Monday, 9 February 2009

A Merry Mayan Dance

On a hairdryer hot night in Merida, Mexico, we stumbled upon what was billed as a ‘traditional Yucatan dance’ being performed in the plaza principal. But with a saxophone, a maypole and bottle of beer hats, this wasn‘t quite the traditional I was expecting.

Given that many of the locals are descended from the Maya, I, in my ignorance, was expecting something, well, traditional, perhaps with some drumming and colourful feather adorned costumes. What I saw, in contrast, was decidedly more eclectic. Perhaps this can only be expected in a region that was conquered by the flamenco dancing Spanish and even entertained the odd maypole-dancing English pirate. What we witnessed was obviously the new traditional dance of the Yucatan.

The girls were dressed in white nighties embroidered with gaudy, bright flowers with white high heels on their feet. The boys wore white shirts, trousers and sandals. On their heads it was panamas for the men and flower covered combs and hats for the women. Not quite as risqué as Strictly Come Dancing, but still pretty dandy.

The music was joyful brass band oompa; the kind that bounces you up and down for a while and then starts painfully pounding your brain.

The first few dances were decidedly Spanish in influence; I’m no Arlene Phillips but I’m sure I spotted a bit of pasa doble and flamenco in there. The girls coyly used shawls until the dances moved on the ’painted ladies’ section when they started shimmying. I was confused.

Then the fun really began. They brought out bottles of beer and continued to dance in pairs with the full bottles balanced on their heads. As if this wasn’t enough, they moved on to dance with trays of beers on their heads and then repeat the same dance standing on a box. What were they going to do next? Break-dance on one hand whilst balancing a full minibar on their heads? Not quite, but nearly as odd. They brought out a maypole! There it was in its multicoloured ribbon splendour looking entirely out of place in a sweltering Mexican plaza. But the dancers knew how to use it.

Where did these traditions come from? Did the Maya traditionally wear panamas, play the trumpet, balance beer bottles on their heads and dance around a maypole? Did the Maya really shimmy? Watching this confused all my notions of what traditional is in Mexico.

Did the collapse and suppression of the Maya totally wipe out their dances, or did the European invaders simply create new traditional dances? Can you create new traditions or is that an oxymoron? How many times do you have to do something before it becomes a tradition? My mother one day declared a new family tradition - tinned fruit and condensed milk for pudding on a Sunday. The tradition lasted the whole of three weeks. Does that count?

It was fascinating to watch history through dance, demonstrating how when traditions collide they create new tradition. However, history tells us that Mayan and European traditions and culture didn’t exactly see eye to eye. Even in the square where the dance was being played out history had previously danced its merry dance. The current catholic cathedral is built on the site of a Maya temple, and it was forced Mayan labour using the stones from their own temple that built it. On the other side of the square is the Montejo house, home of the Spanish conquistadors, with a tasteful façade of Spanish soldiers standing on Maya heads. Perhaps the drumming coming from the other side of the plaza was a protest song and not just some stoned hippies treating us to their bongo beats.

I’m intrigued to know when this boozy, floozy oompa stomp became a Yucatan tradition. It must have evolved over the centuries, but I want to know how did the original inhabitants, the Maya, traditionally dance? Then, if, as the Maya calendar predicts, the world ends in 2012, what will the next traditional Yucatan dance look like? A fusion of a drunken tourist two-step, techno-merengue twist and big band bounce, perhaps. And just what will they balance on their heads?

1 comment:

Working Gringa said...

In my experience with Mayans in the area (shamans and the like), they have some very interesting music (lots of drumming) but they don't seem to have any dancing... if they did once, then they haven't preserved that part of their culture. The music is haunting, though, and goes with the mysterious ceremonies that include candles, lots of copal smoke, leaves and stones and a copious amount of food and drink.