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Dance – The Strength of a Nation’s Pride

Dance – The Strength of a Nation’s Pride

16 December 2012

Eduardo Martinez Yañez reports on the historical importance of traditional folk dance in Mexico

It has been six months since the end of the Olympic Games in London and we can still recall the vibrant atmosphere generated all around the UK by the magnificent opening ceremony and the games themselves. The feeling of happiness and the priceless sense of belonging that permeated the country was, once again, a remarkable reminder of how important it is for a society to value its accomplishments and historical roots. Like Britain, Mexico feels proud of its vast and rich cultural background and heritage. Their traditional folk dance is an important part of their culture and is a source of national pride.

Costume from Veracruz State

Throughout its fascinating history, Mexico has gone through several phases where, in every region of the country, the local population has found new ways to interact with every new foreign element arriving in their communities. However it was the arrival of the Spanish on the American continent and its conquest which defined the future for the Mexican pre-Hispanic natives and their social composition. It was the Spanish language and their Catholic religion which defined the development of a new Mexican society at the beginning of the 16th century.

“Mexican Folk Dance gradually developed its own exceptional diversity of dance styles, traditional music and costumes”

Mexican pre-Hispanic people already had a very well organised society where government, military, clergy and many other different social groups shared a distinctive culture, and dance (in a ritual form) was an integral part of this structure. Like many ancient cultures, their religion was polytheistic and based on worshipping multiple deities, and myths and rituals were used to define a large part of their way of life. Their dance sequences were imbued with different meanings according to the religious (or pagan) festival being celebrated and it was not unusual to find patterns of steps offered to natural elements and phenomena, as well as to concepts like duality, fertility, good and evil, life and death. With the arrival of the Spanish Catholic priests, these unique features of Mexican pre-Hispanic dance sequences formed a synthesis taking on new rules, meanings and purposes which laid the foundations of modern Mexico and its cultural dance heritage.

Mexican woman from Chiapas State praying at Easter

So, due to the powerful influence of the Catholic church (in the process of evangelism), the polytheistic-branded religion of pre-Hispanic Mexicans took a new path, and dance became an essential element to convert the “new world” to Christianity. By developing modified and new dance sequences they set out to convert the native Mexicans. They also encouraged miscegenation and, later on with the arrival of African slaves, dance fashions that European settlers brought with them, and other non-European group cultures, Mexican Folk Dance gradually developed its own exceptional diversity of dance styles, traditional music and costumes.

To study Mexican folk dance we may divide the topic into five main vast stages, the pre-Hispanic phase, the Spanish Colonial period (including the conquest), the era of the War of Independence and the 19th Century, the Mexican Revolution, and Mexico in the 20th Century including its nationalism movement. In the 1920’s all forms of arts were promoted by the new revolutionary governments. It was at this stage that a large number of dancers and dance teachers as well as musicians, along with several other professionals in other diverse art forms, fought to forge a new Mexican identity incorporating its diverse ethnic dance traditions. They worked hard to recover and maintain existing native and traditional dance forms from all around the country; at the same time, they were helping to establish new styles of folk dance. This all helped to give status to the national culture and to increase Mexicans’ sense of their own identity.

After the Mexican revolution (1910-1917) Mexico was submerged in a labyrinth of new political ideas and social order and under the guidance of an unstable revolutionary government (as they wanted to be called), which was eager to create a national reconciliation after the terrible military conflict that had lasted seven years. The central government was hoping to establish peace and order in the country and education played an important role in facilitating this. In 1921, Jose Vasconcelos (Mexican writer, philosopher and politician), created the Mexican Ministry of Education and it was at this time that Mexican folk dance started gradually to become a subject worthy of study. Between 1921 and 1931, Ballet and Natural Movement as well as dance in other genres, became strongly influenced by other countries, especially the USA and Russia. However, it was in 1946-47, when the Mexican Ministry of Education created the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (the INBA or the National Institute of Fine Arts), that Mexican folk dance began to take its current shape.

Mexican Piñatas

Lanchas in Chiapas (Chiapas, Mexico)

Talented dance teachers and musicians dedicated their lives to embracing the new Mexican nationalism and people like Linda Acosta, Amelia Acosta, Nellie Campobello, Gloria Campobello, Ángel Salas, Silvestre Revueltas, Blás Galindo, Carlos Chávez, Ana Mérida, Guillermina Bravo, Carlos Jiménez Maborak, Ignacio Acosta, Emma Duarte, Luis Felipe Obregón and Marcelo Torreblanca, to name a few, were some of these creative Mexicans who enriched the cultural heritage of Mexico in the 20th century. However, there is one person, who with her vision and hard work, set down new guidelines to understand and create the new era of Mexican Folk Dance. This was the late Amalia Hernández* who later on along with other colleagues like Silvia Lozano, Rafael Zamarripa, Nieves Paniagua and Hector Fink, among many others, have contributed down the years to this remarkable project.Previous to this in 1931 the first state dance school was created (the School of the Dynamic Plastic Arts) then in 1932 the School of Dance opened its doors. In 1939 the Dance School of the Mexico City’s Government was founded and later on, the INBA decided in 1947 to found the Academia de la Danza Mexicana (Mexican Dance Academy) which laid a firm foundation for the search of the new structure of Mexican dance including, of course, Mexican folk dance. 

Young Tarahumara woman

The creation of the Mexican Dance Academy contributed also to the compilation of archives about ancient and traditional Mexican folk dances as well as promoting its development and research. It was from there that Mexican folk dance started to reach its full splendour and, from that point, an extensive expansion of knowledge and creativity made a substantial contribution to what many historians called Modern Mexico, which is known also as the Mexican miracle period lasting until the mid 60’s. All the hard work of those men and women paid off with the creation all around the country of several schools and art centres where Mexican folk dance has been taught ever since.

There was a time when in almost every city and village it was possible to find a local cultural centre where Mexican people could learn traditional dances, thanks to promotion by the local authorities as well as regional governments who developed a programme known as Casas de la Cultura (Homes of Culture). Nowadays from the 2,470 local authorities in Mexico there are around 1,850 homes of culture where everybody can join different levels of traditional Mexican dance lessons. Also, many state high-schools and state universities have a representative Mexican folk dance troupe. Many of the Primary School and PE teachers attend Mexican folk dance lessons as part of their training and it is also possible to find specialised dance schools, who are regulated by the INBA or the regional institutes of fine arts, that provide training in Mexican folk dance at degree level as performers or teachers. Places like the National School of Folk Dance, the Dance School of Mexico City and the School of the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico in Mexico City as well as many other local regional professional dance schools such like ESMDM (the Dance and Music school of Monterrey) and the Universidad Veracruzana, ensure that Mexican folk dance will continue to evolve during the coming years.

Mexican Folk dance can be summed up in a few words: joy, colour, celebration, mysticism and fiesta! We will talk about this in the next issue of DANCE.

Eduardo Martinez Yañez



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