Visual Arts

Save the Last Dance

Having been born and raised 15 minutes from the Mexican border, it's no surprise that I have a deep and abiding love for Mexican folk arts, crafts and culture. I've spent years traveling through Mexico's interior, boarding buses, hiring drivers, renting cars, all in the ongoing quest to root out different indigenous arts, the real jewel in Mexico's cultural crown as far as I'm concerned.

A great part of Mexican popular art is embodied in the country's diverse music and folk dances, all of which vary wildly from region to region depending on which indigenous group holds sway. It's what adds all the excitement, color and traditional flavor to any Mexican fiesta or religious holiday. Few countries in the world have the sheer variety of dances, all with their own special costumes, that Mexico can rightly boast.

A taste of that exceptionally colorful diversity is now on display in a small exhibition at the Guadalupe Museum, located inside the Guadalupe Town Hall. A trip to this charming little show -- displayed in a glass case several steps away from the municipality's courtroom -- is a viable alternative to hopping a plane to Mexico City and taking in the indigenous costume collection at the Banco Serfin on Madero Street in the Federal District's Centro Histórico.

For the uninitiated, Guadalupe is that tiny, one-square-mile city sandwiched between Ahwatukee and Tempe right off Interstate 10. It was founded by Yaqui Indians from Mexico who were forced to flee enslavement in the late 1800s after the Mexican government, under robber baron President Porfirio Díaz, confiscated their rich agricultural lands in Sonora. True to its cultural roots, Guadalupe has remained an ethnic enclave composed mainly of people of Yaqui and Mexican descent, who take pride in maintaining ties to their indigenous Mexican cultural roots, including dance and music.

And who better to organize and install the city's show of folkloric dance costumes than Frances Vacaneri, founder and artistic director of Folklor y Cultura Mexicana, a Guadalupe-based dance troupe dedicated to performing folk dances from five different regions of Mexico? Vacaneri, whose troupe danced for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican a number of years ago and gives free folkloric dance lessons to anyone who's interested, has included authentic costumes from dances originating in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Sinaloa, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Nayarit. She's also installed a flashy contemporary conchero costume, complete with peacock-feather headdress, which I suspect came from the Federal District judging by the electric blue lamé from which it has been crafted.

Entering the exhibition, I was struck by the post-Conquest, 16th-century Spanish influence evident in many of the costumes, including long, gathered skirts with lots of frothy lace and a riot of rainbow-hued embroidery. Although a number of Mexico's traditional dances were imported from Spain (as were the instruments used to play the music, including brass horn, trumpet, guitar, violin, harp and later African marimba), they were always adapted and thoroughly Mexicanized.

Singing and dancing were also integral parts of pre-Columbian culture, which had its own vast repertoire long before the conquistadores slogged ashore at Veracruz in 1519. In fact, the Aztecs, the ruling indigenous tribe at the time of the Conquest, ran special schools called cuicacuilli, in which children 12 years and older were required to attend dance and music classes. Both were a mandatory part of all religious and secular fiestas, as well as magic rituals. Even the king, nobles and priests of the Aztec court, decked out in finely wrought jewelry, beautifully decorated clothes, headdresses of exotic iridescent bird feathers and often elaborate masks, joined in the dances to petition and appease the extensive pantheon of gods. After the Conquest in 1521, Catholic missionaries accompanying the conquistadores set about converting many of the native dances into ones that dramatized Christian doctrine or depicted events in Catholic history, like the conquest of the Catholic Spaniards over the long-ruling Islamic Moors.

Because of spatial limitations, the Guadalupe exhibit can provide trappings from only a smattering of the hundreds of dances still performed throughout Mexico today. But Vacaneri has also installed still photographs that depict many of them, including the famous Yaqui Deer Dance, which is performed in Guadalupe and other Yaqui strongholds to this day. Originally performed to ensure good hunting, the Deer Dance is a highly balletic production in which a male dancer, with torso and feet bare, elaborate rattles wrapped around his ankles and a deer's head worn like a crown, takes on the persona of a deer being hunted and sometimes killed by pascolas or clowns, who portray stalking coyotes or other predators. When danced skillfully, it gives the eerie impression that the human dancer has transformed into a real deer.

While the Guadalupe display is artfully arranged, I would like to have seen much more information about the particular dances for which the costumes are worn. For example, the conchero costume that takes center stage in the gallery has no wall text to explain the significance of its unique dance. Most people who have visited tourist areas of Mexico have seen concheros perform; however, they may not know that most of these dancers are a part of highly organized groups of initiates who have become concheros because of a religious promise they have made in exchange for a favor from a saint, or because it is hallowed family custom to do so. More than just dancing for the sake of entertainment, concheros -- who derive their name from the Spanish word for "shell" and use instruments made from armadillo shells -- take on the obligation of dancing at numerous fiestas and pilgrimage sites, such as Chalma and La Villa de Guadalupe in the Tepeyac section of Mexico City.

Likewise, several colorful sequined appliqués popularly referred to as lentejuelas have been put on display without any information as to how they fit into the scope of the exhibit. To me, it's important to know that these glittery patches, one of which depicts an eagle with a snake in its mouth perched on a cactus (the classic symbol of Mexico) and another that portrays Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico's patron saint), are used for more than mere decoration; often they're sewn onto capes and headdresses that are worn in traditional dances.

Perhaps those of Mexican heritage are already familiar with the intricate meanings of these wonderful dances and magical costumes, so no explanation is necessary for them. But for the rest of us who are not heirs to such rich traditions, that kind of information can only enrich our experience of well-crafted folk art pieces that the knowledgeable may take for granted. Even without the additional explication, however, this little show gives us lovers of folk art and tradition a little solace until we can return to Mexico again.

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Kathleen Vanesian