Saturday, November 28, 2009


After a short while in Mexico it is hard to believe there was a time when the Catholic church prohibited dancing in the church grounds or even the grave yard. In fact, according to Barbara Ehrenreich (2007), there were many attempts to stop festival dancing in the event that it might lead to an uprising. The Spaniards also did this when they arrived in Mexico to find a strong tradition of ritual dancing and mask wearing. So it was with some surprise that I saw private dancing in the church. We were exploring the large and beautiful church in Nuevo San Juan, Michoacan, when an older couple began doing a simple dance step towards the alter. They took a couple of steps forward and one backwards and were doing a version of the step familiar to most Mexicans. They were then followed by a young man carrying a child doing the same dance.

What was this about? Ralph Beals, in his 1940 anthropological description of Cheran, Michoacan, (not far from Nuevo San Juan) gives us some answers. He reports that a great many Tarascans (Purepechas) have a strong belief in the miraculous powers of the Christ image in San Juan Parangaricutiro (a town destroyed by a volcano in the 1940s and relocated as the village of Nuevo San Juan). Associated with this belief was the ritual of dancing at least part way to the church upon entering the town to make pilgrimage. (Usually around September 14). If one laughed at those dancing they risked becoming paralyzed and then must dance to become cured. Others danced within the church or in front of the alter and this ritual was thought to cure illness.

I think it is clear that it is a version of this previous belief system and ritual that was witnessed in 2009. If anyone knows how extensive this practice remains it would be great to hear from you.

PS. It should be said that other forms of ritual dancing in the church are not uncommon. I have witnessed the Moors entering the church with their band, being blessed by the priest and then dancing. On another occasion the viejitos did the same thing and on another the viejitos and the Moors entered the church and remained in the centre aisle through the service and then danced outside. Indeed the Moors almost always enter the church to experience the mass and then go through the church at the end of the dance (to symbolize their conversion in my belief). Even the Mojigangas (giant figures of about 15 feet) have been seen dancing in the Basilica. We have also seen the Curpites, joined by their band, dance in front of the altar.

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