Drama: Mesoamerican Dance and Drama

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Mesoamerican dance and other dramatic performances not only serve as public entertainment but also are inextricably linked to native society, religion, and worldview. In Mesoamerica, dance encompasses the interplay of physical, historical, and spiritual aspects of human existence. On a basic corporeal level, dance encompasses concepts of sensuality, sex, and fertilitynot only of humans, but also of the world as a whole, such as the summer season of warmth, growth, and abundance. This is commonly expressed through flowers that symbolize sexual organs, pleasure, beauty, the soul spirit, as well as the numinous realm of ancestors. Through dance, historical events and political and social relationships are defined and expressed through bodily presentation and movement. Mesoamerican dance includes both song and nonverbal aspects of communication including distinct gesture, posture, position, and pasitas, or steps. In addition, dance forms a conduit linking the living to the gods, ancestors, and other supernatural beings. Drama encompasses basic concepts such as reenactments of creation mythology, and through ritual pageants, the definition of communities. Drama was also a fundamental part of ritual sacrifice and public humiliation of captives. In fact, because public dance and performance were so intensely interwoven in Mesoamerican cultures, during the colonial era, community dances, dramas, and theatrical events formed a locus for mass conversion throughout New Spain. Although it will never be known how any of these performances were viewed or received in the past, in general, Mesoamerican dances today do not eliminate the observer. Spectatorship and vicarious participation are integral components in community festivals and contribute greatly to the success of the event.

Physicality of Dance

Given the essentially physical nature of dance, it is not surprising that throughout Mesoamerica it relates to somatic sensations. For example, the Dominican friar Diego Duran disapprovingly describes the Aztec Tickling Dance as "so roughish as to be compared to our own Spanish dance called the saraband, with all its wriggling and grimacing and immodest mimicry." Duran also mentions that the term for this dance, cuecuechcuicatl, can also mean "dance of the itch," a connotation very similar to conceptions of dance among the ancient Mixtec of Oaxaca. Thus there is the Mixtec town called Zahuatlan, which means "place of itching" in Nahuatl. The original Mixtec term for this community is Yucu Cata, meaning "mountain of itching," but in Mixtec, cata also signifies "dancing," and in the pre-Hispanic Codex Selden (c. sixteenth century), this town is rendered as a mountain marked by an obviously dancing man holding rattles in his upraised arms. The Aztec and Mixtec relation of dance to itching suggests a restless and agitated physical need much like intense sexual desire.

In Mesoamerica, dance is a basic form of interaction between the sexes. Among the Aztec it provided a means to meet and interact with possible future paramours and spouses. Finely dressed warriors danced during the day at the cuicacalli ("house of flowers") to attract women for potential trysts. These dances promptly ended when children from the various wards arrived for their lessons, indicating the erotically charged nature of these adult events. However, during children's dances it often became evident that certain boys and girls had a special affinity and fondness for one another, and this was often the prelude to future marriage. Two Aztec deities closely identified with dance and music were the male Xochipilli and the female Xochiquetzal, youthful and beautiful beings of sensuality, pleasure, and fertility. Although there is little direct evidence indicating that they were a couple, they shared very similar symbolic domains. Aztec figurines frequently depict Xochiquetzal wearing her flower headband while in a position of dance, with bouquets of flowers in her extended hands. Duran mentions that the "most enjoyed" Aztec dance, the Dance of Flowers, was dedicated to Xochiquetzal. Both Aztec deities contain the term xochitl, of "flower" in their names, a basic symbol of sensuality and fertility in Mesoamerica.

Aside from condoned aspects of comportment, Mesoamerican dance frequently lampoons egregious conduct of both sexes. Masked performers reinforce accepted models of behavior through burlesque and clowning, which is the antithesis of socially accepted norms expressed by other dancers during the same occasion. However, for the Aztec, there was a being of dance decidedly different from Xochipilli and Xochiquetzalthe bestial Huehuecoyotl, the old and corrupt coyote god of dance identified with drunkenness, excess, and unseemly sexual demeanor. In the Aztec calendrical system he is the patron of the thirteen-day week called "one flower," and in the ancient manuscripts illustrating this period he appears with grotesque monkey-like dancers in the context of alcohol and wanton excess. At the time of early contact in Yucatan there was a rich variety of comical dances, theatrical lampoons, and social parodies. Officials were openly addressed and ridiculed by costumed dancers who used cleverly phrased metaphors and witty allusions to make reference to their improper activities. Either performed on stage or indoors, these humorous farces were closely associated with the god K'uk'ulkan, or Quetzalcoatl. Titles of the comedies provide clues to some of the favored targets of these direct displays, including "the parasite," "the cacao grower," and "the chile vendor." The last mentioned dance is suspiciously similar to the well-known and infamous Aztec account of the last king of Tula, Huemac, and his daughter. In this legend the daughter falls hopelessly and lustfully in love with a Huastec Maya chile vendor who, tellingly, wears no breechcloth.

Ritual clowns are commonly portrayed in figurines of the Late Classic Maya (600900 ce), portable images that may well have been passed out at festival events as mementos. Quite frequently, such figures were aged beings displaying bestial attributes and wielding dance rattles or fans, clearly marking them as performers. At times these grotesque characters, the converse of Classic Maya conventions of comeliness, were paired with beautiful young women in erotic embraces, scenes surely meant to be humorous. One of the most common themes addressed in ritual humor in contemporary Maya communities was inappropriate sexual behavior of senior and typically aged public officials. On a fundamental level, ritual clowning defines and normalizes appropriate gender roles through a folk or "popular" medium. This is especially true for children, who learn during socially focused and framed events some of the most elemental aspects of individual public identity and responsibility.

One of the most common dance positions portrayed in ancient Mesoamerican art is with the arms upraised and the elbows bent at right angles to the sides of the body. This convention occurs with the wildly grinning performers of the ceramic art of Nopiloa and Remojadas, Veracruz (c. 500800 ce). These figures often display attributes of spider monkeys in their headdresses. Frequently amusing creatures, spider monkeys of the verdant, humid jungles were widely identified with dance and sexuality in Mesoamerica. In addition, when they run they adopt the same basic upwardly raised arm position enjoyed by dancers. Dancers adopted this position in many areas of ancient Mesoamerica besides Remojadas, including the Classic Maya and highland Mexico.

Social Politics of Dance

What were the social politics of dance and performance, and what were the stakes? Aside from parodies, one essential reason for community dance was undoubtedly related to notions of self-display and social prestige. Aristocratic participants, including members of the royalty, presented themselves publicly to affirm their ancestry, identity, and current place within courtly society. Sixteenth-century chroniclers mention that the Aztec had professional singers who composed songs and public performances concerning the glorious deeds of ancestors and nobles; especially important were the "feats, victories, and conquests" of kings. Among the Classic Maya, including such ancient cities as Copan, Palenque, Yaxchilan, it is clear from numerous works of art that rulers frequently personified and incarnated gods, demonstrating their unique link to the supernatural world. Imagery of elaborately costumed dancing nobles appears in a wide variety of media, from large permanent monuments carved in stone to smaller painted or incised elite vessels and innumerable ceramic figurines, indicating that these motifs were available for commoners as well as for the upper echelons of society. These "mass market" objects, which were widely circulated throughout the urban centers as well as rural outliers, must have expanded the desire for these important ceremonial events.

For the Aztec, members of the royal court adhered to strict rules of conduct that established what the scholar Susan Evans described as a "theater for courtly behavior." Public speaking, song, and dance were all important aspects of palace life. Even the title of king, or tlatoani, signifies "speaker," denoting the importance of oratory and rhetoric. According to sixteenth-century chroniclers, the Nahuatl "lordly language" of the court, tecpillatolli, was quite distinct from the language of the commoners, known as macehuallatolli. Music, song, and poetry were closely identified with royalty and courtly behavior, and the god of music was Xochipilli, the "flower prince," the god of the palace folk. In Aztec thought flowers symbolize both music and rulership. The king of Tetzcoco, Nezahualcoyotl, was renowned as a gifted poet, and a number of Nahuatl texts ascribed to him survive to this day. The Florentine Codex (c. 1577) describes the public demeanor of Aztec kings:

When the ruler went forth, in his hand rested his reed stalk which he went moving in rhythm with his words. His chamberlains and his elders went before him; on both sides, on either hand, they proceeded as they went clearing the way for him. He sang; songs were learned; chants were intoned. They told him proverbs and pleasantries to pass the time.

The same source also mentions a palace courtyard with flowering trees where the king danced, as well as a detailed list of the sumptuous items worn by the king during his performances. Diego Duran records that during the coronation of King Tizoc, some 2,000 nobles danced in his honor within the palace. In this event, dance served as a social contract acknowledging Tizoc as king of Tenochtitlan.

At an early age Aztec children were taught songs, music, and dance at the aforementioned cuicacalli, the house of song, located near the central temple area of each community. According to Diego Duran, boys and girls between twelve and fourteen years of age were brought separately from the various wards of the city; each group of boys was accompanied by an old man, and each group of girls by an old woman. Serving essentially as chaperones, these old men and woman would walk behind the children as they marched to and from the cuicacalli, closely watching for any inappropriate or disrespectful behavior. The cuicacalli is described as a compound of many spacious chambers surrounding a large courtyard used for the dance. According to Duran this courtyard also featured a stone statue of the god of dance with his arms extended and hands hollowed to receive bouquets of flowers and feather fans.

Representations in Art and Literature

Classic Maya art is filled with portrayals of dance, which are identifiable by the accoutrements of the dancers, including masks, rattles, and fans. In addition, the dancers are frequently attended by musicians playing drums, trumpets, flutes, and rattles, as well as by male and female singers. However, perhaps the clearest indications of dance are the poses adopted by these performers. Aside from the symmetrically upraised arm position mentioned above, dancers gesticulate dramatically, with the arms extended and the hands bent sharply at right angles. Very rarely are dancers depicted in profile; instead, they tend to be represented in a frontal or three-quarter body position with the head almost invariably in profile. This position affords the spectator the most direct and probably preferred viewing perspective. Typically, the feet are turned out sharply at right angles with one foot raised. In an almost life-size in-the-round sculpture from Structure 10L16 at Copan, the founding king of the Copan dynasty, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo,' is explicitly portrayed with his feet turned sharply outward from the central axis of his body, indicating that this was a true pose of dancers, and not an artistic convention deriving from matters of perspective. This position is strikingly similar to second position plié of French ballet, developed during the reign of King Louis XIV, its first star. This stance derived from a particular presentation of the body intended to intensify viewership of the central performing figure, whose outturned legs heightened the impact of physical movement.

For the Classic Maya, not only are there detailed portrayals of particular forms of dance, but also the accompanying glyphic texts often provide specific terms for distinct dances. Thus, the epigrapher Nikolai Grube deciphered the glyph denoting dance, probably read as ak'ta. Another glyph following this term refers to the specific form of dance, and among these are dances with staffs, an axe-like scepter known as the god K'awil, and even live serpents. In addition, there are references to a ballplayer dance and military dances. Quite frequently, Maya kings impersonated particular deities, and in Maya texts such performances are phrased by a clause that could be glossed as "in the famous image of," followed by the name of the particular deity portrayed. It is likely that as with the contemporary katsina dancers of the Hopi, Zuni, and other Puebloan peoples of the American Southwest, such dancers were considered not simply as skilled performers but rather the spiritual embodiments of conjured beings. For the Great Plaza at Copan, many of the elaborately carved stelae of the thirteenth ruler Waxaklahun Ub'ah K'awil portray the king as various gods frozen in dance, suggesting that such plazas were important loci for public dances.

War Dances

Among the ancient Maya, dance also served to celebrate military victories. Not surprisingly, such dances involved the display of war trophies, including body parts, and the strength and virility of the male warriors. The Franciscan friar Diego de Landa mentions such war dances as the Holcan Ok'ot and the Batel Ok'ot, during which hundreds of warriors danced in long strides in perfect unison to the beat of the drum. Landa also notes that during the month of Pax, warriors danced with the jawbones of the vanquished. Similarly, many Classic Maya vessel scenes depict musicians and elaborately dressed striding warriors with captives, severed heads, and other body parts; quite probably these were scenes of celebratory war dances. One of the more elaborate portrayals of this type of celebratory dance is found in Room 3 of Structure 1 at the site of Bonampak', Chiapas, Mexico. In this chamber, warriors dance with severed heads and other body trophies to the accompaniment of trumpets and rattles. In the center of the south wall scene, men display massive fan-like elements extending laterally from the side of their groins. Although this has been interpreted as a supreme act of penis perforation and self-sacrifice, it is entirely possible that is it a mock bloodletting event celebrating male virility and bravery.

Aside from the dancing men with their phallic fans, the pivotal element in the Room 3 scene from Structure 1 is a beheaded figure swung above the heads of two celebrants. The murals of this chamber almost surely concern the sacrificial climax of a particular historical event. However, these events were not limited to one particular occasion, rather they were re-created in pageants celebrated by the entire community, quite possibly over generations. Each drama not only recalled the original event, but all subsequent performances as well, revivifying the accomplishments and pride of the population with each presentation. One remarkable Late Classic vessel seems to depict the original historical event, one episode removed. In this scene, published by Justin Kerr (K2025), a masked figure accompanied by musicians threatens an unarmed young man with his spear and shield. Rather than in the typical pose of the captive, this figure stands in a dramatic position of dance with one arm fully upraised and the other flexed behind his waist. Behind the youth are contortionists, who with their grotesque faces appear to personify trophy heads. Such a theme of historical reenactment is consistent with the sixteenth-century Rabinal Achi, which concerns the arraignment and eventual execution of Cawek of the Forest People from the Quiche nation by the court of Rabinal. Although this was an event cast in the fifteenth century, the dance continues to be celebrated in the community of Rabinal to this day.

Dance Accoutrements

In the most tragic moments of the Rabinal Achi, Cawek muses how his bones will be used by future generations in celebrations. In a similar manner, it is clear that war trophies worn by dancers in Mesoamerica were not simply for one occasion, but were esteemed regalia of past heroic events that were passed down through generations as valuable family possessions and inscribed memories. It is likely that such pieces were tied into the original performances when they first appeared before the public. It is also clear that many of the fine jewels and other accoutrements presented by royal courts of the ancient Maya, Mixtec, Aztec, and other peoples of Mesoamerica were esteemed as physical testimonies of special moments of royal favor. For the Aztec, there are descriptions of the emperor bestowing elaborately worked necklaces and other jewels during specific celebrations. When one handles these pieces, it is clear that they were meant for music and dance, for both the gold pendants and the jades make light tinkling noises. Although the Classic Maya lacked metals, they did possess a rich array of shell and jade jewelry and dance regalia. As Rosemary Joyce noted, the jewels worn for these events would accumulate an heirloom quality. Perhaps the most important objects of royal Maya dance were three jade plaques hanging from a belt mask. When worn in dance, these items emit a powerfully vibrant sound, quite possibly denoting the voice of the ancestral head from which the plaques depend. In a number of examples, including the famed Leiden Plaque, such jades have anachronistic texts that refer to historical episodes well before the style of the carving, suggesting that the pieces are indeed heirlooms of ancient peoples and events.

The frequent use in dance of shining jewels of jade, shell, and precious metals, as well as the elaborate plumage of tropical birds, is not simply related to sumptuary goods of the elite. Rather, such beautiful and precious items relate to the symbolism of brilliant colored flowers, a basic representation of the soul and paradise, not only in Mesoamerica but the American Southwest as well. In these regions, a common and ancient metaphor for the numinous state of contact between the world of the living and the supernatural realms of the gods and ancestors is the "rain of flowers." Thus in the remarkable early colonial Aztec songs known as the Cantares Mexicanos, there is frequent mention of raining flowers and jewels, along with the presence of incense. Diego Duran mentions that during his accession, emperor Tizoc carried a smoking censer to the pivotal drum to inaugurate the dance of nobles. Still today, copal incense and music are used to open the path for religious processions. Along with flowers, incense is one of the most basic offerings for the honored ancestral dead in both ancient and contemporary Mesoamerica. Even today, among the contemporary Jakaltek Maya of highland Guatemala, dance is a means of "untying," feeding, and communicating with the ancestral beings, for them the most compelling reason for traditional dance. Although scenes of the rain of flowers do appear in Aztec portrayals of dance and music, such scenes are much more widespread in Classic Maya art, where not only dancers but also kings are portrayed in this shining place of sweet music and incense, contacting their ancestors from the other realm.


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Karl Taube (2005)

Rhonda Taube (2005)

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