Tag Archives: Danza de la Pluma

Taking Big Leaps–Dance of the Feather, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Wednesday, July 10, 2019–This group of new dancers start their three-year commitment to church, community and family this year. The most touching moment for me was to be in the home of the Moctezuma, the lead character in the Danza de la Pluma just before they set out to the church plaza to dance for three hours until sunset on July 9.

Grandma raises her hand to make the sign of the cross in blessing

Here I witnessed loved ones bestow their blessings on him. It was like anointing their son and grandson with the benediction of all the generations who came before, offering God’s favor and protection. It was as if all the young men over decades who participated in this sacred dance were present, too. It is an honor and a commitment to perform this service. I am told it is life-changing.

The ritual is repeated year after year, but the first year is a special test for a new group of dancers for their faith, endurance, strength, passion, dedication, coordination and precision. It is also an important exercise in mutual support. Dancers are not individuals. They are part of a team, and it is their team effort that underlies the essence of how this Usos y Costumbres community self-governs.

The Dance of the Feather, which tells the story of the Spanish Conquest from the indigenous point-of-view, is meticulously choreographed. The village symphony orchestra/band knows exactly what to play as the story unfolds. As each step is taken down the cobbled streets to the church, there is a cadence that is repeated in the retelling.

Parents of La Malinche help her prepare

In the altar room at the Moctezuma’s home, family members help each member of the group dress in their costume. This takes time since each element of the dress is an elaborate undertaking.

Dad attaches silk scarves that will fly like wings
Doña Marina, age six, fortifies herself to prepare for three hours of dancing
Grandmothers peel onions and garlic for the barbecue stew

Behind the scenes, another type of choreography takes place. It is the work men, women and girls and boys who do the food preparation and service. Every bit is made by hand. The chickens are slaughtered, boiled and the meat is shredded for tamales.

Each made by hand memela is the blessing of a woman’s hand
Drinking tejate — muy rico — a pre-Hispanic tradition

The toro (bull) is slaughtered and prepared for barbacoa de res. The tejate is stone ground by hand, with home roasted cacao beans. Can I talk about the memelas? I’ve never tasted anything so good — comal toasted corn patties, slathered with bean paste, fresh salsa, shredded Oaxaca cheese, a drizzle of shredded lettuce.

Natividad serves memelas to a guest

We feed each other because we take care of each other. Our survival and continuity depends on it.

This is a hallmark for Teotitlan del Valle and other Usos y Costumbres communities in Mexico. They function so well because of this bond. Mutual support is about respect for heritage and relationships. You do it because it is a value to the self, the other and makes the whole stronger.

Moctezuma flanked by La Malinche (L) and Doña Marina (R)

The dancers who participate in the Dance of the Feather embody these values, embrace them, practice them and model them for others.

Taking big leaps — the strength and prowess of the dancers

The dancing will resume again in the church courtyard on Friday, July 12, at 5:00 PM. Check Oaxaca Events for schedule and other festivities around town.

Village officials and guests offer support — feather crowns on the patio during a rest

As I said goodbye to family members of the dance group, they asked me to tell you how important their culture is to them, how they want to communicate the beauty and friendship of Mexico, and how strongly they are committed to preserving traditions, and extend an invitation to visit.

Church is symbol of faith — but the commitment comes from the heart
Clowning around with the Clown character — symbol of Aztec spy

There are two clown figures included in the Dance of the Feather. They serve multiple functions. Primarily they are the dancers’ helpers, holding crowns when a scarf needs to be retied, bringing water and rehydration drinks, communicating with the officials when a bio-break is needed. They also are jesters that provide fun, frivolity and antics to the story — a diversion of sorts.

They will tease and cajole audience members, like me. Jajajajaja. In the original story, they are the Aztec spies who disguised themselves to get close to the Spanish conquistadores and bring information back to the Aztec generals. There were two battles with the Spanish. The Aztecs won the first.

Parade of the Canastas and Dance of the Feather, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Opening ceremonies for the Dance of the Feather in Teotitlan del Valle always begin with a 5:00 PM Monday convite starting in the plaza courtyard. Convite translates into banquet, invitation, feast. Here, it is a procession that by my definition is a Feast For the Eyes.

Today, Tuesday, July 9, Los Danzantes de la Pluma will begin their full presentation at 5:00 PM in the church courtyard. Tomorrow, on July 10, they will start at 12:00 PM noon and dance until about 8:00 PM.

When I’m here, this is a desfile that I do not want to miss. This year is special, too, because a new group of dancers begins their three-year commitment to church and community. They will dance at every community-wide celebration as part of their promise to participate.

We got back to Teotitlan from the city just in time for the festivities to begin. Young women and girls as young as three years old, dressed in traditional fiesta traje, gathered in the church plaza with their ornate decorated baskets to prepare for the parade through the streets.

La Malinche (l.) and Doña Marina (r.) flank Moctezuma

We were waiting for the Danzantes to arrive. They had left the home of the Moctezuma, the head of the group, and walked behind the band for about a mile to the church. You could follow their path by the sound. In full dance regalia complete with corona (crown), rattles, amulets, and a costume that combines Spanish and pre-Hispanic symbols, they were a sight to behold.

I’ve written a lot here about the syncretism between indigenous spirituality and mysticism combined with Spanish Catholicism which comprises modern Mexico — Mestizo culture. Malinche is the slave given to Cortes who was his lover-translator. Remember, she was a slave and had no choice! Doña Marina is the same woman after being baptized in the church. The conversion is an important part of Mexican mixed identity.

The procession winds through village streets for several blocks

My Note: The Dance of the Feather is a re-telling of the conquest story through dance. It is part of Oaxaca’s oral history. Zapotec, the native language, is not written. In traditional villages, it is part of the usos y costumbres laws and traditions. The dance has become commercialized and performed by professionals during the annual Guelaguetza in Oaxaca’s auditorium. Please don’t confuse the commercial folkloric dance, which requires expensive tickets, with its original purpose.

Canastas are heavy, difficult to carry

There were probably four hundred people assembled, including villagers who would follow the procession through the streets. Accompanying the procession were official representatives from each of Teotitlan’s five sections, each a sponsor for a group of young women, plus other patrons who provide the means to build and maintain their canasta baskets.

On-lookers and blocked traffic. Patience is a virtue.

All along the procession path, locals assembled in front of houses and on corners to watch and to pay respects.

Dance of the Feather Tribute to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Teotitlan del Valle‘s Los Danzantes are famous throughout the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca. They make a commitment to the church four years before they actually begin their three-year term to perform La Danza de la Pluma — The Dance of the Feather — at all village festivals.

The Moctezuma flanked by Doña Marina and La Malinche, Mexico’s dualities

Honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico, on December 12 and the days leading up to it, is an important part of their agreement.

Symbols of Our Lady the Virgin of Guadalupe on Dancer’s shield

On December 12, the Virgin’s Feast Day, the Dancers gathered in the church courtyard at around noon and continued with intermittent breaks until 8:00 p.m., when they went to the house of the Mayordomo Fidel Cruz for respite and supper.

Entering the festive church courtyard to watch the Dancers

These celebrations are important on many levels. They continue long-standing traditions, many of which pre-date the Spanish conquest.

Los Danzantes in the late afternoon shadows

They reinforce community, build cohesiveness among the young men and their families, they honor church and tradition, and they attract tourism — an essential part of this Zapotec rug-weaving village.

Dancers taking high leaps as shadows catch them

It is almost impossible to visit here for the first time without going home with a beautiful tapestry.

Inside the church, the altar honors Mexico’s Queen, La Reina de Mexico

The weaving culture is reflected in the dancers’ leggings and on the shields they wear. Many of them use pieces that were made by fathers and grandfathers twenty or more years ago.

Leggings are handwoven tapestry loomed wool in ancient Zapotec design

If you look closely, the weaving is fine, detailed and is a work of art.

Transluscent scarves float through afternoon light and shadow

As I stayed through the afternoon, I caught some of the long shadows as the sun set. After so many years of taking photographs of Los Danzantes leaping, shaking rattles, demonstrating their fortitude and strength, I was searching for a way to capture the scene in a different way.

Volunteer committee members pay respects

As the important village usos y costumbres committee members entered the church courtyard, many visitors, including me, moved to the periphery to give them seats of honor. As I moved around the circumference, I noticed how the shadows of the dancers became an extension of their bodies in the backlight of late afternoon.

Grandmother and grandson watching. The young ones dream of becoming dancers.

A spectacular clear day, warm in sun, chilly in shade

The band is an essential part of every fiesta

Children play atop the courtyard cross.

The Oaxaca Lending Library brought a group to watch. All visitors welcome!

Guadalupe atop canastas (baskets) for the December 10 parade

Side door entry to church from interior courtyard

A new altar adorns a niche under renovation inside church

If you visit, please make a donation for renovations

Folded chairs waiting for occupants, inside courtyard

Canastas waiting for return to storage, until the next time

Playing with shadows, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

 

Send In The Clowns: Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Dance of the Feather Distraction?

Who are these clowns? What purpose do they have in the Conquest of Mexico story? The clowns are an ever-present, necessary part of the Dance of the Feather — Danza de la Pluma — story that recreates the Moctezuma-Cortez clash that we know as The Conquest of Mexico.

The distracting Clown, with La Malinche in background.

The Dance of the Feather features all the main characters: the Moctezuma (Aztec chieftain), Cortes, the warriors on both sides, the dual personas of La Malinche and Doña Marina …

and, the Two Clowns.

Deep in conversation, the chair dance, on July 8, 2017

Little is written about these clowns. However, I have the good fortune of knowing Moises Garcia Guzman de Contreras who lives in San Jeronimo Tlacochuaya, just up the road from me.


Moises is very knowledgeable about Zapotec history. At dinner yesterday, he told me the musical score to the dance probably written in the late 19th or early 20th century, when the oompahpah German music became popular in Mexico. Others attribute it to the French.

Giving water to a thirsty Danzante

The dance is likely rooted in pre-Hispanic ritual and practice, incorporated into village feast days to celebrate the church throughout the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca (Central Valleys) after the Conquest.

Quenching thirst is only one Clown task. Keeping the dance area clean is another.

He also explained the symbology of what the Clowns represent in the story:

What is a Nahual?

“Since the dance represents the Conquest, these clowns or “CAMPOS” represent the sorcerers Aztecs used to spy on the Spanish troops. These sorcerers developed the “Nahual” art, so while they were spying they were able to turn themselves into eagles, coyotes or snakes, and Spanish troops could not see that they were being spied upon. Because of that, their masks are not well-defined. They could pretty much represent any animal. Their function in the Dance now is to entertain, steal kisses, clear the area, help dancers etc.”

The pair of clowns, with the chair dance.

There is a prescribed sequence to the days of the Dance. Each day features a different path of the story line, until the last day, when the conquest is brought to conclusion.

Mindful of Los Danzantes’ needs, a practical task

In the end, as the story goes, Mexico thrives because of her strength in syncretism — the blending of two roots, indigenous and Spanish, the union of Cortes with La Malinche, producing a son named Martin, which defines the beginning of the modern state.

Omnipresent, and critical to the Dance of the Feather

 

 

 

Teotitlan’s Dance of the Feather: Taking Big Leaps

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.

Leaps and fancy footwork define Teotitlan del Valle’s Dance of the Feathers

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!

Dancing in front of the Moctezuma, who is flanked by Dona Marina and Malinche

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.

Skill, athleticism, concentration for dancing

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.

They dance this way for up to 12 hours, with few breaks.

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.

In the church courtyard with sacred mountain Picacho watching over us.

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.

La Malinche, represents Cortez’ indigenous slave who becomes Dona Marina, convert

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.

All come to watch, the abuelos (grandparents) and ninos (children)

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.

Canastas, with notations about neighborhood, mayordomo (sponsor), when made

Onlookers take seats under the corridor for shade

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.

Juxtaposition of contemporary and traditional life

This experience is mesmerizing for children. It’s like a circus mid-way or a Midwest USA State Fair.

The kids love it, pure fun, cotton candy, fast, fast.

Take a seat. Grab and go tacos al pastor. Win a teddy bear. Oh, yes, the pastries, ice cream and candy are divine.

This is an intricate web of bamboo scaffolding. See the Dancer, top left.

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.

It’s a complex structure of bamboo with spinning parts, explosives attached!

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.

Dusk brings the snack vendors to feed the fireworks watchers

I couldn’t stay up that late! But, I watched from my rooftop in the distance.

 

A mile away, I can see the church and flags, hear the delight

Footnotes of History — Dance of the Feather

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.

Dancers catch their breath, walking in a circle, rattles shaking

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.

Women watch relatives from under the corridor

 

Children grab a birds-eye perch to get a better look

Balancing this heavy headdress is not easy!