In 2011, 457 people set a Guinness record for the largest folk dance performance at the International Mariachi and Charreria Conference in Guadalajara, accompanied by over 300 mariachi musicians from Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, and the United States.
Mexico has always remained loyal to its traditions. The people of this amazing country continue to pay tribute to the customs and rituals of their forefathers. Not only do they make it a point to respect their past, they also take pride in celebrating it as a community. Creative forms of expression such as dance and music have always been a way of life for Mexicans, which is why many of these dance forms managed to remain intact in spite of the Spanish conquest and modernization.
However, Mexican dance forms underwent several changes during the Spanish conquest. Several new styles were introduced, costumes were altered, and certain dances were banned or reformed in order to suit the moral decorum of the authorities. Nonetheless, no amount of curtailing could drain the very essence from this ancient culture. Because these dances were taught and passed on from one generation to the other in the form of familial knowledge, certain integral aspects such as the use of bright colored costumes, exaggerated headgear, traditional music, and loud footwork managed to remain intact.
Mexican folk dances are known to vary from region to region, in terms of style, music, costume, and belief. Therefore, before we delve into the different types of Mexican dances, let's gain a deeper understanding of the history of Mexican dance and its evolution over the years.
History of Mexican Dance
Pre-Hispanic Period - During this time, dance was taught by parents since it was considered as an important part of a child's education. The various traditional dances were performed only during religious functions to appease the Gods and praise mother-nature for her blessings.
Period of Conquest - This era was greatly influenced by Christian values and beliefs. There were some noticeable changes in the way, traditional Mexican dances were performed during the Spanish conquest. The natives adapted their dance forms in accordance with the acceptable ideologies and customs of the Christians. Many dance forms were illegalized either for their sexual innuendos, explicit costumes, or rebellious undercurrent.
Dances of Modern Mexico - This era saw the amalgamation of traditional Mexican and Spanish dance forms. European dances such as ballet, waltz, and flamenco were introduced and mixed with traditional dance styles. Since many Spaniards permanently settled in Mexico, the dance forms of both communities were given equal importance.
Danza de Los Viejitos / The Dance of Little Old Men
Region of origin: Michoacan
Costume: The dancers wear indigenous clothing and wooden-soled shoes. They carry canes, wear pink masks, and white beards to make themselves look like old men.
Particularity: This dance form is very ancient and can be traced to the pre-Hispanic era. This dance signifies governance, wherein the spirit of elderly men return to their respective village in order to hear the complains of their people. The old men pay heed to the complaints and discuss the issues with the president. This is a five day ritual, wherein each elderly representative spends one day discussing the problems of his village with the president. The Danza de Los Viejitos is also a means to pay tribute to the elderly and bestow them with the right to act as representatives for the entire community. A grand feast is held in honor of the dancers in order to thank them for their efforts and blessings.
How it is done: The dancers walk with canes, acting like old men. They stomp their feet loudly by using their wooden-soled shoes. Some men dress up as female dancers in order to provide comic relief by laughing aloud during this folkloric play and dance sequence. The laughter of these maidens is meant to dispel disparities, mend relationships, and encourage forgiveness.
Region of origin: Central Mexico
Costume: The dancers wear colorful costumes such as cloaks and headdress with bright feathers and gold trimmings. These costumes are infused with Aztec designs and symbolism. Many dancers, paint their faces with tribal Aztec designs and wear shells called Chachayotes on their ankles.
Particularity: The Concheros dance form depicts pre-Hispanic elements. The dancers believe that the ancient Gods still exist and the Spanish conquest did not succeed in subjugating the people. Concheros owes its name to one of the instruments used in the dance, which is a type of a conch made from the shell of the armadillo and is known as a 'Concha'. Unlike many other dance forms, this ritual allows women and children to participate. Over the years this dance form has tried its best to discard European influences in order to return to its original Aztec roots.
How it is done: Prior to the commencement of the dance, the Concheros call upon their ancestors and their deity to unite the past and the present. The dancers assemble in two concentric circles with the elders in the inner circle and the youth in the outer. Some dancers with drums, rattles, and other instruments stay in the center. Following a signal, the two circles begin to move simultaneously. While the dancers in the inner circle make slow subdued movements, the ones in the outer circle move vibrantly, taking big leaps and performing difficult movements. Each participant plays a musical instrument and sings while dancing.
The Dance of the Parachicos
Region of origin: Southern Mexico
Costume: The most iconic part of the costume is the fluffy headgear worn by the dancers. While the headgear is yellowish in color, the wooden mask is painted pink to mimic the hair and complexion of the 'White' man. The serape dress is worn by the male dancers, and the ladies wear ruffled peasant tops and bright floral skirts. They also wear an embroidered shawl and carry colorful rattles.
Particularity: The dance of the Parachicos has been marked as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, by UNESCO. This dance is performed every year in January to honor Catholic saints.
How it is done: The dancers take to the streets and are led by a patron saint who carries a guitar, whip, and flute. The dancers move gracefully to the melody of the flute and the rhythm of the drums. The masked saint sings out blessings at the end of the procession for the betterment and protection of the people, to which the dancers clap and rejoice!
Jarabe Tapatío / The Mexican Hat Dance
Region of origin: Guadalajara
Costume: The women wear 'China Poblana' outfits, which consist of brightly colored skirts and peasant tops. The men wear 'Charro' outfits that are based on Mexico's cowboy tradition.
Particularity: Also known as the Mexican hat dance, Jarabe Tapatio is the Mexican national dance. This dance form was specially created to mark the end of the Mexican revolution. However, because of its popularity the Jarabe Tapatio became an inseparable part of Mexican culture. Another reason why the Mexican Hat dance was banned was because, through this dance the Mexicans expressed their disdain at being suppressed by the Spanish regime. The Jarabe Tapatio was internationally popularized when Anna Pavlov, the famous Russian ballet dancer, introduced this dance into her performances.
How it is done: The dance is about flirting and courtship. It is performed by a couple or in groups of couples. This dance depicts how a man tries to woo a woman and after many struggles is finally successful in his romantic endeavor.
Danza de los Voladores / Dance of the Flyers
Region of origin: Central Mexico
Costume: This ancient dance ritual is predominantly performed by men, however, there have been instances where women have become voladores as well. The dancers wear red pants and white shirts with a red sash across the chest. This sash is decorated with beads, mirrors, and embroidery. While, the red cloth symbolizes blood, flowers on the sash represent fertility, and the tiny mirrors stand for the sun. They also wear brightly decorated caps with colorful ribbons. All the costumes are made by the voladores (flying dancers) themselves.
Particularity: This dance form is part of an ancient Mesoamerican ritual which was performed during droughts in order to appease the gods. It is believed that the gods were angry for being neglected by humans, and cursed them with drought. In these treacherous times, 5 chaste men thought of performing a ritual that was worthy of Xipe Totec, the God of fertility. These men went into the forest and searched for the tallest tree. They then, offered prayers to Quihuicolo, the mountain God in order to cut down the tree. Stripped of all its branches, the tree was replanted into a deep hole that had been filled with offerings of food, tobacco, and live chickens. This gesture was meant to appease the God of land, so that it would hold on to the rootless tree and ensure the safety of the dancers. The five men, dressed themselves in red-colored clothes in order to emulate sacred red-feathered birds. These birds also represented the four elements of nature, while the sun was represented by the fifth man standing in the center.
How it is done: The dance ritual starts with the dancers gathering around the pole and asking for God's permission to climb it. Thereafter, one man sits on a small platform atop the pole, he starts to play the flute or drums while the others fasten ropes around their waist and fall backwards to descend to the ground. As the ropes unwind, they create a spiraling effect by spinning to create a moving pyramid. Each Voladore makes 13 rotations, thus completing 52 rotations to signify the number of years in the Aztec calendar. Their faith in God and years of practice, are the only safety-gear used by these Voladores while performing this life-threatening dance.
Baile de La Conquista
Region of origin: Guatemala
Costume: The dancers enacting the Spanish soldiers dress themselves in European costumes, while those dressed as the indigenous people wear feathered-headgear, traditional costumes, and carry bow and arrows. The Spaniards are depicted with wooden masks.
Particularity: La Conquista dance tells the story of how the Spaniards conquered the Aztec Empire. The dance depicts the conquest led by Pedro de Alvarado, and how he defeated the warrior Tecum Uman. The dance ends with the natives accepting Christianity as their religion.
How it is done: The dancers enact the battle between the two empires through dance and acting. The Spaniards are shown wearing wooden masks with rosy cheeks and fair complexion. While the Spaniards act fierce and authoritative, the natives act subdued. The performance ends with the defeat of the native warriors and their eventual baptism.
La Danza Del Venado / The Deer Dance
Region of origin: Guerrero
Costume: The main dancer wears an elaborate headdress depicting the head and neck of a deer. The hunter wears a mask and carries a bow and arrow. This dance is performed with various instruments such as rattle, bells, and drum.
Particularity: Also commonly known as the deer dance, this dance form depicts a confrontation between mother nature and humans, and how nature sacrifices herself for the betterment of mankind. La Danza del Venado, is one of the few dance forms of Mexico which has managed to retain its authenticity. The Yaqui tribe belonging to the region of Sinaloa and Sonora continue to perform this dance in its original form, thereby keeping it pure and free from European influence.
How it is done: The performance portrays the deer prancing around making agile movements, enjoying its freedom, oblivious to any lurking danger. The deer suddenly becomes alert when it notices a hunter approaching it. The deer tries its best to run away from the hunter, while the hunter pursues its prey. It ends dramatically with the deer being shot by an arrow that gradually slows down its movements. The deer eventually dies, thereby surrendering itself for the sake of humans. This heartfelt dance often makes the spectators weep and mourn, as they watch the deer taking its final breath.
Chinelos Dance / The Jumping Dance
Region of origin: Central Mexico
Costume: People wear carnival masks and dress like the Spanish elite who are shown wearing 'fair-skinned' masks and black beards. A huge hat is also worn with this costume to showcase aristocracy. This dance was created when the Spaniards refused to allow the natives to participate in religious festivities. The natives decided to have their own little party, wherein they prepared elaborate costumes to mock the lifestyle, costume, and mannerisms of the ruling class. Chinelos masks are always made with a male face in order to showcase the dominance of the Spanish regime during the colonial rule.
Particularity: The concept of this dance was derived from carnival celebrations, wherein the participants could rebuke authority while remaining anonymous. The anonymity of the masks allowed people to make fun of the Spanish elite without facing legal consequences.
How it is done: Dancers disguised as Spanish elite enact or imitate the mannerisms of the Spaniards. The Chinelos is more of an act than a dance with its elaborate movements. Jumping is an essential part of this dance, wherein each dancer shows off his own innovate step and style of jumping or hopping.
Matachines / The Dance of the Moors and Christians
Region of origin: Northern Mexico
Costume: The dancers wear colorful skirts, tunics, and headdress made from colored feathers. The headdress also has a veil of beads or net, that partially covers the faces of the dancers. Originally made from deerskin, these costumes are now made with synthetic fabrics. The skirts have a unique arrow pattern printed on them. The dancers wear wooden-soled sandals and carry rattles, flute, and bows.
Particularity: The Matachines is also known as the 'The Dance of the Moors and Christians', because the dance shows how the native people were defeated by the Spaniards. This dance is also performed in honor of the Virgin Mary, or 'Our Lady of Guadalupe'. The dancers are believed to be the soldiers of the Virgin Mary and dance in order to protect her.
How it is done: The dancers make elaborate movements with their hands and stomp their feet loudly. There are four main characters in this folkloric dance. The Aztec king Moctezuma, initiates the dance along with Cortez, his beautiful and innocent wife or companion. El Abuelo is the grandfather, who tries to protect Cortez from the devil. The devil, El Toro, is symbolized as a bull who is always creating mischief during the dance. His funny antics are a great source of entertainment for the crowd. El Toro is eventually slain by Moctezuma, which signifies the victory of good over evil.
Mexican Dia de los Muertos / The Day of the Dead
Costume: While some people wear masks with skulls painted on them, many paint their faces white and black in order to resemble skulls. Many women paint their faces to look like 'Catrina', after the famous Elegant Skull painting by Jose Guadalupe Posada.
Particularity: The Day of the Dead is a festival, held in honor of the departed members of the family. Similar festivals are celebrated in other parts of the world as well. This festival is also associated with the All Saints and All Soul's Day. The family members make small alters for the dead family members and decorate it with small candy-skeletons and candles. A special type of bread (pan de muerto) and tea known as 'Estafiate' is made for the deceased. People conduct all-night vigils at the cemetery, where they pray around the gravestone of their relative. Some people sing and dance, and have picnics in order to celebrate this day. Gravestones of children are decorated with their favorite toys and candies, while the adults are offered bottles of alcohol and flowers.
How it is done: The dance is accompanied with loud clapping, singing, and music. The objective is to wake the dead, so that they may come visit the existing family members. Many types of traditional dances are also performed during to this festival. People dress up like the deceased and imitate their mannerisms. Family members and friends, also sit in groups to share funny stories and memories of the dead family members.
Although Mexican dance styles may vary from one region to the other, the commonality exists in the spiritual energy with which these dances are performed. Therefore, consider yourself lucky if you get to witness these spectacular and breathtaking dance forms.