Oftentimes, we depict Aztec dancing as very solemn with a ritual purpose. Yet, the Aztecs danced different ways for many occasions. Spanish chronicler Fray Diego Durán (1537-1588) in his text God and Rites tells us about the many ceremonial and festive dances of the Aztec people. Although his writings are from the Spanish viewpoint, they give us valuable insight into the dances of this remarkable people. I am most interested in the dances performed for festive occasions since I am not familiar with any staged adaptations.
Joyful dances— Durán writes of a dance which he called dances of youth. These dances and songs spoke of love and flirtation. They were performed on happy occasions. Think about it, these are themes still popular today. I am amazed at how many songs today write of love lost and found (295).
Scandalous dances—One dance scandalized Durán in particular. He says it is known as Cuecuechcuicatl (tickling dance or dance of the itch). Durán describes this dance as “roguish” and compares it to the Spanish sarabande because dancers wriggle, grimace, and are immodest (295). The sarabande was outlawed in Spain in 1583 because it was thought of as depicting unbridled passions (Martinez-Hunter 81-82). In a poem written by the Italian Giambattista Marion called L’Adone he describes the sarabande as,
The girls with castanets, the men with tambourines, exhibit indecency in a thousand positions and gestures. They let the hips sway and the breasts knock together. They close their eyes and dance the kiss and the last fulfillment of love (Martinez-Hunter 83).
Using this description as a guide, we can get an idea of how the Cuecuechcuicatl was danced.
Comedic Dances—Durán calls the Dance of the Humpbacks comedic. He describes this dance as extremely merry and very funny. Here, men wear masks to represent old men (297). Many scholars believe he is referring to the Danza de los Viejitos. It is known as a humorous dance because young men wear masks over their face to disguise themselves as old men (Covarrubias n.p, Flores Barnes 25, 50, Toor 357). They dance gingerly as little old men using canes to walk slowly. Their canes have an animal carved at the handle (Toor 357). Then, the music which uses string instruments such as the jarana, skips to an up-beat tempo and the little old men begin to dance with vigor, strength, and speed until they pretend to collapse from fatigue (Covarrubias n.p, Flores Barnes 25, 50, Toor 357).
Acrobatic dances—In Durán’s writings he states that there is this dance that begins with a “simpleton who pretended to understand all his masters’ words backward, turning around his words” (297). Then, a juggler immediately follows this performance. Here, the juggler balances a log with his feet. He is so skillful at his tricks that he amazes the audience.
Imitation Dances–In another dance, the Aztecs painted themselves black or white or green. They wore feathers on their heads and their feet. Some women stand in the center while both men and women pretend to drink from jars and cups that they held in their hands. The dancers act as if they are drunk. Durán indicates that this dance was created for fun and amusement (297-298).
Durán tells us that the Aztec people performed thousands of games, farces, comedies, and joyful songs. This small list reveals that the Aztec people danced for religious and secular events. They danced for all occasions not just solemn ones. I am discovering that I am always learning something new about the Aztec people.
Covarrubias, Luis. n.d. Mexican Native Dances. Mexico D.F.: Fischgrund.
Durán, Diego. 1977. The Book of God and Rites and the Ancient Calendar. Translated by Fernando Horcasitas, Doris Heyden, and Miguel León Portrilla. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Flores Barnes, Alura. 1935, “The Dances of Mexico: Dance of the Viejitos.” Real Mexico. 4(20): 26,50.
Martínez-Hunter, Sanjuanita. 2018. Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910). Edited by Gabriela Mendoza-García. San Bernardino: Mexico Lindo Press.
Scolieri, Paul A. 2013. Dancing the New World: Aztecs, Spaniards, and the Choreography of Conquest. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Toor, Frances. 1947. A Treasury of Mexican Folkways. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.
Photos are in the public domain.
Copyright, April 4, 2021, Mendoza-Garcia
Gabriela Mendoza-García Ph.D. is an Artist and Scholar. She has her own dance school and company called the Gabriela Mendoza-García Ballet Folklórico in Laredo, Texas. Dr. Mendoza-Garcia founded this group in 2013 and teaches children and adults of all ages. Her company consists of seasoned folklórico dancers with years of experience performing this art form. She teaches traditional Mexican folklórico dance pieces, as well as, works that are inspired by her scholarly research. Her scholarship includes: Dancing throughout Mexican History (1325-1910), History & Folklore booklet with an accompanying documentary sponsored by the Webb County Heritage Foundation, The Jarabe Tapatío: Imagining Race, Nation, Class and Gender in 1920s Mexico published by Oxford University Press, an on-line blog, writings for Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos, and others.
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