The Danza de los Voladores – the Dance of the Flyers – is an ancient Mesoamerican ritual or ceremony which is still performed today. The exact origin and true meaning of this Pre-Columbian religious practice is no longer known for sure, although there are various myths and explanations rooted in the native folklore of the peoples of central Mexico as to why it is performed and what it means. It’s strongly connected to rites of fertility which are thought to have begun amongst the Nahua, Huastec, and Otomi peoples; the ritual is now most closely associated with the Totonac people of Papantla in Veracruz. According to Totonac myth it was first performed during a period of severe drought, through this ritual dance ceremony the people hoped to appease the gods and invoke their pity, asking them to bring back the rains needed to reawaken the land and bring back to life the withered crops in their fields. The dance was said to have pleased the rain god, Xipe Totec, such that it became an established ritual. At the time of the Spanish Conquest in the 15th century it had spread across many Mesoamerican cultures, but subsequently it was almost lost as a result of the suppression of native religious rites by the invading Conquistadors.
The full ritual requires elaborate preparations. First a suitable tree must be found, then permission must be asked of the mountain god, Quihuicolo, to permit the cutting down of the selected tree and its removal from the forest. Once this has been done the tree must be prepared, stripped of its branches, and then dragged to the ceremonial site. Here a hole is dug and offerings must be placed into the earth – the offerings are usually of flowers, copal, alcohol, candles, and live chickens, or a live turkey – which are then crushed as the tall pole is erected; these sacrifices are thought to contribute to the fertility of the earth, reinforcing the potency of the ritual. Once it is fixed standing upright the pole thus becomes a nexus point, joining the sky, earth, and underworld. The pole therefore seems to have symbolic echoes in the Mayan creation myth of the sacred tree rooted at the centre of the world, and which is also associated with the bird deity, Itzamna; hence, perhaps, in the original version of the rite the five “birdmen” who must ascend the pole once it has been ritually purified. The birdmen represent invocations to the sky and the four cardinal directions. Once seated atop the pole the four men begin to rotate themselves upon a small wooden frame or platform, whilst the fifth seated in the centre begins to play on a flute and a drum. The four men attach themselves to the pole by ropes tied about their waists which have been wound around the pole. At a given signal the four men launch themselves off the platform backwards. They then begin to sail out as the platform continues to rotate, gently descending in a graceful spiral, all the while hanging head downwards with their arms outstretched. They make a total of 13 revolutions each, symbolising the 52-year cycle of the Aztec calendar; righting themselves only moments prior to landing.
Nowadays, the poles tend to be permanent metal fixtures in certain Mexican and Guatemalan towns renowned for the ritual, and their costumes no longer represent birds. The modern day traditional Totonac dress consists of red trousers and a white shirt, with a red sash – symbolising blood – worn across the chest, and a hat adorned with flowers, mirrors and coloured ribbons or streamers, each representing fertility, the sun, and the rainbow respectively. These costumes are often also elaborately embroidered.
I took these pictures and made this short film of the Totonac Voladores performing their ritual in Chapultepec Park on my first visit to Mexico City last year.