The Dance of the Feather — Danza de la Pluma — is a cultural phenomenon in the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca — Oaxaca’s central valleys. It’s especially true here in Teotitlan del Valle where the church feast day celebration is perfected to an art form.
If you are in Oaxaca now through the weekend, you will want to come out either today, July 5, or Saturday and Sunday, July 8 and 9, from 2 until 9 p.m. when the dancers will act out the complex story of the conquest, and the battle between the Aztecs and Spaniards.
I’m told that it’s the indigenous people who always win in this version of the story!
Doña Marina/La Malinche represent the same woman and syncretism of modern Mexico. Yet, this is a personal story about conquest, slavery and how a woman became maligned as part of the cultural history.
I’ve attended this annual festival almost yearly since 2006, when cousins and nephews of my host family made their three-year commitment to dance in honor of community, religion and customs. Their last dance was in 2009.
This is the second year for the group that is dancing now. They have one more year, and then the feather headdresses are passed along to the next set of young men. This is not a performance, it is a serious act of commitment.
As I sat and then stood, and then wandered around the periphery, I was reminded how much energy goes into this endeavor. And, how energizing it is to give witness to this tradition that has gone on here for decades, maybe even centuries. The entire pueblo comes out to pay tribute and applause.
This is a pre-Hispanic tradition that was incorporated, like many others, into the Catholic church saint’s day celebrations. In reality, it is an oral history through dance and mime and music.
Inside the inner church patio, the canastas (baskets) sit, ready to be stored for another year. Young girls wearing traditional dress carried them on their heads the night before. The parade through the streets touches every neighborhood.
On the other side of the church wall, on the streets surrounding the permanent village market, is a different scene. It’s a carnival. Games, rides, food stands, music compete for entertainment.
This experience is mesmerizing for children. It’s like a circus mid-way or a Midwest USA State Fair.
Take a seat. Grab and go tacos al pastor. Win a teddy bear. Oh, yes, the pastries, ice cream and candy are divine.
Back inside the church courtyard, the men are setting up the scaffolding and fireworks for the 10:00 p.m. show. It’s called a Castillo or castle.
And the dancing continued until sunset — puesta del sol — when the church bells rang and the dancers set their headdresses down on the brick floor until the next day.
I couldn’t stay up that late! But, I watched from my rooftop in the distance.
About 500 years ago the Spaniards conquered the Zapotecs of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. Many indigenous people died, and it is said that the population was reduced by 90% during the two centuries that followed. From the stories of the battle, this beautiful dance emerged, which is carried out in certain cities in the center of Oaxaca, and is also a part of the Folkloric Festival called Guelaguetza in late July.
LA DANZA DE LA PLUMA, is originally from the town of Cuilapan de Guerrero, a municipality adjacent to the town of Zaachila and the municipality of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan. The dance is as old as Oaxaca culture and still preserved. The main characters are a Moctezuma, a Malinche and the converted Malinche who became known as Doña Marina, plus the two jesters or mockers.