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.
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:
“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
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
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
Los Danzantes de la Pluma, Dance of the Feather, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca
There are two days of fiestas that started on September 6 with a Parade of the Canastas, this year’s group of Las Danzantes de la Pluma (Feather Dancers), and dances and fireworks last night.
Janet Chavez Santiago, Parade of the Baskets, , Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca
Today, starting at 1:00 p.m., there is a festival all day in courtyard in front of the church. The Dance of the Feathers is a spectacle, but it is also an important three-year commitment the young men make to the church, religious and cultural traditions of the Teotitlan del Valle.
Come see how high they leap, Dance of the Feather, Teotitlan del Valle
Fiesta time brings live music, traditional dancing, lots of beer and mezcal, and a chance to visit one of the most beautiful villages in the Oaxaca valley.
Unmarried young women in the Convite de las Canastas, Teotitlan del Valle
The band is a very important part of the tradition, with pre-Hispanic flute (left)
Monday, July 6, about 4 p.m., Parade of the Canastas, Church Courtyard. The procession of young women in traditional Zapotec dress and carrying heavy baskets on their heads winds through the cobbled village streets. In front of them is the band and coming up from behind are the Dancers in full regalia. There is no dancing today.
Tuesday, July 7, about 4 p.m., Dance of the Feathers in the church courtyard, continuing until dark, then fireworks display.
Wednesday, July 8, 12:00 noon until about 8 p.m., Dance of the Feathers. This is the big dancing day when those who volunteer for this ritual and tradition continue almost non-stop all afternoon into the evening. Basketball tourney next to market.
Saturday, July 11, 12:00 non until about 8 p.m., Dance of the Feathers, in the church courtyard, followed by grand finale fireworks, and a public dance complete with band in the municipal building courtyard.
There will be carnival rides, a street fair and lots of food vendors. The almost completed new basketball court next to the village market will hold a tournament there on Wednesday, too. Ojala!
Sleep over, if you like. There are good local accommodations at Las Granadas B&B and Casa Elena B&B. You can find them on the internet. I hear some people in the village are renting rooms on Airbnb, too.
Today, Monday, July 7, the Zapotec weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle begins its weeklong fiesta to celebrate its Catholic Church of the Precious Blood with a calenda de las canastas — the parade of the canastas. This starts in the church courtyard today around 6:00 p.m. Oaxaca time. Which means, it starts at 5 p.m. in Teotitlan del Valle because here, time never changes!
Times are never exact either. So, I suggest if you come today, you arrive around 5 p.m. and go into the inner church courtyard to watch the young women assemble with their elaborate baskets that they will carry on their heads in a procession throughout the village. The baskets are adorned with flowers and religious images. The women, who must be unmarried to participate, wear extraordinary traditional traje or dress that is indicative of this particular village.
Tuesday, July 8, at 8 p.m. there will be the introduction of this year’s Danzantes — the dancers who have made the three year commitment to participate in this ancient pre-Hispanic rite — in the church courtyard. They will dance a short program and then this will be followed by a festive fireworks display.
Wednesday, July 9, at 1 p.m, the Danza de la Pluma will begin in the church courtyard. The dancers will demonstrate their prowess for the next 10 hours, taking intermittent breaks.
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