When I first started dancing folklorico as a college student at the University of Texas at Austin, my dance teacher, Michael Carmona, told us about Dia de los Muertos. I remember painting my face like a skeleton and dancing in our community in celebration of our ancestors. I have noticed that with the release of the Disney movie Coco, it seems like this event is even more popular than ever. Yet, I notice that when we dance as skeletons our movements take on additional meanings.
What is Dia de los Muertos?
Dia de los Muertos is translated as Day of the Dead in English. It is celebrated on November 1 and 2 in Mexico and all around the world. Mexicans believe that on these days the souls of the departed return to earth to visit their family and friends.
What is the history of Dia de los Muertos?
It is very difficult to pinpoint the origin of anything. However, scholars acknowledge that the customs surrounding Dia de los Muertos have an indigenous influence. For example, the Aztec people held special offerings and ceremonies to honor children and adults who had died. It was known asMiccailhuitontli and Miccailhuitl which is translated as Little Feast of the Dead and Great Feast of the Dead. This is just one example because Mexico is a very ethnically diverse country whereby indigenous andmestizo groups celebrated the death of their loved ones through song, dance, ritual, and offerings. In the sixteenth century with the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Catholic friars noticed that the indigenous people incorporated their own ceremonies celebrating the dead during the Catholic feast day of All Souls Day.
How do we celebrate Dia de los Muertos today?
Loved ones prepare for a visit by the deceased by creating an altar that is displayed in their home. The altar is decorated with all the favorite items of the departed including pictures. In addition, food is prepared and placed on the altar so that the loved one may return and partake. In my city of Laredo, Texas, many celebrate by visiting the cemetery and put flowers on the graves. Others attend a mass in memory of their loved ones. Many buy pan de muerto (bread of the dead) which is a type of sweat bread that has bone shapes and is sold at the local bakeries. Different villages, cities, and regions celebrate this custom in many different ways.
Who was José Guadalupe Posada?
José Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913) was an illustrator, print maker that worked for many different Mexican periodicals and presses. He is most known for his illustrations of calaveras (skulls) that were dressed in fancy clothing and infused with political satire. One of his most popular drawings was of a rich, female skeleton wearing a fancy hat with a feather on it. Posada dubbed this drawing La Calavera de la Catrina. Posada’s skeletal illustrations were not greatly appreciated until after his death. Since the 1920s and 1930s these skeletal images have been closely associated with celebrations of Dia de los Muertos.
How is Dia de los Muertos a Bodily Memory?
Folklorico dance groups celebrate Dia de los Muertos by dancing with their faces painted as skulls. Then, our dances take on additional meanings. Yes, we are still performing our Mexican cultural history when we dance. Yet, on Dia de los Muertos we are also performing as skeletons bringing to life the bodily memories of our ancestors. Oftentimes, when the dancers perform it may appear that the skeletal Catrina image depicted by Posada has come to life. I usually dedicate my own dancing to my beloved father, grandparents, aunt and my loved ones who are no longer physically on this earth. I remember them with every zapateado, grito, and skirt flourish. Sometimes I can feel their presence with me even stronger. This is the power of our dancing.
Written by Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia Ph.D.
Berdecio, Roberto and Appelbaum, Stanley. Eds. Posada’s Popular Mexican Prints. Mineola: Dover Publications Inc., 1972. Print.
Carmichael, Elizabeth and Chloë Sayer. The Skeleton at the Feast: Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. Print.
Delsol, Christine. “La Catrina: Mexico’s Game of Death.” SF Gate. October. 2011. Web. 6 May. 2014.
Well, summer is around the corner and I decided to share a few of my favorite books for folkloristas. These books make great summer reading for children. For adults, we can read these books to expand our knowledge. The books are available at amazon.com, your local book store or your local library.
Lupita’s First Dance: El Primer Baile de Lupita by Lupe Ruiz-Flores-This is a bilingual book which tells the story of Lupita and her first time dancing folklórico with her class. At their school concert her partner does not show up. What should she do? I read this book to my folklórico students and they loved it.
What can you do with a Rebozo? Què Puedes Hacer con un Rebozo? By Carmen Tafolla-This bilingual book really connects with our dances because it talks about the different uses of a rebozo. A young girls tells us the many ways the different members of her family uses a rebozo. For example the rebozo is used: to accent a dress, to play hide and seek, as a hair decoration, to keep warm, etc.
Danza!: Amalia Hernández and el Ballet Folklórico de México-This book features the unique artwork of Duncan Tonatiuth which is a treasure in and of itself. It traces the life story of Amalia Hernández and her founding of the Ballet Folklórico de México. It starts with her youth, dance training, setting her company, and traveling throughout the world.
The Man who set the Town Dancing: El Hombre que puso a Bailar a Todo el Pueblo by Candice Stanford-This bilingual book recounts the story of my dear friend Josè Tena of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The book begins with Josè Tena dreaming of teaching folklórico one day. Then, he begins to research the dances of New Mexico and puts them on-stage for the world to appreciate. This book ends with a brief biography of the life of this remarkable folklorista, as well as, with diagrams and explanations of four New Mexican dances. I must admit this book is a bit harder to purchase since it is out of print. I scoured amazon until someone finally sold a copy.
Todos a Celebrar!: Hispanic Customs and Traditions Alphabet Book by Maria Alma Gonzalez Perez-This bilingual book is perfect for our littlest of dancers who may not know how to read yet. Each alphabetic letter corresponds with a Mexican cultural tradition. It is a great way to reinforce the alphabet while learning the about the many Mexican traditions.
El Baile Calabaceado: Tradición de la Fiesta del Vaquero by Raúl Valdovinos García-This book is written in Spanish. It covers the history of the calabaceado dances as performed in La Misión in Baja California. Most importantly, the author writes of how this dance which started as a regional dance became representative of the entire state of Baja California. A very important book for those of us that teach and perform calabaceados.
Dancing in the New World: Aztecs, Spaniards, and the Choreography of Conquest by Paul A Scolieri-Many of us teach the Aztec dances to our dancers. This book really highlights the importance dance played in the conquest of Mexico. Included are drawings from the era, as well as documenting the ways that dance was a form of resistance, retaliation, and conquest. For more of my ideas on this subject see my blog post entitled Aztec Dance: Re-writing History
Mi Vida, Mis Viaje, Mis Vivencias: Siete Decades de la Musica del Mariachi by Miguel Martínez-This book is written in Spanish. Here, Martínez tells of us his life and how he became a trumpet player with the famous Mariachi Vargas. You will learn how in the early 20th century mariachi musical groups did not include the trumpet. He narrates his struggles and successes as a member of the Mariachi Vargas. I purchased this book on amazon a few months ago. It might be a bit difficult to find since it is out of print.
The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II by Luis Alvarez-Those of us that dance the pachuco/a dances of the 1940s should purchase this book. It gives a detailed account of the various injustices, discriminatory practices, and stance against assimilation that the pachuco/as were fighting against. It is a good backdrop to understanding the pachuco/a culture and the dances that we depict. For more of my ideas on this subject, please visit my blog post entitled Chicana/o Rebellious Dancers: The Pachuca/o Zoot Suiters
México’s Nobodies: The Cultural Legacy of the Soldadera and Afro-Mexican Women by Christine Arce-This book brings to light the role of the soldaderas throughout Mexico’s Revolultionary War (1910-1920). It has great historical accounts which you can use to frame your own Revolutionary Dances. Also, the author emphasizes the role of Afro-Mestizo women throughout history. Please read more of my ideas on this topic on my blog post entitled Five Historical Facts about Las Adelitas or Las Soldaderas
After my aunt Sanjuanita Martínez-Hunter passed away, I helped my mother sort through all her personal possessions. Among her boxes of paperwork, I found a collection of manila folders with the words Alura Flores de Angeles scribbled on top. Thrilled, I opened each folder and in it were slides, pictures, brochures, press releases, newspaper clipping all documenting Flores de Angeles’ many visits to the University of Texas at Austin in which she displayed her costume collection, conducted dance workshops, and lectured on Mexican folkloric dance. Among my aunt’s paperwork, I also found copies of articles on Mexican Dance written by Flores de Angeles from 1934 to 1935 for Real Mexico magazine.
Alura Flores de Angeles (1905-2000) earned a degree in physical education at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) during a time when few people much less women attended college. She was known for her poetic recitation having performed at nearly every theatre in Mexico City. Yet, she was especially known as a teacher of Mexican folkloric dance having taught at UNAM for over fifty years. Few realize that she was also an author. This month I share an excerpt from an article as written by Alura Flores de Angeles for Real Mexico in the December 1934/ January 1935 issue which I found in my aunt’s collection.
Las Canacuas (Michoacán
We are now going to study some of the dances of the State of
is situated in the southwestern part of Mexico, and is one of the richest and
most interesting states in the Republic. The most important and best known of
dances are: La Danza de las Canacuas (The Dance of the Crowns), which is a
women’s dance and is very beautiful.
Las Canacuas are danced on the Fiestas de las Coronas
(Fiestas of the Crown) which are celebrated several times throughout year,
particularly on certain market days when large crowds of visitors from far and
near are attracted to the town where the fiestas are being held. Uruapan is the
town where Las Canacuas are danced most often, and many people come from the
towns nearby such as Huecorio, Janitzio, Jarácuaro, Santa Fe and others.
Now that the pretty town of Uruapan is becoming so popular as a resort with
Mexicans and visitors alike doubtless many more persons each year will have the
opportunity of witnessing the dancing of Las Canacuas as well as the other
There is a graceful little ceremony connected with the dance. Presents are offered to the assembly of visitors such as flowers, fruits, and small toys and curios. The state of Michoacán is famous for its flowers and fruits and indeed its lush soil will produced anything. The state also excels in the manufacture of attractive and ingenious arts and crafts. Among the most notable of these are the jicaras, which are trays peculiar to Michoacán and are famous all over Mexico. They are hand painted with birds, flowers, and other dainty or fanciful motifs. The jicara is used in the dance of Las Canacuas.
The girls of the dance and there may lie any number of them, are known as Michoacánas (Michoacan girls). They enter in a single file. Each has her jicara on her head and all carry small bouquets of flowers and fruits as well as small toys and curios. These are for presentation to the priests. The flowers presented are small yellow flowers indigenous to Mexico. They are called here flores del corazón (flowers of the heart). Small bouquets of these flowers are arranged with dried corn husk and a bunch is presented to each guest. The significance of this charming custom is to welcome. The michoacánas dance and sing and they hand round the bouquets. The words of the songs are often very naïve.
The costume worn by the Michoacánas is beautiful and very
vivid. The blouse called a huanengo is of fine, white handwork and is
embroidered with fancy patterns in bright wool. The skirt is also of wool,
usually of navy blue wool. At the bottom of the skirt is a rather wide border
of the same material as the blouse. This can also be embroidered with wool or
fancy patterns and figures may be appliqued on it. The waistline of the skirt is
gathered and a band is wound a coupled of time about the waist and tied at
The Michoacána also wears a shawl around the head. It hangs down her back below her waist. She wears jewelry, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings, usually of coral. She has her hair arranged in two long braids and sometimes she entwines ribbons in her braids.
The dance consists of graceful moving and turns and the tapping of the feet on the ground. It is charming, picturesque, and beautiful. Usually the dance of Las Canacuas is prolonged to include the dancing of the Jarabe Michoacáno. This dance is quite different from the Jarabe Tapatío, the national dance of Mexico. Its procedure is thus: the girls place their jicaras down and seat themselves on the floor; they clap their hands; a man enters; he selects one girl from the group and dances the Jarabe Michaoacáno with her. This dance consists of a continued beating of the feet, turns, etc. It too is very attractive.
Let’s remember that Flores de Angeles wrote this article in the 1930s. She describes Uruapan as just beginning to be discovered by tourists. Her writings reveal the ceremonial and social aspects of Las Canacuas and not necessarily a dance performed on stage with a set sequence of steps or movements. Amongst my aunt’s belongings, I also found a series of pictures of Alura Flores de Angeles’ costume collection. I am thinking about compiling all these archival photographs to write my new book project. This book would include full color photos of this costume collection plus other archival sources. What do you think about this project?
Flores Barnes, Alura. 1934. The Dances of Mexico: Las Canacuas (Michoacán Dance). Real Mexico 12, no. 1. (December/January): n.p.
___.___. 50 Veranos: Alura Flores de Angeles. N.d. Dance program. Society of Folk Dance Historians Collection, Austin.
—.—. Photograph. Society of Folk Dance Historians Collection, Austin.
This month I am writing about our Chicana/o ancestors from 1940s who showed their rebellious ways through dance, music, dress, speech, and culture. Yes, I am talking about the Zoot Suiter or the Pachucos and Pachucas of this era. As they danced the jitterbug in their zoot suits they defiantly retaliated against assimilation. Yet, this story begins with a killing….
In Los Angeles, California in 1942 Josè Díaz attended a party near Sleepy Lagoon which was a popular place for Mexican-American or Chicano youth to hang out. He was found bleeding to death. Immediately, the police began looking for the killer. They swept through Chicano neighborhoods and rounded up six hundred youths. Twenty-two Chicanos who were members of the 38th Street Gang were charged with murder and assault. Scholars who comb through historical evidence now note that this trial was unjust. This was known as the Sleepy Lagoon Incident.
Then, on June 7, 1942, Vicente Morales who wore a zoot suit took his date to the Orpheum Theatre for a night of dancing. Sometime during this evening, a group of white sailors beat him up while shouting profanities. They stripped him of his zoot suit and his girlfriend had to cover his naked, beaten body with her own coat. The police arrested him on charges of disturbing the peace. He went to jail. So, began the Zoot Suit Riots where hundreds of Service men roamed the streets of Los Angeles targeting Chicanos wearing Zoot Suits. The pachucos were beaten in front of a crowd, stripped of their zoot suits, and arrested by police for vagrancy, disturbing the peace and other charges. The news media added to the hype by labeling the Zoot Suiters as un-American and juvenile delinquents. Eventually the Zoot Suit riots were quelled after an outcry by the Mexican government.
Why Dress in Zoot
During this time, Americans were fighting in World War II. All citizens were expected to fight for their country and support the war. Many Chicanos fought during World War II but they were still segregated in schools, movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, etc. They were discriminated against at work and were the targets of prejudice. However, the Chicana/o youths were not powerless. Instead, of succumbing to demands that they assimilate to American society. They rebelled and created the Pachuca/o style (Alvarez 2008, 155, 15-18, 78).
The pachucos and pachucas of the 1940s were known for wearing
their rebellious attire known as the Zoot Suit. Luis Alvarez in The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and
Resistance During World War II (2008) quotes a former Zoot Suiter from Los
Yeah everything was brown. And the coat came down to here [pointing to the knees], right down to here. And the silver chain from the pocket, and the wide, like a pancake, hat, with a real wide brim. …And we would dress up that like that to go to the dances. All of us. All wear the same thing. With the big chain, we’d twirl the chain (Alvarez 2008, 86).
The pachuca wore a short skirt, a pompadour hair do, and “loud” make-up. Some wore pants and blazer types shirts the equivalent of the male zoot suit (Ramírez 2002, 15).
Dancing Pachucos and
Pachucas in the 1940s
The Zoot suiters of the 1940s danced the jitterbug (Delgado 1971,
5). This was a very difficult dance involving intricate footwork and partnering
skills. They twisted, hopped in a synchronized, fast pace together with their
dance partners. Oftentimes couples incorporated dance tricks involving amazing jumps
Zoot suiters listened to jazz music. This music would later evolve into bebop (Alvarez 2008, 144). They also liked music by artists Artie Shaw & His Orchestra, Benny Goodman, & Harry James. They really loved dancing to the music of Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five especially the song Caldonia. Later on, they would dance to anything by Chubby Checkers (Delgado 1971, 5).
To listen to Caldonia by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, please see below.
Also, new songs with pachucos as a theme became the rage. One very popular melody was the song called Pachuco Boogie by Edmundo Tostado or Don Tosti. One reason this song was so popular is because the singer uses the unique Pahcuco/a slang in a musical conversation (Alvarez 2008, 140).
To listen to Pachuco Boogie, please see below:
Dancing the Zoot Suit
Style in Folklórico
Zoot Suit style dancing gained national attention when featured in the play Zoot Suit (1979) and film (1981) by Luis Valdez. Valdez depicted pachucos and pachucas dancing with their zoot suits. With that, folklórico groups across the country began incorporating Zoot Suit style dancing in their repertoire. Frank Trujillo of The National Chicano Dance Theater based in Denver, Colorado choreographed his own Zoot Suit dance suite based upon family research (Nájera-Ramirez 2012, 172). In their program Trujillo gives a brief history of the Sleepy Lagoon incident and the Zoot Suit riots. He choreographed an entire suite of dances depicting the Zoot Suiters. The National Chicano Dance Theater toured the United States in 1980 showcasing this suite alongside other dances. (Chronology: Cuatro Epocas Program).
At the Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos (ANGF) conference in 1982 held in Alamosa, Colorado the Bailadores del Bronce folklórico group from Seattle, Washington wowed attendees with their performed of Zoot Suit style dances (ANGF Conference IX Syllabus). Randy Robert López was a member Bailadores del Bronce and performed at the ANGF conference. The group was directed by Elma Gonzalez Radke. He tells me that sometime between 1978 and 1979 all the dancers created these choreographies. He says that the dances were created in a collaborative effort each adding new steps and sequences (López 2019).
Also, the Grupo Folklórico Semillas de la Tierra in Alamosa, Colorado would learn these dances from Juan Rios who was a former dancer with the National Chicano Dance Theatre. They premiered their own Zoot Suit dances in the early 1980s with a poetic recitation by Abelardo Delgado. They also dedicated the Zoot Suit suite to the pachucos and pachucas of the 1940s. Nowadays as a Tejana, I have seen/heard of folklorico groups such as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Ballet Folklórico and the Round Rock Ballet Folklórico perform Zoot Suit style dances. I know that there are so many of us that remember the rebellious Pachuca/os through dance.
Many of us continue to create, innovate, and pass on the
songs and jitterbug dance styles of the zoot suit era as a way to remember our
ancestors who were unjustly targeted as anti-American. No longer wanting to fit
into the melting pot they showed their unique individuality through dress,
speech, music, and dance. We keep their rebellious spirit in our hearts as we
perform our Zoot Suit dances.
Written by Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia Ph.D.
To read my latest research please purchase the book Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910)which is
written by Sanjuanita Martinez-Hunter and edited by myself. It is available for
purchase on Amazon.com.
Alvarez, Luis. 2008. The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance During World WarII. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos
Conference IX Syllabus. 1982.
Delgado, Abelardo B. The Chicano Movement: Some Not Too Objective Observations. El Paso: Barrio Publications.
López, Randy Robert. 2019.Correspondence by author. March
Nájera-Ramirez. Ballet Folklórico and Mexican Identity. In Dancing Cultures: Globalization,Tourism, and Identity in the Anthropology of Dance. ed. Héléne Neveu Kringelbach and Jonathan Skinner, 161-176. New York: Berghahn Books.
The National Chicano
Dance Theater: Chronology-Cuatro Epocas Program. n.d. Artes Chicanos.
Sanchez, Yolanda. 2019. Round Rock Ballet Folklorico Photograph.
Ramírez, Catherine S. 2002.
“The Pachuca and Chicana Style Politics.”
Meridians. 2(2): 1-35.
One time my two dear friends fought with each other.
Of course, I was stuck in the middle. Each one told me their side of the story.
All I could do was sit and listen to them tell me their perspectives on what
happened to cause this disagreement. Have you ever been in this situation?
Well, this reminds me of how we think of history. Believe it or not, our ideas about history are always changing. When I was growing up, I was taught to think of history as searching for the “truth.” Now, I know that history is more like listening to different perspectives—not necessarily finding the “truth” as in this case with my two friends arguing with each other.
Our understanding about Aztec people and their dancing is constantly changing. Scholars still debate among each other, offer up different perspectives, and discover new finding even in the 21st century. Here are a few new ideas that I find fascinating.
The Aztecs Never Thought of Cortès as a God
When I was growing up, I remember learning in my history class that part of the reason that Cortès was able to defeat the Aztecs is that they thought of him as the god Quetzalcoatl who was supposed to return to rule them. Matthew Restall in When Moctezuma Met Cortès (2018) argues that this a myth designed to justify the conquest of the Aztec people. Restall states that Cortès never mentions in any of his writings that the Aztecs thought of him as Quetzalcoatl. In fact, this idea surfaced in a poem written by a Spaniard in 1798 and continued from there (Restall 43-44). Think about it, if you position the Aztecs as simple minded people who believe that the Spaniards are gods, then these are people who need the guidance and help of the Spanish. They must be conquered, guided, and converted to Christianity.
2. Aztec Dancing Used to Justify the Conquest
As I read through the book Dancing in the New World: Aztecs, Spaniards, and the Choreography of Conquest by Paul A. Scolieri (2013), I vividly imagine the Aztecs dancing for their social and religious ceremonies. Yet, what is remarkable to me are the ways in which Scolieri notes that the Spaniards justified the conquest of Mexico by referencing Aztec dancing. For example, He writes of the Noche Triste in which thousands of unarmed Aztecs were massacred by the Spanish conquistadors as they danced to celebrate the Toxcatl ceremony. The dancers were nobles and warriors. All were deliberately killed by the Spanish because they thought it was a ruse to overthrow them. He notes how some Spanish chroniclers lamented the massacre of the Aztec people and others romanticized Cortès’ involvement as a rescuer. Furthermore, he describes so many dances involving human sacrifice. These dances involving human sacrifice allowed the Spaniards to have even more reasons to convert them to Christianity (92, 101-102, 70-72). Scolieri shows us the interconnections of Aztec dancing with history, politics, and religion.
3. Concheros Dancing has Many Interpretations
In her writings, Alura Flores de Angeles “Godmother of Mexican Dance” and other scholars argue that conchero dances do not have a direct indigenous lineage to pre-hispanic dance. Thus, I couldn’t understand why practitioners would tell me that the dances do have an unbroken indigenous lineage. That is until I read The Role of Interpretation in Determining Continuity in Danza Aztec History by Kristina Nielson (2018). This writing is from a blog taken from Nielson’s dissertation. As she explains it scholars interpret the move from indigenous worship to Christian worship and vice versa of the conchero dances over time as a break in lineage. Yet, practitioners see these changes as transformations of the dances which are a continuous cycle and not a break at all. Here, she argues that scholars and practitioners have different ways of interpreting the history of the concheros dancing. So, this explains this disconnect that I experienced.
As I debunk the idea of history as a “truth,” I wonder how this idea affects our own understanding of folklórico dance traditions. What happens when we think of folklórico dancing as a perspective and not a “truth?” What do you think?
Written by Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia Ph.D.
To read more of Mexican dance history, please purchase the book Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910) written by Sanjuanita Martínez-Hunter and edited by myself. It is available for purchase on Amazon.
When I was a folklórico dancer with the University of Texas Ballet Folklórico, I remember my teacher Michael Carmona taught us the polkas, redovas, and schottisches of Northern Mexico. He called it Norteño. This group was started in 1975 by UT students and my aunt Sanjuanita Martinez-Hunter. This was one of the first regions in their repertoire. By the time I attended the University of Texas at Austin some twenty-five years later or so, we continued this dance tradition of representing the entire Northern region of Mexico in a suite of dances. Afterwards, I danced with Roy Lozano’s Ballet Folklórico de Tejas which was founded in the 1980s. When I danced with Roy Lozano in the 1990s, we would perform dances representing Nuevo León and another set representing Chihuahua. Thus, no longer was the entire Northern region of Mexico depicted in a suite of dances. Today, I see folklórico groups performing the norteño dances of Durango, Nuevo León, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, etc., as separate and distinct states. Thinking about this, I wonder what the bodily distinctions are between the dances of Nuevo León Central and Chihuahua.
Dancing the Polka, Redova, and Shotis
In folklórico, Nuevo León Central is characterized by dances that include the polka, redova, and shotis (Guerrero Hernández 2003, 35). In contrast, only the polkas characterize the folklórico dances of Chihuahua. However, according to Rito Ortega Posada, he says that if you ever travel to Chihuahua all you have to do is say “Let’s dance a few dances of Northern Mexico” and everyone will dance the redova, shotis, etc. with with you on the dance floor (Ortega Posada 2001, 73).
Many of the dances and music that we perform to today are derived from choreographies and compositions created in the twentieth century. In my blog post, Folklórico Dance as an Invented Tradition, I wrote about Antonio Tanguma and his famous compositions that we now dance to that represent Nuevo León. He composed the songs entitled: El Cerro de la Silla, Evangelina, El Naranjo, Polka Alegre among others. In fact, his very first composition was composed in 1938. It was entitled De China a Bravo (Houston 2017, 107; Quiroz 2003, 88-89).
It was during the 1970s that a new style of dancing
the polkas from Chihuahua emerged. This type of style is similar to what we
perform today. During the 1970s composers created new songs which included: De
Chihuahua a Concordia, Cierro Prieto, El Huarachazo to name a few. New dance
moves with new choreographies accompanied the music (Ortega Posada 2001, 73).
There are stylistic interpretations that characterize the dances of Nuevo León Central and Chihuahua.
The polkas of Nuevo León Central use the punta y talón or toe/heel combinations, carretillas accentuate the footwork when wearing boots, pespunteados y entrecruces and are marked with rapid turns that resemble the European style of dancing (Guerrero Hernández 2003, 35).
According to Vicky Barriga of the Rarajipame Ballet Folklorico Infantil, there are five different stylistic versions of dancing the polkas of Chihuahua. Maestro/as who created their own stylistic versions of Chihuahua include: Prof. Antonio Rubio of the Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua, Leonor Avalos (considered by Barriga to be one of the great choreographer of the polkas), husband and wife duo Victor Barriga and Rita Cobos Lugo of the Rarajipame Ballet Folklórico, and Profesor Chava who choreographed dances to represent Ciudad Juárez. Barriga also mentions that we can’t forget all those dancers who participate in competitions. This is also a specific style in which they incorporate new footwork and movements to win. Also, she mentions that Leonor Avalos revolutionized these dances by making them synonymous with the state of Chihuahua. Before Avalos the dances of Chihuahua were lumped together as dances of the norteño region. She describes Chihuahua as having distinct polkas with rapid turns that requires much agility and elegance. Each of the maestro/as listed above put their own touch to the polkas of Chihuahua (Barriga 2019).
Writing this piece, makes me realize that I still have so much to learn. I feel that I am always learning something new. How does your folklórico group embody the norteño dances?
Written by Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia Ph.D.
To read more about Mexican Dance History please read the book Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910)which is written by Sanjuanita Martinez-Hunter and edited by myself. It is available for purchase on Amazon.com.
Adelita is a nickname given to women soldiers or soldaderas who fought along side men in battle during Mexico’s Revolutionary War (1910-1920). Many of us depict these brave women when we perform the dances of La Revolución. I first learned La Revolución as a dancer with Roy Lozano’s Ballet Folklórico de Tejas in the 1990s. Roy Lozano, my teacher, passed on the choreographies that he learned from performing with the Ballet Folklórico de Méxicode Amalia Hernández in the late 1970s. Following this dance tradition, I have taught these dances to my own company which have been in our own repertoire since 2003. Yet, I feel that our folklórico practice encourages a romanticized view of the las adelitas. Quite recently, I began to deep deeper into historical accounts and realized that there was so much that I didn’t know.
1. The word soldaderas refers to women who followed men in camp and those who fought in battles. During Mexico’s Revolutionary War, soldiers paid women to work on their behalf as servants. These women purchased supplies, cleaned clothes, cooked, cared for the sick, buried the dead, and some were prostitutes. Many women were expected to follow their husbands, fathers, brothers, lovers, etc. into the military. Yet, others fought in battle as soldiers, generals and colonels. They lead militias of men and women troops to fight during the Revolution (Salas 1990, xii, 44; Monsiváis 2006, 5).
2. Not all women willingly followed men in battle. Some were abducted and raped. There are stories of young girls been taken from their homes and forced to follow the troops while their mothers cried at home. Newspaper accounts tell of women kidnapped on trains and even one reports that forty women, almost the entire female population from the village of Jojutla, were abducted by Zapatistas. Nuns were taken from their convent and forced to accompany the Carrancistas. After the war, many of these nuns were pregnant or had children of their own. Parents fought back by hiding their children in the fields, posting look outs for revolutionaries, disguising their daughters etc. (Salas 1990, 40-42).
3. Women were so very brave. They lead regiments of men in battle as colonels and generals. They also led regiments comprised entirely of women in battle. Women were sent on secret spy missions, brought ammunition to men while dodging bullets during the line of fire, and some were so courageous that they were feared and respected by men (Salas 1990, 41-43).
4. As we dance Las Adelitas we wear cartridge belts around our torso, carry rifles and use a serious expression to portray these tough, courageous women. We wear skirts and blouses typical of the time period. Yet, some soldaderas dressed as men. They wore pants, shirts, or even dressed in men’s military uniforms. See pictures below.
5. After the Mexican Revolutionary War, women’s military contributions were devalued. Women were not called colonels or soldiers but were listed under the general term of soldaderas. The military classified soldaderas as wives. Very few women veterans received military pensions. Most did not. Women who did receive pensions could not re-marry nor officially participate in the military (Arce 2017, 65, 82). In addition, after the Revolution, images of the soldaderas were romanticized in literature, film, art, and song. Soldaderas were not depicted as diverse, independent women many of which fought in battle but instead they were cast along four main stereotypes. Soldaderas were characterized as either self-sacrificing, sexually carefree, sweethearts, or soldiers (Salas 1990, 69, 82).
I have danced and taught the choreographies that represent La Revolución for years.Yet, I believe that a close study of history alongside our folklórico practice really allowed me the ability to fully appreciate the individual spirit of these brave and courageous women.
In the book Dancing Throughout Mexican History 1325-1910, my aunt Sanjuanita Martínez-Hunter, narrates the crucial role that Dance played in the lives of the Mexican people from the Pre-Hispanic era to the start of Mexico’s Revolutionary War. This month I have decided to honor Mexican scholar and artist Luis Covarrubias. I am selecting a few drawing that can be found in his books Mexican Native Dances and Trajes Regionales de México to bring to life my aunt’s text. (For more information on my favorite books to read see Folklorico Books for Every Folklorista’s Collection.) The following is an excerpt from the book Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910)I have added illustrations by Luis Covarrubias in this blog post. Martínez-Hunter cites Covarrubias in her analysis. Due to copyright laws these drawings could not be included in her book. Martínez-Hunter writes of the Dance Dramas during the Spanish influence after the conquest of Mexico.
Los Moros y Cristianos (The Moors and the Christians)
Los Moros y Cristianos
The first Christian dance-drama to be introduced into Mexico was probably the dance of the “Moors and the Christians.” The earliest known record of this dance in Mexico dates from 1524, at which time Los Moros y Cristianos was presented to Cortés in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. This drama symbolized the union of two cultures. The dramatization exemplified the constant struggle of the Indigenous people in deciding between their own ancient traditions and new customs the Spaniards had to offer as a means of survival.
Los Santiagos (Dance of St. James)
Los Santiagos by Luis Covarrubias
A variant of the “Moors and Christians” dance described above in Los Santiagueros or Santiagos. According to legend prior “to decisive battles between the Spanish and Indians, visions of Santiago appeared in the sky.”
In this dance-drama, Saint James with help from no one converts the “heathens” to Christianity or vanquishes them. Hence the conquest of Mexico is itself brought about by the dance. In effect, in the introduction, the priests admonish the Indigenous people by telling them that if they do not accept the new religion they will risk God’s anger.
La Danza de los Concheros (The Concheros Dance)
La Danza de los Concheros
A number of dances are clearly reminiscent of the Concheros, an Indigenous group of people who inhabited Central Mexico in ancient times. Described in their songs as “soldiers of the Conquest of the Holy Religion,” the name of these legendary figures, “concheros,” is derived from the musical instrument associated with them, a mandolin or guitar fabricated from the shell-like protective armor, or concha, of the armadillo, an animal regarded as a symbol of the earth.
Sones of Mexico
Martínez-Hunter also writes of the different types of sones of Mexico that were sung and danced from 1810-1910. As she explains it, The jarana is a dance-type of son. The dance is named after the small guitar of the same name. The word jarana can be literally translated as “happy and vivacious.” The jarana is much like the Spanish jota, a dance popular in Aragón. Jaranas are most popular in Yucatán, Campeche, Tabasco, and Quintana Roo.
The Spanish jota, zapateado, and seguidillas of the 1600 and 1700 became popular in the Yucatán peninsula. The locals of the area assimilated parts of the new Spanish music into the aboriginal dances, and soon the Jarana took on a new “feel.” The Jarana depicts the mestizo spirit like the huapango and jarabe. Today the Jarana dances have diminished in popularity and are interpreted mostly by folk dance performing groups to represent the dances from the Yucatán peninsula.
In Yucatán the townspeople, decked in their finest clothes, come together to celebrate a vaqueria (round-up) a traditional folk festival. The yucatecas (women from Yucatán) wear gala ensembles of lovely white huipiles or embroidered tunics, silk rebozos or scarfs, starched laces, and gold filigree necklaces. The men wear distinctive, white guayaberas also called filipinas (pleated dress shirts) with a short raised collar. Linen trousers, alpargatas (thick sandals), and fine henequen or panama straw hats.
I find it amazing to think that many of these dances are still performed today. They continue to evolve and change with the passage of time. Yet, these dances are bodily passed down from one generation to another. Folklorico dance as an embodied practicemaintains the history of our ancestors with every zapateado.
Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910) written by Sanjuanita Martínez-Hunter and edited by myself has just been released. It is now available for purchase on Amazon. Please click on the link below.
https://www.amazon.com/author/gabrielamendozagarciaThe Son -Mexico’s Dance Mestizo folk music was born from the blend of the Indigenous and Spanish cultures in Mexico. In the seventeenth century, a new variety of generic song and dance, the son (peasant song) appeared. (Scholars today acknowledge the son as having mestizo, Indigenous, and African influences). As the son became popular, those sones which were native to a particular locale were called sones de la tierra. By the nineteenth century, sones were identifiable as typically Mexican. Sones are popularly sung and danced throughout Mexico. The huapango, the jarana, the Chilean son, the son jarocho, and the jarabe are all sones which stem from the Spanish zapateado steps, dances, and music. Most sones developed from Spanish peasant or rural music. A son differs from other music in its “form, rhythm, choreography, and textual content.” Its characteristic “unequal triple rhythm” is based on “patterns of six beats.”
Dancing to a Son
Independent couples dance sones, many of which are distinguished by the rapid action of the feet in a zapateado. The zapateado serves as accompaniment to the music when the rhythm of the dancers’ feet produce percussion-type sounds. The zapateado’s percussive accompaniment and many of the melodic instruments, such as the violin, stop while the lyrics of the son are sung. A zapateado produces its sound by the fast stamping of the feet on hard ground or on a raised wooden platform called a tarima. As “one of the universal traits of the son,” the zapateado is also a particular kind or type of son. Many of the sones from southern Mexico which are accompanied by marimba music are generally known as zapateados. Many of these belong to the repertory of sones de marimba or sones istmeños.
Lyrics of a Son
Lyrics for sones are usually written in rhyming couplets with eight-syllables in each line. The son usually opens with a dedication of the performance either to the gracious audience, to a particular important individual in the audience, or to beauty in individuals or in nature. The couplets of the sones often weave colorful tapestries of men and women in love surrounded by the beauties of nature. Malageña, a love overture to a girl from Malaga in Spain; Petenera, a tragedy about sailors set to unusually lively rhythm; and Indita, a description for the passion of Indigenous women are three typical sones that are appropriate for singing only.
In this book, Martinez-Hunter continues to describe the different types of dances that sones are performed to. These include the chilena, huapango, son jarocho, jarana, and the jarabe. My Thoughts The sones and jarabes are still popular even today in the 21st century. We dance sones and jarabes from the states of Nayarit, Tamualipas, Jalisco, Veracruz to name a few. A few of us living in the United States even create our own choreographies to the sones of Mexico.
In the book Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (1995), Néster García Canclini argues that traditional practices that identify us as a nation or people are highly valued. They are thought of as a treasure from the past and are so valuable that we imagine them as beyond question. We are so intent on preserving, restoring, and disseminating these traditions that we fail to see the ways in which these traditions interact, contradict, and respond to modern day influences. Canclini continues by stating that some people believe that folklore should remain unchanged, and that progress as well as modern communication alters and destroys it and makes it lose its identity. Instead, he argues that modern influences do not erase folklore but instead transform it (108, 148-149). I have noticed this same line of thought amongst folkloristas. We love our dances so much that we fail to realize just how much these dances continue to be transformed by history, politics, and modern day influences. I argue that these dance influences are part of a circular pattern where the communities are influenced by modern day politics, trends and vice versa. Plus, as Canclini mentions it is so important is to think through the contradictions expressed within these dance practices.
Folkloric Dance Transforms throughout History
Thinking through Canclini’s ideas, let’s use a historic example from the book Dancing Throughout Mexican History 1325-1910 (2018) as written by Sanjuanita Martínez-Hunter and edited by myself to show the ways in which folkloric dance is transformed based upon political upheavals. The following is an excerpt.
The Spanish conquistadors came to forcefully impose their way of life and morality on the Aztec people. The conquerors saw no value in the Indigenous culture or religion…..
However, the Spanish conquerors faced the problem that many thousands of their Indigenous subjects worshipped through dance. Desiring at all cost to save the souls of the newly conquered people, the conquistadors incorporated polytheistic festivities and dance into their sacramental rites. In their eyes, substituting the symbols and deity of Christianity for the polytheistic motifs and deities while preserving the pomp and color of polytheistic ceremonies helped actualize the transition from the sinful life of certain damnation to the holy life of eternal joy.
As the acculturation progressed, the religious fiestas changed in form. Ancient deities who had presided over the festive rituals were replaced by the patron saints of Christianity. Dance included themes such as the struggle between Christianity and atheism, the medieval Crusades, and even the Spanish Conquest (43).
In her writings, Martínez-Hunter continues to describe the ways in which the indigenous people also changed their dances using new dance movements, musical instruments, and themes of the time period. In other words, the indigenous people and the colonizers were influenced by each other and made changes to the dances to transform them. They did not stay the same during times of political unrest, uncertainty, or peace. Instead, Canclini urges us to examine the many contradictions that these dances express.
Folklorico is Constantly Changing Even Today
Now, let’s thinks of a more contemporary example which shows the ways in which Mexican Folkloric dances are influenced by and react to contemporary dance trends. Folkloric dance companies are known for their staged presentations of dances as performed by a community of people. Anthony Shay in “Choreographing Identities: Folk Dance, Ethnicity, and Festival in the United States and Canada” (2006) argues that dance communities borrow styles and ideas from folkloric dance companies. He quotes an interview in which Amalia Hernández of the Ballet Folklórico de México recounted the following story:
With only a small trace of irony, Hernandez describes being invited to judge a contest of traditional dancing in culturally conservative Veracruz. Watching the competition, Hernandez discovered that the participants were openly incorporating steps she had invented for her classic Ballet Folklórico de México suite. “I didn’t say a thing” she recalls with a big smile. “The tradition is like a river of style that goes on (Segal 1997, 67).”
This is yet another example showing the ways in which Dance influences are two-fold and form a circular pattern. In other words, just as we are influenced by the dances of the community of people they are influenced by the folkloric dances presented by companies on stage, on television, via the internet etc. Both examples reveal this circular effect, where communities inspire the staging of the dances and vice versa. By carefully analyzing the dances, we can start thinking about the contradictions expressed.
I argue that Folkloric dances are influenced by their historic and political surroundings, as well as, modern day influences. In addition, they are dynamic, fluid and travel across communities in a circular manner. It’s time we start analyzing the dances to think about the many contradictions they express. What do you think?
Announcement: The book Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910) by Sanjuanita Martínez-Hunter and edited by Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia is scheduled to be released in October 2018. It will be available for purchase through amazon. I will post more details at a later date.
Martínez-Hunter, Sanjuanita. Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910). South Carolina: Mexico Lindo Press, 2018.
Shay, Anthony. Choreographing Politics: State Folk Dance Companies, Representation, and Power. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
 Anne Schley Duggan, et.al., Folk Dances of the United States and Mexico (New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1948), p. 103.