The Role of Interpretation in Determining Continuity in Danza Azteca History

Danza Azteca includes a diverse and amalgamated repertoire––a pastiche of various indigenous music and dance traditions subsumed under the umbrella of danza. As a result of the diversity contained in this repertoire, the various histories of the dances and indigenous traditions, when analyzed separately, offer a complex set of interwoven narratives as diverse as the performers and heritages danza now includes. There are key periods of change and adaptation in these histories that can be interpreted differently, and the distinction between breaks and transitions become fraught with political meaning. Key periods that historians might interpret as breaks in the continuity of tradition may be interpreted by practitioners as transitions into new periods of the same tradition. The importance of interpretation in determining histories and lineages in musical traditions surfaces in the examination of two key transitions in the history of danza: the transition from a pre-Hispanic dance into “Christian” dances, and the recent transition from these “Christianized” dances into danza. The different perspectives on these significant periods in the history of the dance contribute to its narrative and further complicate its already complex history as a pan-Indian dance style.

The transition of some Mesoamerican indigenous dance forms into “Christian” dances occurred within the first few decades of the Spanish presence in the Americas. The Spanish relationship with indigenous dance cannot be described adequately with rigid terminology, as it varied by region and tradition, and its depiction depended upon the individual chronicler. On one hand, the Spanish were wary of indigenous music and dance as vehicles of religious meaning; yet, on the other, they were fascinated by the colorful displays and masterfulness with which the indigenous performers practiced their art. Two sources that illustrate this dichotomy are the Florentine Codex (1577) by Bernardino de Sahagún, and the History of the Triumphs of Our Holy Faith (1645) by Andrés Pérez de Ribas. In his introduction to Book II of the Florentine Codex, Sahagún describes the presence of indigenous unsanctioned performances and his continuing efforts to eradicate them:

It is well established that the songs and psalms he [the devil] has composed are the cave, the forest, the thorny thicket where this accursed adversary now hides. And they are sung to him without its being understood what they are about, other than by those who are natives and versed in this language, so that, certainly, all he desires is sung, be it of war or peace, of praises to himself, or of scorn of Jesus Christ, without being understood by others. (1982:58)

Sahagún considers these songs and the dances antithetical to Christianity. Contrastingly, Ribas describes the mitote, another prevalent form of indigenous dance, as an acceptable dance that has been reconfigured for Christianity:

. . . the mitote, or festive dance, which is a particularly enjoyable sight and is new both to Spain and other nations. The mitote that the seminarians of San Gregorio celebrate is called the mitote of the emperor Moctezuma. Although in the past it was dedicated to gentile purposes, now it is a Christian celebration dedicated to the honor of Christ Our Lord, King of Kings. (1645:714-715)

Ribas emphasizes its appropriateness as a Christian festival by highlighting its relationship to the Church and the reconfiguration of indigenous symbolism for Christianity.

To better understand how pre-Hispanic traditions transitioned into the Colonial Period and beyond, it is useful to consider the categories of “sanctioned” and “unsanctioned” performance as alluded to by Ribas and Sahagún respectively. Dance forms that became “sanctioned” gained approval from the Church, often by adopting Christian symbolism. The most prevalent forms that fall under this category are conchero and the mitote, as described by Ribas. In spite of the adaptation of Christian symbolism, the dances retained indigenous characteristics indicating their roots, ranging from their treatment of the four directions, the regalia worn by the performers, and the ritual practices carried out by the dancers. Contrastingly, unsanctioned performance faced formidable obstacles during the Colonial Period, including cultural policing by the Catholic Church, the death of culture bearers, and the interruption of lines of transmission often caused by the schooling of children in Catholic institutions. In spite of these challenges, David Tavárez found instances of “unsanctioned” performances occurring as late as 1718, when the last performance of nicachi songs in Oaxaca supposedly took place (2011:228-229), indicating that pre-Hispanic musical practices were able to continue well after the arrival of the Spanish.

Conchero is generally accepted as having roots in indigenous dance practices. One of the most prevalent narratives describing the origins of conchero as a “sanctioned” and “Christian” dance stems from Guanajuato, and particularly the town of San Miguel de Allende and the Santa Cruz tradition. This is by most accounts the tradition from which the most conchero mesas trace their roots, yet even within the Santa Cruz tradition there are several conflicting explanations as to how the dance tradition began. The most common explanation is that the origin of the tradition hinges on a key battle in 1531 between the Chichimeca and the Spanish during which a cross, Santa Cruz, descended from the heavens with Santiago de Matamoros. The Chichimeca are said to have danced around the cross shouting “El es Díos,” a now common exclamation among the concheros (Rostas 2009:167). Belief in Santa Cruz extends down to Mexico City, and the guardians of the cross descend from the original recipients in the Otomí military. According to Timothy Craig, this potentially explains the continuing military structure of the dance groups (2007:169-170). The concheros still play an important role in caring for the cross and perform the velacíones, or all night musical honoring during the festivals. Through this process and the conversion narrative it invokes, syncretism allowed for the survival of the tradition, transitioning it from a potential threat in the eyes of the early colonial powers to a form of worship condoned by the Church.

A second variant of the story involving the Chichimeca is offered in Martha Stone’s ethnography of the concheros. In an account given to her by an informant, it is believed that the Tlaxcalans brought the dance to the Otomí-Chichimeca when they entered the area as colonizers, a calculated move to aid in subduing the Chichimeca (1975:197-201). The Tlaxcalans secured a high social standing for themselves by traveling north, guaranteeing special privileges for themselves and their descendants (Velasco in Schmal: 2004). According to Stone, the Tlaxcalans had already converted and syncretized their customs with Christianity, and it was the hope that the Otomí-Chichimeca would emulate their upstanding behavior as a newly colonized population (1975:200). Given the movement of Tlaxcalans in the early Colonial Period and the account given to Stone, the dances of the Tlaxcalan colonizers and Otomí may have integrated within a few decades after the arrival of the Spanish, creating the foundation for conchero and the pan-Indian style now practiced in the danza tradition.

The recent transition from conchero to danza as performed in the United States took its current form during the period of the 1960s through the 1980s, particularly through the influence of teachers like Florencio Yescas. The rise of modern danza in the United States paralleled the civil rights movements, reinforcing the role of danza as a form of resistance to dominant culture (Luna 2012; Aguilar 2009). The form of danza that arrived from Mexico also bore heavy influence from the agenda of earlier twentieth century nationalists in Mexico, particularly José Vasconcelos, the secretary of public education from 1921-1924. The nationalist agenda frequently “borrowed” local indigenous practices for the creation of the new mestizo national identity that highlighted and romanticized the Aztec past, contributing to the pastiche of repertoire. Music, dance and songs were included on Vasconcelo’s agenda through the Department of Fine Arts (Encinas 1994:724). The early influences of these strong “Aztec” nationalist currents found in many forms of danza contributes to the difficulty of distinguishing the roots of danza traditions, since the tradition now contains elements from many different indigenous traditions. Each of these traditions has a history, and many of these blur into a pan-Indian Mexican narrative that harkens back to Tenochtitlan, although to date I have found no verifiable instances of an indigenous dance that has been successfully traced to dances from the Aztec capital.

The core repertoire of danza stems largely from the “sanctioned” dances and repertoire, particularly conchero, although the dancers have often made great efforts to remove Christian symbolism in the last thirty years. Many differences between conchero and danza exist, including the replacement of the concha, a stringed instrument, with pre-Hispanic drums such as the huehuetl; changes in the attire of the performers; and the song repertoire, as danza typically does not perform the Christianized alabanzas that comprise a key part of the conchero repertoire (Rostas 2009:193). Many danza groups view Catholicism in the conchero practices as a subterfuge for pre-Hispanic religion from which danza and other indigenous knowledge can be “recovered.” Mario Aguilar notes that this is contentious in the conchero communities, as many danza proponents reject Christian elements in favor of their interpretation of a “true” indigenous history (2009:184). This narrative serves to reinforce continuity between danza and the pre-Hispanic past, and it transforms conchero from a syncretic tradition into a subversive act of resistance.

Historical studies of danza and indigenous dance traditions are complicated by the dearth of reliable sources. The challenge of finding documentation on indigenous dance traditions and discovering how many of these traditions may have survived into the present is that if a tradition appears documented in a colonial era source, it often represents the discovery and subsequent destruction of a tradition and its line of transmission. Contrastingly, traditions that might have survived in secrecy would not have “official” documentation, as it would have eluded the Spanish authorities. This presents a significant challenge in researching the indigenous music and dance practices intertwined into danza’s history, as unbroken transmission may seem improbable, but not verifiably impossible.

In David Tavárez’s examination of the extirpation of religious practices in Oaxaca by the Church during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he found that many of the Church cantors also served as ritual specialists for indigenous religious practices. Not only could the music and dance be syncretic, but religious practitioners could also have fluency in both religious realms. Extirpation campaigns as late as the early 1700s yielded books of ritual songs in Oaxaca, indicating their survival for more than one hundred and eighty years after the initial arrival of the Spanish at Tenochtitlan (2011:145). Only one hundred and sixty years later, the Church would separate from the State, reducing its powers to legislate religion. Might other undocumented traditions have survived to witness this separation, and how would such survival be determined? Tavárez argues against long-term continuity due to changes in meaning, symbolism, and instrumentation:

Even if Indigenous specialists in some communities continue to petition local and regional deities, these entities' names, attributions, and powers have shifted significantly. The beat of the nicachi or the teponaztli no longer summons native celebrants to sing and dance for Zapotec or Nahua sacred entities, although those instruments may still be used in other contexts. In other words, local collective and elective spheres have undergone multiple historical transformations since colonial times, and the projection of long-term continuities from the present into the past and vice versa would result, as Chance and Taylor argued regarding Mesoamerican cargo systems, in the re-creation of a dubious ethnographic past. (2011:270)

The difficulty of this conclusion is that it offers no viable means for modern practitioners to assert a line of continuity, drawing a hard line between transformations and breaks in tradition. This is a potentially unrealistic standard for any indigenous practices to meet in order to verify continuity.

Tavárez implies that the transformations in the practice are breaks in continuity; however, modern practitioners like Jennie Marie Luna argue that there is continuity, including the transition to conchero as well as the later the transition to danza:

Nevertheless, the literature suggests that anything that came forth post-Spanish colonization was an accommodation and is still a direct result of that colonization. This Danza product is often referred to as “Conchero.” The Danza Conchera is called such to refer to the mandolina/small guitar-like instruments that were made with the shell (in Spanish: concha) of an armadillo . . . Since the Church did not allow the Indigenous people to continue playing flutes or drums (viewed as instruments of the devil), the people used a process of subterfuge. Being talented musicians, they were able to learn to use the new instruments in order to preserve their own songs, rhythms and sacred knowledge (Poveda 1981). The Spaniards viewed the new stringed instrument (a Spanish adaptation) as acceptable. The mandolina or concha became the instrument upon which Nahua peoples were able to remember and preserve the original beats of Danza rhythms. While this European-influenced instrument may have replaced the drums, it became the only way that songs and beats were recorded in the memories of danzantes. In effect, danzantes still took control of the stringed instrument, making it their own. Through using the shell of the armadillo, they were able to maintain its integrity as an Indigenous instrument, honoring the animal life, in the same way that the drum honored the tree life. Through using an instrument acceptable to the Spanish, they were able to appease them, while preserving the songs and beats for future generations to continue Danza today. (2012:115-116)

This current interpretation by danza creates a narrative that supplies the contentious historical lineage necessary to substantiate their claims to an indigenous past. As illustrated by Tavárez and Luna, the adaptation of conchero as a Catholic dance can be interpreted as syncretism or a total break with indigenous traditions; and the transition from conchero to danza can similarly be interpreted as either a break in the tradition or a transition to a more indigenous form of the dances, depending on the interpreter and their agenda. By drawing on various strains of indigenous dance and dance history, danza has formulated one pan-Indian history and dance repertoire that can be understood as not one truth, but many truths, representing individual and group interpretations of these overlapping indigenous heritages and histories.

Works Cited

Aguilar, Mario. 2009. “The Rituals of Kindness: The Influence of the Danza Azteca Tradition of Central Mexico on Chicano-Mexcoehuani Identity and Sacred Space.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California Claremont and San Diego.

Craig, Timothy Charles. 2007. “Folk-Religious Belief and Practice in Central Mexico: Re-construction of Tradition and the Dynamics of Folk-Religious Plasticity.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Colorado.

Encinas, Rosario. 1994. “José Vasconcelos.” Prospects 24:719-729.

Luna, Jennie Marie. 2012. “Danza Mexica: Indigenous Identity, Spirituality, Activism, and Performance.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California Davis.

Poveda Pablo. 1981. “Danza de Concheros en Austin, Texas: Entrevista con Andrés Segura Granados.” Latin American Music Review 2(2):280-299.

Ribas, Andrés Pérez de. [1999] 1645. History of the Triumphs of Our Most Holy Faith Amongst the Most Barbarous and Fierce Peoples of the New World. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Rostas, Susanna. 2009. Carrying the Word. Boulder: University of Colorado Press.

Sahagún, Bernadino de. [1982] 1577. Florentine Codex: Introduction and Indices. Edited by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Santa Fe: The School of American Research.

Schmal, John. 2004. “The History of the Tlaxcalans.” Houston Institute for Culture. (accessed 8 December 2013).

Stone, Martha. 1975. At the Sign of Midnight: The Concheros Dance Cult of Mexico. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Tavárez, David. 2011. The Invisible War: Indigenous Devotions, Discipline, and Dissent in Colonial Mexico. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


The accompanying image is from The Folding Screen with Indian Wedding and Flying Pole (1690), which is currently housed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Kristina Nielsen is currently a doctoral student at UCLA with an interest in pre-Hispanic instruments and modern reinterpretations of pre-Hispanic music. Kristina received her MA from UCLA after completing BM in piano performance at Western Washington University and an additional year of studies in the Mesoamerican Languages and Cultures program at Copenhagen University. She founded and now manages the Historical Perspectives subsection of the Sounding Board.


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