Tag Archives: Danza de la Pluma

Santa Ana, California Zapotecs Return Home: Dance of the Feather — Danza de la Pluma

They were born or raised in Santa Ana, California, which they call Santana. They keep sacred Zapotec traditions alive by practicing life cycle events from their Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca homeland.

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Most especially, these young men know what it means to be a Danzante — a dancer.  The Dance of the Feather or Danza de la Pluma is a ritual rite of passage.  To become a dancer is to make a commitment to the principles and traditions of Zapotec life.   The Danza de la Pluma is practiced with as much passion, integrity, endurance and intention in Santa Ana as it is in Teotitlan del Valle.  It is not a folkloric performance.  It is a serious part of Zapotec identity.

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That’s why a group of young men from Santa Ana, fluent in English, Spanish and Zapotec, asked permission from the village leaders to return to Teotitlan del Valle and make the three-year commitment and live here for the duration.

Their group debut was in the early July 2013 festival to honor the patron saint and church of Teotitlan — Preciosa Sangre de Cristo.  The choreography is different, the finely woven intricately designed tapestry that each dancer wears on his back was either made by the dancer or a father, uncle or grandfather.

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They leap, twist, kneel, and it looks as if they are flying, as if God is carrying each one somewhere deep into the pre-Hispanic past to bring forth the spirit of the ancients.

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Many brought their wives and young children with them.  Some were reunited with family members — sisters, brothers, grandparents — after years of separation.  Some have never seen their abuelos — grandparents — since they were infants or if they were born in the USA, perhaps never before.

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It was a thrill to watch this group whose spirit infected the entire audience– villagers and about 150 guests of Aeromexico, the Mexican airline that offers several flights a day between Mexico City and Oaxaca.   Tourism is the economic engine for Oaxaca and the weavers of Teotitlan del Valle depend upon visitors for their livelihood.

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The Dance of the Feather is iconic.  It is a history retold from generation to generation of the 1521 Spanish conquest, Cortes and Moctezuma, and the dual figure of La Malinche and Doña Marina. There are few stronger images to convey a sense of place and culture.

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Both before and after, I talked to many of the dancers who said they love it here so much, they are wanting to stay on after their three-year promise ends.

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After the festivities came to a close, many of the guests walked out of the church courtyard to the adjacent community museum and rug market.  Just in time for a refreshment break, a bicycle vendor selling nieves — a Spanish word that means snow but what all of us know as delicious fresh fruit ices that Mexico is famous for!  (Try the tuna — nopal cactus fruit.) Or, if you want something more substantial, there are homemade tamales in that wheelbarrow.

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Oaxaca Dance of the Feather: Always Carry a Second Battery

It was late afternoon on July 6, 2011 when the dancers assembled in the church courtyard to begin.  They would dance into the night until almost 10 p.m.  The day was balmy with a light breeze.  Perfect weather.

I arrived just as they were getting started, after I had hiked out into the countryside, wandering the outskirts of the village along dirt paths rutted by summer rains, smelling the dark loamy soil recently plowed and planted — the milpas — with beans, corn and squash.

Of course, taking pictures along the way of a cactus flower just ready to bloom, a hummingbird suckling at a Bougainvillea flower, a lazy dog sleeping under the rear axle of a rusting truck.

Even though there were many more people this afternoon, it seemed that I was closer to the dancers than the day before.

I could capture the detail of their intricate hand-woven tapestries that adorned their backs — each a work of art, each an emblem to identify each dancer, perhaps even woven by his own hand or that of a close family member.

My camera could capture the intensity of the physical exertion and the moment of rest when the “clown” pours a cup of water to quench thirst.

                                                             The dancers and the soldiers were milling about, then.  At the microphone the master of ceremonies introduced the village president and leaders.  Pyramids of beer reminded me of Aztec temples.  People facing the sun on the east side of the courtyard held fragrant leafy bouquets in front of their faces to shield the sun.

There was applause for the dancers and their maestro. The boy soldiers got up and formed a military line.  An emissary carried a message to Moctezuma. Dancers and soldiers began circling each other clockwise and counterclockwise, around and around the Moctezuma, Malinche and Dona Marina seated on a throne at the center of the circle.

Energy was building and beginning to erupt, as if in preparation for a major battle.

The Spanish captain was conferring with his troops about what action to take next.

And, then DRATZ my camera battery went out and I had left my spare back home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oaxaca Festivals: Dance of the Feather, Teotitlan del Valle 2011

Power, movement, coordination of Los Danzantes

One of the great Oaxaca festivals is the Dance of the Feather in Teotitlan del Valle — a must-see for every Oaxaca resident and tourist.  It is a story of honor, conquest, survival and endurance. As a dance, its roots are pre-Hispanic and with most rituals and traditions in Oaxaca, it has evolved to blend both the indigenous and Catholic.

High leaps, shaking rattles and elegant headdresses

Every three years a new group forms to make the promise and commitment to honor the traditions by recounting the story of the Spanish conquest through dance.  This year is the premiere Los Danzantes de la Pluma for this new group.

El Danzante de la Pluma

I have written extensively on this blog about the meaning of the Dance of the Feather, its origins and history and cultural significance, so I am not going to go into that here.  If you are interested, use the “search” box in the upper left column.

The clown/jester distracts the crowd, attends to dancers' needs for water and headdress adjustment

This new group is larger than those in the past and has expanded the interpretation of the dance to include many more “characters” — Spanish soldiers (in the form of children dressed in military garb) dueling with Aztec warriors, and two alter-ego counterparts of La Malinche and La Dona Marina (La Llarona).

La Llarona (l) and La Malinche (r) with Moctezuma

I was at the church courtyard early waiting for the 5 p.m. Teotitlan start time.  Taurino, Eloisa’s husband, was in the bell tower waiting for the precise moment to begin the ringing that would signify the ritual beginning.  The band marched into the courtyard followed by Los Danzantes and went into the church for a blessing and a prayer.  It was cloudy and overcast, but as soon as the bells began to ring the sun appeared and the late afternoon halos were spectacular.

Dancers exhibit incredible concentration

After an hour-and-a-half, I had taken over 500 shots on my camera.  Sam Robbins, our photography expedition instructor, let me borrow her Nikkor 28-300mm lens.  I was able to capture some very fancy footwork, incredible headdresses, glittering costumes and a lot of resolve.

Sense the momentum, energy and color

Today was a relatively small gathering of locals who came to watch and encourage the group who would dance for four hours.  Village officials ringed the courtyard ready to receive tribute from the dancers.  They will toast the dancers’ strength and endurance with mescal and beer chasers followed by lime slices and gusano.

The symbolic battle between Aztecs and Spaniards

On Wednesday, July 6, 2011, hundreds will gather in the church courtyard from throughout Oaxaca.  The group will dance for about 10 hours straight from morning through the heat of the day, taking short periodic breaks for rest and refreshment.  Hopefully, the day won’t be too hot!

"Soldiers" taking a break

...and once more around the courtyard.

See my YouTube channel  for our documentary film about the Dance of the Feather.

I am shooting with a Nikon D40x camera body and 18-105 lens.  For about half of these photos, I used the telescopic 18-300 lens borrowed from Sam for the action/power shots.

Consider participating in our Day of the Dead Photography Expedition coming up this October 2011.

 

 

Dance of the Feather: Danza de la Pluma

Coming Wednesday, July 9, 2008, Teotitlan del Valle

Nine young Zapotec men in their 20’s and 30’s bedecked in bold primary colors – red, green, yellow, black — and crowned with feathered headdresses the size of a large moon, leap and twirl into the air, shake rattles and raise a carved and painted wooden talisman to the sky. They are reenacting the Spanish conquest through dance as an annual ritual of remembrance. The accompanying band, a crew of both veteran and youthful musicians, play flutes, cymbals, drums, trumpets, tubas, clarinets, saxophones, in an oompah-pah cadence reminiscent of a Sousa march with hints of German polka. They chant and speak a conversation between Moctezuma and Cortes, in which Cortes says there will be a special god that will come in the appearance of Cortes and conquer the Aztecs. The entourage includes Malinche, the Aztec princess who learned Spanish, became courtesan to Cortes, and betrayed her people according to lore. Two masked clowns, the buffoons, parade between the dancers and along the sidelines, make mocking gestures. Village children represent the Spanish soldiers in a parade that takes place before the dance begins.  Click here to see short documentary film “Dance of the Feather: A Promise & Commitment” on YouTube.

Dance of the Feathers, Teotitlan del Valle

This oral and performance history is centuries old, transmitted generation to generation as homage to indigenous survival. While the Spaniards decimated the native Mesoamerican population by as much as 95 percent as a result of disease (smallpox, influenza, etc.) and superior weaponry, the rich cultural traditions have nevertheless survived. The Dance of the Feather existed before the Spanish conquest, according to Uriel Santiago, one of the dancers I talked with. Originally it was an Aztec ritual dance to communicate with their gods for rain, sun and corn. The Aztecs dominated much of Mesoamerica, including the Mixtecs and Zapotecs of the Oaxaca region. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, they had not seen the dance in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Bishop Manuel Gricida Martinez first saw the dance in the Mixtec village of Cuilapam. He thought it was a great way to modify tradition and incorporate the new Catholic religion – so most of the music and songs used in the dance are now Spanish and French. The Spaniards also introduced long pants and the big feathered crown that we see today. The dialogs were designed by the Spaniards to prove the power of the empire. In Teotitlan, Uriel tells me there are three different codices with three different dialogs, and there is a controversy about which one is the accurate version.

At least 10 villages in the Oaxaca Valley have their own version of the Danza de la Pluma that is held during the week honoring the particular village’s patron saint. Each village uses similar dance patterns, however Teotitlan del Valle costumes are much more elaborate. In Teotitlan del Valle, the Danza de la Pluma is scheduled to start this year on July 9 (this is one week later than usual). Practice for the actual three-day dance-a-thon is grueling. There are at least 15 different complex dance sequences that are performed continuously in the church plaza for 10-hours. The dancers, who volunteer as part of their practice to give back to their community, make a three-year commitment, and each group has a teacher who designs the choreography and dialogs. The teacher has told the dancers that they can adapt the dialogs, so it is difficult for Uriel to know the true history and he believes it is likely that the original dance is lost. What does remain intact, he says, is the dancers’ commitment to the village Church of the Precious Blood and its saints. He loves the emotion of dancing, the interdependency of his dance partners, and the link of the dance to his faith.

This week I attended the all-day practice held in the front yard of the Moctezuma, Manuel Bazan, in preparation for the July 9 event. The wives, mothers, and sisters of the dancers and musicians had already gathered early in the morning to begin the meal preparations for afternoon comida, to which we were invited. At 3 p.m. the music and dancing stopped, the men took their seats at table and raised a traditional toast. The fiesta tradition is to toast first with two shots of mezcal followed by two Corona Victoria’s. The women, who included a physician, the director of the kindergarten, teachers, vendors and merchants, served traditional chicken soup flavored with Yerba Santa (a delicious herb), followed by a platter of roasted chicken, vegetable mix of fresh corn, nopalitos (cactus), and carrots, spicy black bean refritos, and plenty of fresh corn tortillas hot off the comal (tortilla griddle) made with locally ground maize that was discovered and cultivated here more than 6,000 years ago.

Sitting across the table from me was Jorge Hernandez Diaz, PhD, professor of sociology at Benito Juarez University, the Oaxaca state university. A graduate of the University of Connecticut, he has written numerous books about indigenous culture and documented the Dance of the Feather as performed in various villages throughout the Oaxaca Valley. The Guelaguetza, the state organized dance extravaganza for which Oaxaca is famous, features La Danza de la Pluma for 10 minutes during the weeklong event. This hardly does justice to this centuries-old tradition, he told me.

We talked about how necessary tourism is for Oaxaca in order to preserve these historic cultural traditions, how weavers and carvers and potters depend upon tourism in order to continue their art and craft, and how concerned he is for the future of this culture because tourism, which fuels the economy, has been dropping off since 2004. Professor Hernandez Diaz talked in particular about San Martin Tilcajete as an example of what is happening. Here many very talented carvers have left the village and their art behind to work in bigger Mexican cities or to go to El Norte. Only the most famous and commercially successful have been able to make a reasonable living. The professor is calling San Martin a ghost town.

For me, cultural preservation is by definition a delicate balance. I believe we have a responsibility to be respectful and tread lightly as we explore indigenous cultures – whether they are here in the Oaxaca Valley or other parts of the world — in order to sustain and promote traditional lifestyles and art forms that are in danger of being lost. One important way of doing this is to promote and support people to continue to create by valuing their time and the quality of the their work. This will help them stay in their villages with their families, rather than going off to a distant land to earn a living –something that most don’t want to do.

So, for example, when I talk in my blog http://oaxacaculture.com and website www.oaxacaculture.com about preserving Zapotec natural dyeing techniques and formulas, this about being willing to compensate weavers and paying a higher price for a textile that is woven with cochineal, indigo, moss, or pecan shells because the process takes so much longer to complete – and being enough of a knowledgeable collector/consumer to know the difference between a piece made with synthetic (and toxic) dyes and those made from natural plant and animal materials.

My blog captures search engine terms. Many people are inquiring about safety in Oaxaca since the APPO and teacher demonstrations of 2006. We travel to Oaxaca several times a year and are building a casita here. The city and surrounding environs are safe, secure and inviting. The people are warm, open and generous. Please don’t hesitate to visit!