Dancers breathe life into Aztec culture
The deep, driving beat of the drum, punctuated by the slap of bare feet on the stage and the staccato rattling of seedpods lashed to their legs stirs the young dancers into intricate movements filled with near-forgotten meaning. Turkey feathers dyed vibrant reds, yellows and greens bristle from leather headdresses, shimmying with each energetic step.
Friday night, Buena Vista University’s Multicultural Engagement Leader-ship Team (MELT) brought a Minneapolis-based Aztec dance troupe to Schaller Chapel, as part of a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration.
The children dance to connect with their distant heritage, but they are also there to keep something of a lost culture alive.
“You have heard a lot of negative things about our culture - because it was not us writing it,” troupe founder and director Susana De Leon told a modest crowd made up of students collecting their cultural credits and a handful of curious community residents.
The once proud and sprawling Aztec culture was nearly wiped out in European invasion and colonizations, leaving a prevailing belief that the people somehow deserved the torture and genocide that they suffered, said De Leon, who learned the Aztec dances in her own youth. She is now an attorney, but her passion is teaching the traditions to a new generation of young people. She sees it as “rescue” of ancient traditions.
Over 700 pre-Columbian languages were once spoken in what is now Mexico. Most are now lost forever. The girls are learning one of the old tongues, Nahuatl, and practiced songs in that language on their long drive to Storm Lake. They are sometimes teased by the elders they encounter, who urge the girls to speak the old language, only to laugh at their awkwardness. The languages enrich the speaker as well as preserves history, giving them “many words to express the heavens.”
There is more than performance at stake for the girls who were specially chosen for the Storm Lake performance. Part of their participation in the troupe is a commitment to education, with the expectation that all will be prepared to advance to higher education.
“In four or five years, I can imagine that I might be driving them back to Storm Lake for their first year of college,” the director said.
Most of the young dancers are immigrants or children of immigrants from Mexico, though their heritage may be from Peru, Equador, Venezuala or elsewhere in Central or South America - once the Mayan and Aztec world.
All of the dances are inspired by the natural environment - the troupe’s name, Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue, translates to “The Beautiful Mother Earth.” A conch shell is blown at the beginning of the performance to alert spirits of all the humans and animals that have come before them on the land. “We must first request their permission to dance,” De Leon said. By facing to the four winds at the beginning of each dance, those spirits are respectfully greeted.
The first performance was the Fire Dance, a celebration of life. “Every day when the sun comes out, that means we are still alive,” she explained. Another dance portrays a deer searching for food as the spring breaks. Yet another symbolizes the corn that sustained the people, from planting through growth in the sunlight to harvest. The “Dance to the Winds” is a favorite.
If each dance is a story, each outfit is a poem, according to the girls. They tend to feature an animal the child relates to - such as the “rabbit in the moon” that one featured - and in some cases are made by the children themselves, or with help from their parents who in several cases were dancers before them.
“If we don’t have enough dancers, we make them,” De Leon laughed, while explaining how families keep the traditions alive through the generations. Some of the girls performing in Storm Lake began dancing as young as age 2.
The girls choose and lead the dances themselves. Aztec culture teaches that “the higher you go, the lower you are.” The director must be behind the pupils in all things. When they dine together, she must wait for the girls to finish eating before she begins.
The feathers the costumes use come from specially-raised turkeys, macaws and other species. The troupe used no eagle feathers, which are extremely sacred. To use them in dance, as they sometimes do when performing in Mexico, a recognized medicine man must be present - no one else can touch a feather that may fall to the ground during the performance.
Death is an element in the dances and designs. Skulls commonly appear in Mexican and pre-Mexican cultures and celebrations are often misunderstood by Americans and seen as backward or dark, lacking souls.
“In our culture, death as well as life is simply part of a cycle,” De Leon explained. “Life is seen as only a very brief part of a person’s complete existence.”
The students channel an element of gentleness, which they call “loving words.” The athletic nature of the performances make them fun for the young people too. “It is adventurous, a way of expression that they could not do in school.”
While the culture they portray may be ancient, it is not a museum piece.
“Our culture is always changing. It is a living thing,” De Leon insisted.
She said she started the troupe 25 years ago, after learning that there were no traditional dancers in Minnesota. She travels roughly monthly to Mexico to stay abreast of cultural teachings, and teachers from Mexico visit the troupe regularly to ensure that their dances are historically correct.
“It is important to the girls to maintain their identity,” De Leon says. “They do not see themselves reflected in mainstream society.”
Their performance, the girls hope, will energize others to learn about their own ethnic backgrounds. “I hope that audiences understand that human beings have a variety of forms to express themselves in their own culture and that each culture is valuable and should be honored,” De Leon says.
Heavy rain slowed the arrival of the troupe, who were a short time late making it to the stage. They planned to make the most of their visit touring the town afterward.
“We’re nine Guatemalans from Mexico by way of Minnesota partying in Storm Lake,” the director laughed.