On Wednesday night this week, the San Pablo Academic and Cultural Center hosted the first in a series of community dialogs about indigenous life in Oaxaca. The restored chapel was filled to standing room only with Teotitecos and friends who came to hear a panel discussion introducing the new book, La Danza de la Pluma en Teotitlån del Valle written by Jorge Hernandez-Diaz, a cultural anthropologist at the state Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca.
In addition to Professor Hernandez-Diaz, panelists included Uriel Santiago, one of the 2007-2009 group of dancers who made a promise and commitment to God, their church, community and culture by learning and performing this ancient tradition for a period of three years. Uriel first welcomed guests in Zapotec then moved into Spanish. Years ago Uriel explained to me that the Dance of the Feather is not a folkloric event designed to entertain people. It is a serious expression of Zapotec identity and cultural continuity. We made a documentary film about his experience in 2008 which you can see on YouTube.
The book, published in Spanish by the Oaxaca Secretary of Culture and Arts, with support from the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation and the Office of the Governor of Oaxaca, offers three possible explanations about the origins of the dance, how it is interpreted in Teotitlan del Valle, other Oaxaca villages where the dance is an integral part of annual celebration, the rituals and traditions associated with the dance, and how the dance is organized and who can participate, plus lots more. The professor explains in his book that the dance is expressed with variations in many Mexican states, too.
Each year in Teotitlan del Valle beginning in early July and lasting for about a week, the Dance of the Feather is performed in the church courtyard. Every three years the group changes and is organized/trained by a different leader. The 2007-2009 maestro was Don Antonio Ruiz. The book recognizes all the members of this particular group by name and the role they danced–Moctezuma, the indigenous kings who succumbed to the conquest, and Malinche/Doña Marina.
Some of the group members are cousins. Since the time of the dance, many of them have married and had children. They have become doctors, educators and skilled weavers. They remain close, committed to each other and their community, treasuring the time they devoted to transmitting their cultural heritage and ensuring continuity.