Sunday, February 26, 2012


Readers of this blog are now familiar with my returning to a topic time and again as I gain more knowledge or simply rethink a topic.    This blog does exactly that as I take another run at the notion of the Aztec dance mentioned in two previous post, one on my experience in San Miguel De Allende during el dia de la conquista and the most recent on our visit to the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City.   On both occasions I wrote after having read the thoughts of Max Harris which you can find in his book Carnival.   Now I have found the anthropologist that Harris relied on for some of his commentary and this reading has given me new insights and raised new problems.  The works of Susanna Rostas focus on the dance of the Concheros (often described as Aztec dancers) and the dance of the Mexica (who more genuinely may be considered Aztec dancers, but the term that has become more popular, and more accurate, is Mexica).   It is often difficult to distinguish between these two groups and they do on occasion dance together, so it might be helpful to others if I present a brief review of what I believe Rostas is saying.
These 3 photos give a general sense of the attire.

This group may well be Mexica:  they are young, not dancing in a circle but more on their own and are very showy.

If you have seen groups of dancers with substantial feather head-dresses, often wearing partial masks representing animal figure and wearing “costumes” with bead work, patterned clothing that looks Aztec-like and bells on their feet, these are very likely one of the above two groups.  Here is how Rostas distinguishes the groups.
1. Central to their performance is the use of a stringed instrument that we might call a mandolin (introduced by the Spanish) and often with the shell of an armadillo as the backing.  This shell is called a conch, hence the name of the dancer.
2. The dancers are primarily spiritual and the dance includes many rituals.   The dance begins with a required ritual including turning to the four cardinal points,  asking permission of God, or the spirits,  to dance and drawing a cross with a foot.
3. Dancers cover a substantial part of their bodies (although this is changing).
4. A visit to the church at the site of the dance was required.
5. The leader of the group dances in the centre of the circle and invites other dancers to join him or to lead for a part of the dance.
6. The goal of the dance is  a form of transcendence in which the ego is available for change or improvement.
7. The dance itself is performed slowly.
8. Dancers are men and women and tend to be middle aged.
Here we have a dancer with the mandolin.

Here is the home base of a dance group.  If you can zoom in you will find about 7 mandolins (several with the armadillo shell) and only one drum to keep the rhythm, an image of the Virgin, many incense burners and a flower design on the pavement.   This design is a custom of the Concheros and is usually of a cross (in this case rather stylized).

1. The drum is the essential instrument as the mandolin is seen as too Spanish.
2. Dancers are primarily in to performance and politics.  No ritual is required to begin the dance.
3. Dancers expose a great deal of the body.
4. Dancers seldom visit the church and tend to be non-religious in the Christian sense.
5. There is no leader and the dancers often appear to be in competition.
6. The goal is the presentation of a self that is already formed and to the making of a political statement - the need to return to a state prior to the arrival of the Spanish.  They are offering a new sense of identity.
7. The dance is performed quickly in a competitive state.
8. Dancers are young and predominately male.
An indication that this group is Concheros is the number of women participating.

If you have read my previous post you can now see that it is the dance of the Mexica that Harris complains about.  I now wonder if Harris was at the same event at the Basilica as I; the dancers I saw were mostly concheros and yet Harris seems to be talking about the Mexica.

According to Rostas the concheros have been round for some time, certainly since the 19th century.  According the the origin mythof the Concheros they came from the region known el Bajio which covers the states of Michoacán, Jalisco, Queretaro and Guanjuato.  Only Querataro was ruled by the Aztecs so I am puzzled as to how the concheros became Aztec dancers.  It is possible they simply looked around for a strong Mexican image or perhaps an indigenous image and chose the Aztecs (and then refined this image over 100 or more years). The Mexica on the other hand are a recent movement emerging on the scene by 1990.  The concheros come from a rural background and tend to have more direct links to an indigenous past.  The Mexica tend to be urban males from a mixed background and living marginalized lives in the city.  Feeling no part of the Mexican state and its institutions which they feel are all imported, they began a movement to make the political point that Mexican institutions and Mexican identity should be built on the pre-conquest experience.   You can now better understand Harris’ point - the non-indigenous Mexica claim a privileged status and in the desire for an ethnic connection drive out, or drum out, the real ethnics.
A group in front of the Basilica de Guadalupe.  You can see 3 banners and each has the maxim Unidad, Conformidad y Conquista and all have a religious image.  One banner gives the name of the captain as well as their origin.  That banner also uses the term "Danza Azteca".  Again we see many women so probably a group of Concheros.

Now the matter that puzzles me.  Rostas claims that the maxim of the Conchero (often stated on their banners) is “Unidad, Conformidad and Conquista”.   The phrase presents the need to come together in common purpose and to unite with God through the ritual of asking permission to dance, to conform to the needs of the dance and in so doing to conquer your ego.  All of this is evident in the dance itself.   My puzzle is that this appears to have nothing to do with the conquest in a more literal sense.   However, in San Miguel de Allende we saw the Concheros dance to celebrate the conquest, el dia de la conquista.   This day is about the Spanish (Christian) conquest.  A quick review of history shows that the Spanish created an image of Santo Cristo de la conquista as far back as the 12 or 13 century.  This was done to celebrate a particular military conquest.  This Saint is now also know as Santo Cristo de los milagros (Saint of the miracles) and you can find this image in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City.  I don’t believe there is a similar image in San Miguel de Allende so I am not sure whey the dance is held in San Miguel.  But, it is clearly a dance to celebrate the conquest.  Since the Concheros were present I can only assume the term "conquest" has multiple meanings for them.   During that dance in San Miguel there are also at least two groups of Matlachine dancers (see my post on this dance) who have their roots in the dance of the Moors and Christians.   These groups also carry banners which state Unidad, Conformidad and Conquista.  Rostas does acknowledge that the reading of the phrase varies from group to group and does evolve.  So, I now wonder if the dance and the phrase originally did have something to do with a celebration of the Spanish (and Christian) conquest of Mexico.
This dancer appeared to be in a transcendent state.

Here we have two examples of the use of animal masks.
In conclusion, Rostas states that both the Concheros and the Mexica have moved closer to the other over the years so that it become more difficult to distinguish them.  By looking for some of the details reported here you should be able to do it.

In preparing this I read three things by Susanna Rostas and I encourage you to check them out:
1. The first 20 pages of Rostas' book, Carrying the Word:  Conchero dancers in Mexico City (2009).  You can find this on google books.  I look forward to getting my hands on the entire book.  Click here
2. ‘Mexicanidad’ the resurgence of the Indian in popular Mexican Nationalism.  1997  Click here
3. From performance to performativity: the concheros of Mexico (1998)  in Felicia Hughes-Freeland (ed.)  Ritual, Performance, Media  (Chapter 4).   In 2005 published as an ebook.  Click here

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