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‘Modern-day Aztec dancing’

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

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Carlos de la Riva: I am of the opinion that modern day Aztec dancing is not historically accurate. It seems too simplistic, and there is no singing. I find this odd given the fact that the Aztec were an extremely advanced society. In comparison Native American (Sioux, Cree) songs and dances seem much more intricate. Did the Spanish completely obliterate Aztec song and dance from the historical record? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Concheros performing at night, Zócalo, Mexico CIty, 2010
Concheros performing at night, Zócalo, Mexico CIty, 2010 (Click on image to enlarge)

For an answer to your second question, please read our longer feature on the survival of pre-Hispanic dance forms in our Spanish Conquest section (link below). There you’ll discover that the answer is ‘No’, there are many instances of elements of pre-Columbian dance forms still existing today; it’s often a case of ‘peeling back’ the European skin to reveal the ancient ‘soul’ beneath. Moreover, though modern-day ‘Aztec’ dances (very likely you’re thinking of Concheros or Danza Azteca, so frequently visible today in the main Zócalo square of Mexico City) appear ‘simple’, there’s far more to them than meets the eye...

Concheros dance, Zócalo, Mexico City, 2010
Concheros dance, Zócalo, Mexico City, 2010 (Click on image to enlarge)

On the question of song survival, we consulted two members of our Panel of Experts who have kindly provided the following information:-

Dr. Susanna Rostas, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge and author of Carrying the Word: the Concheros Dance in Mexico City (Colorado University Press, 2011), writes: ‘The Concheros have plenty of [songs], many with a Catholic blend to them (after all Mexico has been Catholic for 500 years+). Some of these songs are sung at dances (not continuously like the playing of music) but at the beginning, at the end of a dance (or sometimes when it starts up again after eating). [However] there is a problem - oral traditions change through time and even if the songs were once in Nahuatl they are not today.’

The ultimate hybrid instrument: European guitar with Mexican armadillo shell soundbox
The ultimate hybrid instrument: European guitar with Mexican armadillo shell soundbox (Click on image to enlarge)

Dr. Arnd Adje Both, Chair of the Music Archaeology Study Group of the International Council for Traditional Music, writes: ‘[Historically,] many Aztec dances are reported, which included song. This is not practiced today, the music is purely instrumental. Sometimes you hear shouts and cries, that’s all... Songs can only be heard among the “old-style” Concheros, especially in temple worship (the most important temple is in Mexico-Tlatelolco). The chants are accompanied with the concha (armadillo-shell-backed guitar) and rattles, but not with dance accompaniment.’

It appears that in the past traditional Concheros congregations have included (mainly Spanish Catholic) songs in their ceremonies, particularly when offering prayers, hymns and supplications inside churches (they would rhetorically ask the authorities’ permission to then proceed outside to perform in the atria). Ironically a few of these songs were translated into Náhuatl, even though Náhuatl-speakers have always been in a minority within Concheros troupes. One report says that the songs were usually sung by men and women together in parallel thirds, with high-pitched voices. Concheros dances provide a rare exception within the Mexican ‘native dance’ tradition in that men AND women (as well as young children) have always been initiated and welcomed, each with their own specific duties and roles within the congregation.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: photo by Xavier Miró/Mexicolore
• Other photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

‘Did pre-Columbian dances survive the Conquest?’

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Mexicolore replies: Many thanks, Chris, for sharing this insightful and valuable information.