As folkloristas we prepare to bodily celebrate Dia de los Muertos through song and dance. We carefully practice intricate footwork sequences, deliberately choose costumes with skeleton body suits, calavera masks and/or skull face paint that accompany the traditional music of our people. When we dance we perform an embodied memory that honors our loved ones who have passed bringing their memories to life.
What is an embodied memory?
Yvonne Daniels in “Rhythmic Remembrances” (2010) argues that we store understandings, perspectives, observations, practices, and community rituals inside our bodies (82). For example, many times when our abuelitas cook a dish they do so without a written recipe to guide them. They hold within themselves a bodily memory of that recipe. So, oftentimes they measure ingredients with their hands with a pinch of this and a dab of that. These bodily memories are passed on from one generation to the next. The same can be said with our dancing bodies. Joseph Roach in Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996) writes in a similar vein by stating that bodily movements preserve and transmit social memories through performance (4-5).
Speaking through the Bodies of the Living
Joseph Roach states that the living bodily remembers the dead through the preservation of artifacts, construction of cemeteries, the creation of commemorative buildings, and especially through performance. According to Joseph Roach, “the voices of the dead speak freely now through the bodies of the living (xiii).” How can the voices of the dead speak through the bodies of the living?
I argue that dancing folklórico during celebrations of Dia de los Muertos is a form of bodily remembrance. For example, Consuela Espinoza, Education Assistant at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas, remembers her loved ones by listening and dancing to their favorite music. She tells me that when she dances she experiences a feeling of ” joy, love, and happiness. ” This feeling also occurs when she is dancing folklorico on Dia de los Muertos. “Whether I am dancing to folklorico music or favorite songs of people I have lost, I am expressing what I feel and how I feel those who have gone would have expressed themselves while dancing.” I suggest that when we dance folklórico these feelings of joy, love, and happiness as described by Espinoza are a form of bodily remembrance.
Ted Ruiz, Co-Director of Primavera Folklorico Dance Company in Phoenix, Arizona, tells me when he dances folklórico on Dia de los Muertos he keeps the memories of his loved ones “alive in his heart.” I argue that this idea of experiencing the memories of your loved ones through folklorico is way our bodies remember our ancestors. Ruiz sees his dancing during Dia de los Muertos as a type of bodily celebration. Ruiz tell me that we dance on this day in celebration of those who have gone before us.” For Espinoza and Ruiz our dancing takes on additional meanings of loss, love, and remembrance. Both Espinoza and Ruiz describe the ways in which the voices of their loved ones speak through the folklórico dancing body.
Gabriel Avila, Director of Passion de Mi Tierra Folklorico in Los Angeles, California, remembers experiencing a deep spiritual connection through his performance during Dia de los Muertos. In 2019, he created a choreography called Monarcas y Migrantes which showed immigration as a natural happening. Avila created a choreography in which he depicted immigrants, just like the monarch butterflies, moving from one place to another. Here, he showed immigrants leaving their towns to come to the United States to work. His dancers portrayed construction workers, house keepers, college graduates, etc. Avila performed a special role where he represented all those immigrants who crossed into the United States and did not survive. When he danced the role he told me that he, “felt like a funnel. I felt the winds coming through and speaking out of me. I really felt that I am that spirit of those left behind. I heard these voices coming from my throat and I knew it was not me speaking.” Avila suggests that folkloristas can serve as vehicles for unexpressed thoughts, values, and actions. He says that it is important that we let our bodies explore the idea of enabling our ancestors to speak through us using dance and song. I note that Avila describes a spiritual connection when dancing that reached throughout his body and spoke through him. This spiritual feeling is a form of bodily remembrance, a bodily memory that is felt when he dances.
I too have had a similar experiences of remembrance when dancing folklórico during Dia de los Muertos. For me, I usually pray to God before I perform during Dia de los Muertos. In this prayer I thank God for all my blessings and I pray for the souls of my loved ones. Then, I dance. At times, I have felt a strong presence of my ancestors. I sense this kind of calm, tranquil feeling. It is a feeling of happiness that lingers within me even after I finished dancing. Espinoza, Ruiz, and Avila all describe different ways in which our ancestors speak through our dancing body. Dancing folklórico allows us to dig deep within our souls and recover the memories of love and loss. In this way, we feel the presence of our ancestors even more when we dance for Dia de los Muertos.
Avila, Gabriel. Interview with author. October 25, 2020.
Daniels, Yvonne. 2010. “Rhythmic Remembrances.” edited by Mamadou Diouf and Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo, 77-94. University of Michigan Press.
Espinoza, Consuelo. “Education Assistant at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.” Email. 2020.
Ruiz, Ted. “Co-director of the Primavera Folklorico Company.” Email.2020.
Roach, Joseph. 1996. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.