremony in the Codex Azcatitlan, plate XXVII (Click on image to enlarge)

‘I think this contraption was invented by the Devil, to keep these his false servants and devotees in fresher and more continuous memory of his infernal and abominable service; for it was a reminder of the fifty-two years which they reckoned to their century at the end of which cycle of years they renewed with the new fire which they took out their pact and agreement which they had made with the Devil to serve him as many years in the time to come.’ Torquemada noted that the ritual continued after the Conquest, until the monks ‘discovered the secret’ and banned it, for it to return years later, ostensibly with the ‘pagan’ symbolism lost. Having spread far and wide in Mesoamerica before the Conquest, it’s possible that the Spanish - encouraged by the Mexica themselves? - interpreted the Aztec version more as a sport or youthful acrobatic challenge than as a sacred ritual, and hence were slow in picking up on its religious meaning. Yet even in modern times the flyers maintain an awareness of their ancestors’ roles in the ritual; Gallop noted this remark from one performer: ‘We fly six nowadays to make a better show, but we should really be four, for we are the sacred birds who fly with the four winds to the four cardinal points.’ It should be added that for many the ‘planting’, ‘fertilising’ and raising of the tree itself, capped by the all-important fifth performer, represented the paying of homage to the fifth direction, the link between sky and earth, the original ‘tree of life’...

Pic 10: Nutshell rattles; when Aztecs danced they ‘sang with their feet’...
Pic 10: Nutshell rattles; when Aztecs danced they ‘sang with their feet’... (Click on image to enlarge)

Several writers have commented on the contrast between what by all post-Conquest accounts appears to have been the ‘formal and ornate choreography’ of ceremonial Mexica round dances, infused with religious, solar and sacred geometrical forms and symbolism, rigorously and perfectly executed, led by a professional director, accompanied by strongly rhythmical, almost hypnotic percussion - and the shuffling, sometimes ‘incoherent’ and ‘incongruous’ aspects of many of today’s hybrid Mexican folk dances, accompanied largely by European instruments. Yet in many ways a flourishing of dance forms has occurred (in the last century one national festival of folk dances included over 90 different dances, and these were just a fraction of those known to exist...) The majority are mestizo dances, but there remains a sizable minority of ‘indigenous’, ‘native’ dances, performed not for entertainment but to keep faith with the local religious and festive calendar.

Pic 11: Wooden mask worn by a Nahua dancer impersonating a ‘tiger’
Pic 11: Wooden mask worn by a Nahua dancer impersonating a ‘tiger’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Of these, whilst a handful are unique survivals from ancient (non-Aztec) times - the famous deer dance of the Yaqui people from Sonora, those of other remote communities (Tarahumaras, Coras, Huicholes, Tepehuanos, Mazatecos...), the Voladores ceremony - many are dances with European ‘trappings’ but which retain several pre-Hispanic elements in the rhythm, instrumentation (tongue drums, conch shells, reed flutes...), intonation or dance form or in the attire of the dancers themselves: animal skins, spectacular accessories, showy headdresses, rattles, mirrors, and, significantly, masks. Luis Covarrubias indicates specific associations between dance masks and ‘personages directly related to Aztec deities: the Old Men [Viejitos from Michoacán] with Huehueteotl, the Paxtles [Huichol] with Ilmantecuhtli [female counterpart of the Aztec Fire God], the Feather Dancers with Xochipilli Machuilxochitl, the deer with the gods of maize and fire, the tiger with Tepeyolotli or heart of the mountain, and so on.’

Pic 12: Tradiitonal ‘concha’ guitar player accompanying Concheros dancers
Pic 12: Tradiitonal ‘concha’ guitar player accompanying Concheros dancers (Click on image to enlarge)

Perhaps the best example of a dance genre that is a rich - and constantly evolving - mix of ‘native Mexican’ and European is that known as ‘Concheros’ or Danza Azteca. Mario E. Aguilar, one of its contemporary performers and teachers in the USA, has described it to us as ‘a complex evolution of Mesoamerican dance, Catholic religion, and Spanish instrumentation’. Today a vibrant art form, it has become something of a movement - inevitably perhaps leading to different schools and perspectives within it. ‘Concheros’ - its traditional name - derives from the Spanish word concha or ‘shell’: so called because in the past the instrument most closely associated with accompanying Concheros dances has been a guitar whose soundbox consists - very effectively - of a large armadillo shell. Counting on tens of thousands of participants, danzantes, as they’re known, belong to strict religious brother- (and sister-)hoods that rigorously exclude outsiders.

Pic 13: A ‘danzante’ pauses to tend instruments and other artefacts used in Concheros ceremonies. Can you spot the ‘concha’?
Pic 13: A ‘danzante’ pauses to tend instruments and other artefacts used in Concheros ceremonies. Can you spot the ‘concha’? (Click on image to enlarge)

Governed by and following what have been referred to as military-style statutes, duties, responsibilities and rites, each regional troupe of danzantes engages in a series of elaborate pre- and post-dance rituals, including prayers, ritual cleansing, invocations of the ancestral spirits and natural forces, to the extent that, in Aguilar’s words, ‘90% of La Danza Azteca goes on out of sight to non-danzantes’. Their dance ceremonies, traditionally held in sanctuaries located at the four cardinal points and at their intersection, begin with conch shell blowing, incense burning and invocations to the four winds and to the souls of the concheros. They then launch into highly rhythmical music-and-dance routines that Gallop described, nearly 80 years ago, as having ‘a quality of tense, fanatical, ecstatic fervour which I have seen in no other Indian dance and which can be almost frightening.’ According to tradition, this ‘fervour’ has its roots in danzante beliefs both in being direct descendants of pre-Hispanic peoples (specifically, the war-like Chichimecas, whose dances they have inherited) and in their commitment to spreading the Catholic faith, inspired by a legend born out of the Spanish Conquest of Chichimeca territory (modern-day Querétaro) in 1522.

Pic 14: Monument to the ‘Concheros’, Querétaro City
Pic 14: Monument to the ‘Concheros’, Querétaro City (Click on image to enlarge)

Unusual among Mexican dances - the large numbers involved, including women, performances commonly held in major cities, unique hybrid instrumentation (the conchas, large vertical Aztec drums played aggressively with beaters rather than hands as in pre-Hispanic days...), hierarchical organisation, etc. - Conchero ceremonies seem always to have appealed to rural migrants seeking a substitute for lost community roots. There’s little doubt that the majority of their participants are mestizo (mixed-descent).
In recent years - Aguilar says since the 1940s, though the process has accelerated dramatically since the 1980s - the Danza Azteca movement has become much more politicised, with some dancers moving to reject elements of their tradition containing Spanish antecedents: as a result, concha guitars are losing popularity in favour of percussion-only accompaniment, dancers are opting for more simple garb - at times just loincloths and feathers - and a new style is emerging, seeking to (re-)discover a ‘pure Aztec’ heritage, even though, as we noted before, quite how the Mexica danced no-one really knows today.

Pic 15: Detail from a mural of Mexican History by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City
Pic 15: Detail from a mural of Mexican History by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The fervent, almost militant, character of Concheros ceremony has led some researchers, such as leading ethnomusicologist and archaeologist Arnd Adje Both, to suggest a link to the cultural resistance of the Nahua in the face of heavy-handed Spanish repression:-
’The Conquerors managed to destroy Aztec dance and song traditions, during the first half of the 16th century. There was a short phase of transition, in which even playing pre-Columbian musical instruments and dancing in temple worship was tolerated, as a means of conversion. Although soon forbidden, the tradition held very strong. Throughout the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century there are reports that forbidden dances were held. Maybe the tradition of the Concheros can be traced back to the time when music and dance practices could only be performed underground.’

Pic 16: ‘Who conquered who?’
Pic 16: ‘Who conquered who?’ (Click on image to enlarge)

One thing we can be sure of: the general structure of Concheros dances, in a circle, with the musicians placed in the centre (to which the vital energy of the dancers is focussed), sometimes with pre-dance processions, is very much the same as those described in the 16th century and depicted in the codices. Significantly, following part of the legend referred to above, a cross has always played a key role in the symbolism (indeed in the steps) of Danza Azteca. But as Mompradé and Gutiérrez point out, the participants appear to be paying homage at the same time to the ancient Mesoamerican cross representing the four sacred directions of the world and the four winds. Concheros ceremonies have traditionally taken place at sites around Mexico City - Tepeyac (north), Chalma (south), El Sacromonte (east), Los Remedios (west) and Ixtapalapa (centre) - that were important ritual sites in pre-Hispanic times. Mario Aguilar raises the question: ‘Who conquered who in the end? The Christians who destroyed the pre-Columbian traditions, or the pre-Columbian survivors who forced the Spanish to compromise their otherwise puritanical efforts to Christianize the “pagans.”?’

Further reading:-
Dances of Anáhuac by Gertrude Prokosch Kurath and Samuel Martí, Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology no. 38, New York, 1964
Mexican Native Dances by Luis Covarrubias, Eugenio Fischgrund, Mexico City, n.d.
Mexican Mosaic: Folklore and Tradition by Rodney Gallop, Faber and Faber, London, 1939
Historia General del Arte Mexicano, vol. VI ‘Danzas y Bailes Populares’ by Electra L. Mompradé and Tonatiúh Gutiérrez, Editorial Hermes, Mexico City, 1976.

Special thanks are due to Mario E. Aguilar, Arnd Adje Both and Susanna Rostas for their most helpful personal communications on the topic of the Concheros dance tradition.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture and pix 5r & 7: images scanned from our own copy of Mexican Native Dances by Luis Covarrubias (see above)
• Pix 1, 2, 3l, 6r, 12, 14, 15 & 16: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 3r: photo by Rodolfo /Mexicolore
• Pix 4 & 8: from Wikipedia
• Pic 5: photo from ‘Transparencias de México’
• Pic 6l: image scanned from our own copy of Historia General del Arte Mexicano vol. VI (see above)
• Pic 9: image scanned from our own copy of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France/Société des Américanistes facsimile edition of the Codex Azcatitlan, Paris, 1995
• Pic 10: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Pic 11: photo by Chloe Sayer.

emoticon Q. What do you call a small guitar with an armadillo shell as the soundbox?
A. A ukedillo or an armalele...

Learn more from Chloe Sayer...

‘Did the Spanish completely obliterate Aztec song and dance from the historical record?’

Explore aspects of Concheros dances (inc. old INAH b/w documentaries) on the excellent danzasmexicanas.com website
Early European descriptions of how traditional indígena dance was rehearsed and performed
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Mexicolore replies: Thanks, Katia. If someone can point us to a better image for the Pueblo eagle dance, please do and we’ll replace this one!