Ancient Maya Dance
Reenacting mythic stories
Rollout Vase courtesy of Justin Kerr
Combined with music and the fragrance of burning offerings, dance was often visualized as the direct manifestation of supernatural forces.
Matthew Looper, Archaeologist
Elite dances depicted in Maya art were part of rituals and celebrations. On sculptured stelae. the kings are shown dancing as a deity. The monuments mostly depict male dancers, but there are some women shown dancing, for instance, Lady Ok Ayiin dancing as the Moon Goddess on the Yomop stela. More often, women are shown as dancers or dancing assistance on painted pottery. Most of the performances on vases show more than one dancer, whereas the stelae only show one or two dancers.
On painted vases dancing is often performed in association with feasting and gift exchanges. On these occasions, a ruler could formalize the political and marriage alliances between his and other elite families. It provided an opportunity to demonstrate his wealth, power and control over the trade in luxury goods. And just as the indigenous leaders of the Pacific Northwest Coast tribes of Canada and the United States gave away their accumulated wealth at lavish potlatch ceremonies, a Maya king could reaffirm polity relationships and his connection with the supernatural world by dancing “in their skins.”
At the level of the court, dance wasn’t just entertainment, it was fundamental to the ruler’s social, religious and political identity, at times demonstrating his continuity with apotheosized ancestors. Through the use of costumes and psychoactive drugs in some instances, dance transported the participants into the supernatural characters they portrayed. It brought them to life.
The primary occasions for ritual dancing were accessions to the throne, birth anniversaries, building dedications (Quirigua Altar L), sacrificial bloodletting by a wife (Yaxchilan Lintel 32), celebrations of military victory (Tikal Temple 4 Lintel 3), tribute presentations (El Abra vase) and designations of a royal heir (Bonampak mural),
Resplendent quetzal feathers invested the dancers with the spirit of the bird. The same with jaguar pelts. Seashells connotated the underworld, and Spondylus shells, in particular, were associated with the celestial realm and the rebirth of the Maize God. Mirrors made of pyrite flakes made the dancers sparkle. Bark paper, worn as headdresses and aprons was associated with sacred words (glyphs) and blood sacrifice. Dancing with jadeite conveyed a sense of the breath essence of the soul, the essence of life. White flowers were the visual representation of the soul. The colors and textures of woven fabrics referenced the vegetable world and gardens. And the various colors of body paint and painted cloth referenced an object and its associated myth. For instance wearing yellow, the color of maize, conveyed the notion of abundance and fertility. Red connoted blood; black represented death and blue was the color of “precious.”
The Spaniards reported that Maya dance was “mannered.” In their art, the upper body doesn’t appear to have played much of a role in dancing. Instead, there’s a slight bending of the knees and a graceful shuffling of the feet. Researchers suggest the movement was at court was either “highly stylized” or “the artists chose a very narrow repertoire of motions and gestures for their canon of acceptable display.”
Dance Of The Colomche
Chroniclers describe a dance with reeds that was much like a game. A large group of dancers formed a circle. Two of them moved to the center to the beat of the music—drums, flutes, wooden trumpets, ocarinas perhaps. One dancer holds a handful of reeds and dances standing up, while the other crouch in a wide circle. The person holding the reeds throws them with all his might to the others and they have to catch them with small sticks.
Dance of the Hero Twins
The dance is based on the Popol Vuh, the ancient mythological text of the K’iché Maya. The performance opens with the appearance of two youths, the twin gods Junahpu and Xbalanque. The Xibalbans, lords of death from the underworld, dance around and try to kill them, but the twins escape their attacks and are unharmed.
Celebrating, the brothers dance in a frenzy and the underworld lords get caught up in it. Hunahpu and Xibalanque flit around with torches, light a fire and wood is thrown into it until the smoke gets dense. Then, facing one another, the twins appear to hurl themselves into the fire. The lords of death follow them. The smoke obscures everything. When it clears, only ashes remain.
Then, on the ground, a compartment opens up, and an emissary in a feathered cape comes out carrying a censer. He points to a chamber off to the side. And with the drums and shell trumpets sounding, the Hero Twins come out covered with beautiful feather capes—their former masks replaced with faces of young lords. They greet the onlookers and proclaim their victory over the fearsome Xibalbans.
Dance of The Warriors
Xq’ul was a war dance. It began with a dancer hunting for an enemy warrior. To the sound of flutes and the beating of ceramic drums covered with leather, enemy warriors come out dressed like beasts—jaguar, cayote, tapir, their identity strengthened with like-in-kind headdresses. The hunters, wearing headdresses of eagles or other birds, dance around them carrying swords, axes and spears. How it ends was not reported.
It’s interesting, the contrast between indigenous dancing where the intent is spiritual and modern dance where, regardless of the style, it’s mostly about personal experience or expression. The former has to do with maintaining and celebrating horizontal (social) and vertical (heavenly) relationships, the latter being individual, even when many people are involved. The one form I can think of that retains storytelling in modern dance is ballet, but even there the stories are about an individual. I’m not saying that our modalities are bad. Considering that our worldview is based more on science than myth, that’s understandable. But in seeing ourselves separate and the world as inanimate, we’ve lost something precious, perhaps essential, in our quest for meaning and more satisfying relationships.
Dancing Brothers: One Lord vs First Jaguar
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 166-171)
While the minister and the other dancers got Red Paw into his costume and gave him instructions, two of the drummers heightened our excitement by displaying their speed in twirling and throwing torches back and forth while their brothers pounded the skins of the tall drums.
The dancers came forward escorting Red Paw, now dressed as a messenger with a deerskin apron and a barkcloth overshirt. In place of the owl feather worn by messengers, they’d stuck a broken palm leaf in his headband. His head hung in embarrassment as we laughed and applauded.
The drums stopped abruptly and we became silent. Billowing his cloak again, the minister strode forward with a flourish to begin the story. “There was a messenger of the court—.” As directed, Red Paw ran around the dancers in a circle. Two ceramic drums and now rattles and flutes played by the other dancers quickened his pace. “He ran fast,” the minister said. “Faster! The messenger was true to his master’s words. When he was not running messages, he helped his father in the field.” Red Paw stopped and made the motions of a man casting seeds and tamping them down with a planting stick. Behind him, other dancers comically exaggerated his movements. “He hunted iguana—.” Red Paw turned to the wahy dancer dressed as an iguana and chased him with the stick. “At the men’s house the messenger practiced his warrior skills. He took a wife and he built her a house.” Red Paw pretended to lash poles together. “He was a good husband. He emptied his own chamber-pot!” We laughed as a dancer handed Red Paw a large gourd. He looked into it, sniffed, wrinkled his nose and made the “pot” look heavy, hoisting it to his shoulders. Struggling under its weight, he wobbled over to the initiates and spilled the contents—crumbled dried leaves—onto the heads of the men in the first and second rows.
“Listen now!” The minister shouted over their shrieks and our laughter. “The messenger had a flaw—he was lazy! He only did what he was forced to do.” Red Paw plopped down and lay on the ground with one leg resting on the other knee. “Having found most men to be like the messenger, One Lord and First Jaguar argued among themselves: ‘What is the best way to get the human beings to attend to us, praise our names and feed us their blood and sweat?’” The minister turned to us and opened both arms. “Cerros! This is the question they put to you! The gods tell me they will not release their abundance until it is settled.”
An initiate called from behind saying Red Paw could settle it. When we laughed, my friend raised his hands in confidence and we laughed even louder. The minister stepped back and bowed as One Lord, the dancer wearing a jaguar helmet and wrapped in a cloth with black spots, came bounding down the steps swinging his axe. He stopped here and there thrusting his menacing face close to us. From the stories we’d heard growing up, we knew his pointed tooth was a perforator and that his breath could instantly burn flesh off a bone. Dutifully, we screamed and backed away. When he went to center again, he paced and gestured as the minister spoke on his behalf, directing the words to his brother lord. “First Jaguar! Brother! Maker of men! There is only one way to get the human beings to praise our names and offer us their sweat.” Boom! A drummer pounded. “Watch, we will show you!” Boom! Boom! One Lord pointed and the wahy monkey bounded forward, twirling with a tall wooden box painted with sky signs. Monkey set the “throne” down and One Lord stepped on it. He held his head high, turned to the side to show the mirrors dangling from his belt and he pulled on it to make them clink.
While this was happening, Red Paw received further instructions from the minister. When they finished, my friend went over to the spotted lord, knelt, bowed his head and showed his submission and respect with arms across his chest in the “sky” sign. To the slow agonizing beat of the drums, the other wahyob—Macaw, Jaguar, and Opossum—entered from the side struggling under the weight of a huge boulder. Like their axes it was made of stiff painted cloth, but the way they carried it and set it down in front of Red Paw, made it look heavy.
Again, the minister spoke on behalf of One Lord. “To respect us the human beings need to see that we are powerful.” Behind Red Paw, Iguana got up on Macaw’s shoulders. “We make clouds!” the lord said. Macaw reached into his pouch and rained down ash on Red Paw’s head. Quickly he cowered and brushed it out of his hair. While he was not looking, a drummer approached from behind and pounded his drum hard and fast. Shocked, Red Paw fell against the god-dancer’s feet, nearly knocking him off the little throne. I laughed so hard my cheeks hurt.
The minister spoke for the spotted lord. “We make thunder!” The drummers stood close on both sides of Red Paw and pounded their drums hard in his ears. “We make lightning!” Red Paw crouched as Macaw pummeled his back with palm stems painted yellow. We saw what was coming next. Monkey held an enormous jar over Red Paw’s head. It too was made of stiff cloth but the red rings painted around its neck made it look real. Glancing up Red Paw covered his head. “We make rain!” When, instead of water, more leaves fell, the laughter turned to sounds of disappointment.
As Red Paw shook off the leaves and brushed more of the ash out of his hair, the wahyob set a boulder in front of him. At the same time, One Lord opened his arms to us. “Young men and women of Cerros!” the minister shouted on his behalf, “Did your mothers and fathers teach you properly? Did they teach you to praise our names, keep the count of k’inob and offer us your sweat?” Prompted by our shouts and a dancer standing behind Red Paw, he shook his head emphatically, saying they had. Many of us knew better. “You have seen our power?” Again, Red Paw agreed and the spotted lord turned to him. “We say to you then, praise our names and raise this boulder over your head that we may taste your sweat.”
Red Paw rose to his knees and repeated the words the minister had whispered to him. “With respect, One Lord. Awinaken,” he said. “I praise your name. I will give you my sweat—as one who runs messages. But I do not lift boulders.” The drums pounded fast and stopped abruptly. We were shocked. It was an unthinkable reply. Many of us on the steps, parents especially, made scowling sounds and hurled scolding remarks at Red Paw.
One Lord put his hands to his head as if the reply pained him greatly. The minister spoke his words: “What did you say? It seems we did not hear you correctly.”
Red Paw received instructions again, folded his arms in defiance and looked up at the lord. “With respect lord, I was trained to run messages, not to lift up boulders.” Again the drums. The wahyob dancers had changed their helmets and costumes, coming back as Grasshopper, Snake, Scorpion and Vulture, now rattling threats at the messenger’s head and heels. One Lord danced his anger at Red Paw’s response, twirling around him and the wahyob. In a more demanding tone, the minister, speaking for the spotted lord pointed at the stone and shouted, “Son of Cerros, we order you to lift that boulder!”
“With respect, One Lord. My tribute is to run messages. This is my agreement, my privilege, my obligation to the caah. I—do—not—lift—boulders!” The drummers gave it all they could and the wahyob rattled the lord’s furious dance. When he stopped and pointed to the side, the noise stopped. A dancer dressed as a warlord pulled a captive woman onto the plaza by a cord around her neck. Her head was down and her hair covered her face. We’d not seen her before. All the dancers were men.
The warrior pushed the woman to the ground beside Red Paw and pulled the cord tight so she would rise to her knees and look up at One Lord. Higher up, someone in back of me whispered that it was Lady Sandpiper, second daughter of Laughing Falcon. Others agreed and word spread. To see a hot- blooded Cloud kneeling next to Red Paw was amazing. To see her wearing a barkcloth sarong with her hair hanging down and strips of cloth pulled through her ears was unbelievable. The dance was her father’s surprise. Seeing his daughter bound and treated like a captive was an even greater surprise.
When the murmuring among us stopped, Lady Sandpiper—the captive—bowed to One Lord. Scorpion handed the god his bloody axe and he held it over her head. The command came again—“Son of Cerros! Raise that boulder! If you do not, we will harvest the head of your wife!” His wife? That was funny. But when Red Paw turned and smiled at us with a stupid grin on his face, my friends and I almost fell off the steps laughing. After the minister whispered something to Red Paw, my friend bowed to One Lord, loudly praised his name and took hold of the boulder. Slowly, laboring under the weight, he lifted it over his head with wobbling legs. One Lord turned to First Jaguar with crossed arms and a satisfied posture. “You see my brother,” the minister said. “This is how we get the human beings to praise our names and offer us their sweat!” We applauded, stomped our feet and shouted. The wahy dancers stepped back to change their helmets, and the god dancer stepped down from the throne.
While both gods wore jaguar helmets, we recognized One Lord by his black spots and First Jaguar by orange-and-black tufts pasted onto his skin. Also, he wore rounded jaguar ears and paw mittens.
First Jaguar crouched and pawed at the women, then the men. Finally, he stood on the skybox throne. As before, the minister spoke for him, exalting him as one of the lords of the night. Instead of threatening Red Paw, First Jaguar presented him with gifts—a brown cloak, a planting stick and a spear for hunting. Following instructions again, Red Paw danced a hunt by chasing the wahyob demons who now wore tapir, fox, deer and peccary headdresses. After applauding the capture of his prey, First Jaguar gestured and Red Paw assumed a kneeling position. Lady Sandpiper came forward, now wearing a shell necklace over a plain white sarong with her hair wound high into a braid with spiraling red ribbons. “You have shown us your goodness and loyalty,” the lord said to Red Paw. It would please us if you would accept this beautiful woman as your wife.” Lady Sandpiper held out her hand toward Red Paw and he bowed.
Hoots and whistles turned to laughter and cheers as Red Paw danced around the lady to the sweet sounds of a bamboo flute. When First Jaguar gestured to the ground in front of him, Red Paw went before him and knelt. “You are a good and loyal messenger,” the lord said. “Speaking words properly and repeating them with care is a sign that human beings are well made. Also, it shows you respect your masters and their words. Now, from the River Of Abundance, it is our pleasure to give you everything you need and want.”
After some prompting Red Paw replied, “With respect, First Jaguar, Lord of the Night. Awinaken. I am grateful for all that you have given. What can I offer you in exchange?”
The First Jaguar dancer looked our way, tilted his head and raised his hands as if to say the argument was settled. During the applause Tapir, Fox and Peccary got the boulder and set it in front of Red Paw. “Faithful messenger,” First Jaguar said. “It would honor us greatly if you would praise our name and raise this boulder over your head.” Without hesitation, and to our foot stomping and shouting, Red Paw loudly praised his name, lifted the boulder over his head and paraded it around the dancers. First Jaguar folded his arms and turned to One Lord. “Brother,” he said. “Do you see? This is the better way to get the human beings to praise our names and offer us their sweat.”
Our applause continued as the minister, Red Paw and the gods came forward. “Son of Cerros,” the minister said. “You have witnessed the arguments of the god twins. Now, the burden is yours. Tell us, which of them carries the greater argument?”
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