Martha Stone: At the Sign of Midnight: the Concheros Dance Cult of Mexico. (1975)
It was with some surprise that I read Martha Stone’s 1975 book on the Conchero dancers. I now wish I had read it much earlier to avoid months of flailing about in attempts to understands this dance. Although published in 1975 Stone was living in Mexico City and began to document the dance as early as 1940 and continued for 20 years, becoming a dancer and rising to the position of capitana. Here then is a first hand account of the dance from an insider’s perspective and showing a real effort to understand the dance. The book is written in an informal manner, introducing you to many of the participants, revealing internal tensions, and more importantly showing you much more than the dance itself. The dance is what most of us are familiar with but the dance is supported by a wide range of other activities. Events such as vigils which are often held prior to a dance, the death of a member, initiation of new members, loyalties, obligations, discipline, creation of the Xuchil, passing of leadership, a 'conquista', raising funds in order to create new banners as well as the everyday travails of quite poor peoples. Stone attends events (always on invitation) in Mexico City and gradually travels to much more distant places thus providing a sense of the difficulty of travel and often being protected by the leader of a group who had presented the invitation. She was deeply accepted by those who knew her but was under suspicion when other troops were around. The tale of her going to the bell tower with her husband (on instructions of the dance leader) only for her to be requested to go down and then threatened with jail. The problem was that women were not allowed in the tower. Or the tale of a serious train accident, a train she was supposed to be on, where many of the dance troop were killed while on route to a dance in Jalisco. I came away with a sense of how busy their schedule was; the dance was a way of life.
The reader gets a very strong impression of how Catholic the dance was (and is) and many of the symbols used can be seen to have a Christian interpretation. For example, at one point two men declared they were going to dance without their shirts and the leader was so outraged that they were to be disciplined. (Presumably because it violated church practice.) Discipline consisted of a few lashes to the shoulder or back as well as things like being excluded. However, as I read all of this I obtained a strong impression that Catholicism was really a disguise to satisfy the authorities and at the same time allowing them to continue ancient beliefs. In short, it may well be pre-Hispanic. Stone is quite convinced the dance is pre-conquest and does present suggestive evidence gathered from historical documents and from the creation of this oral history. The senior members of the dance group are very able to talk about the origins of the dance and while some of these stories don’t hold up to examination others do leave you wondering. In addition, most of the dancers she spoke to identified as Otomí. She includes an intriguing story about a piece of paper. For years she wondered what was in a small bundle often placed at the back of the altar. Much later she shows a senior dancer a copy of a depiction of the dance from a book about the pre-conquest peoples. Soon after this the same dancer takes her into a closed room and opens the small bundle in which was a similar depiction of the early dance. I wish she had explored this in more depth.
She traveled to many events, including: October 15, in San Miguel de Allende, February 2 in San Juan de Los Lagos, Jalisco, during carnival in Amecameca, in Huejotzing, Puebla, Taxco, first Friday during Lent in Chalma, the fourth Sunday in Acopilco, June 16 and December 16 in Tenancingo, September 18 in Los Remedios, December 12 at the Villa de Guadalupe, as well as Tlaltelolco and Ameyalco. These being the main events which people who have made a “promesa” must attend.
Also of interest in understanding the Choncheros is a piece by Gertrude Kurath from 1946 - "Los Concheros" in Journal of American Folklore 59, 1946: 387-399. Kurath makes a few valuable observations: 1555 First Provincial Council meeting ruled that the natives should not be allowed to dance. In 1585 ruled that they should not be allowed to wear headdresses. Also in 16th century rules about teaching - it must in Spanish. But in the rural areas the priest and others often ignored these rules.
Overall an enjoyable read with a much more wholistic view of the dance than you can obtain from other readings. I have written several posts on the Conchero (or Aztec) dance which you might wish to check out as you will find photos there. See the following:
Or, Aztec dance
Photo Number 2958
18 hours ago