Sunday, February 1, 2009


Two weeks ago we traveled to San Juan Nuevo in Michoacan to witness the competition of the famous traditional dance of that town - the dance of the Kurpites, a dance dating back 300-400 years. As I watched the event unfold I began to think that the experience was similar to watching a hockey game in Canada. Let me illustrate. We arrived to discover that a stage had been erected in the town plaza and temporary viewing stands built on all 4 sides. The place was crowded shortly after the beginning and by the arrival of the main event there were at least 1.000 people present. The main event was a competition between two neighorhood teams, each team with about 12 dancers. The dance has clearly defined roles: Maria, a beautiful woman (perhaps representing Mary or a grandmother), the grandfather (or perhaps Joseph) and ten young men (the Kurpites). All have wonderfully carved wooden masks and exquisite garments and all must be unmarried men. The outfit of the grandfather is the most beautiful with every inch covered in embroidery or sequins. The interpretation of the dance is unclear but in one way or another it seems to be about courtship or gaining approval to marry. Each of the Kurpites wears a beautiful handmade apron sewn by his girlfriend. Each team dances and then the two Marias dance, then the two grandfathers and finally a representative of the Kurpities. A winner is chosen and then more dancing ensues through the streets and back on the stage. So how does hockey come into this?

Many vendors move through the crowds and everyone is eating. More importantly the crowd comes equipped with noise makers and they cheer for their favorite team (or for their neighborhood). There is much applause and as the various dancers take to the stage they throw candies for the children. There is great excitement. Like hockey the dancers must practice a great deal to improve their foot work and body moves. Indeed my friend who had not seen this dance before had convinced himself that the Maria had hips and breasts and was unbelieving when told she was a man. Dancers are carefully nurtured in the community, for example the first act of the afternoon had been a dance of the Kurpites by young community members and their outfits were equally beautiful and the dancers polished. I am sure every house in Canada still has a hockey stick or two in the basement and maybe some tattered equipment. As the afternoon progressed I began to imagine that every house in San Juan Nuevo must have a mask or two, maybe an old apron or other dance items. The dance penetrates the town very deeply.
While there are similarities to hockey we see that the old dance has not been commercialized nor professionalized and the dancers dance for the status and not for money. But the dance gives the town pride through the skill of its community dancers and though the extensive involvement of the entire community. It is a source of identity and to some extent distinguishes this town from others.

While the community itself pays for much of this event there are other interesting sources of financial support I will try to talk about in a future post.

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