Dance of the Elders: A Commentary and Reflections on a Traditional Purepecha Dance

February 3, 2012
Dianne Aid

The sound of “tata tata tatatatata” tapped out by the huaraches grows louder and faster as we approach the great celebrations of the winter months beginning with the Feast Day of The Virgin of Guadalupe through the Feast of the Presentation.

Each year, beginning in November, about 100 people gather three times a week to practice the traditional “Dance of the Elders,” which originated with the Purepecha people in the modern Mexican state of Michoacán. The Purepecha called the land home long before Europeans arrived.

The first time I saw the dance preformed, I was drawn into its spirit, colorful, energetic, and entertaining to say the least but, there was something else, it was peeking into a culture I did not know a lot about. The “Dance” however was inviting me to explore something that took this immigrant community and first generation non-immigrant children back to a time to find their hearts, soul and roots.

I have been watching the practices and the dance for seven years now and have learned bits and pieces about it. When I was asked to write this article, I thought “OK, I will try to tell what I know – which is so little and so presumptuous. What follows is a result of conversations around three questions with seven Purepecha people who have found their way into The Episcopal Church, and bless us with maintaining and sharing traditional music, dance, food and ceremony, and insight into the impact of immigration on native people from Mexico. Included in the seven are two children who have never been to Mexico.

What is this dance about?

Minerva, a college educated native of Tanaquio, Michoacán says it is a traditional dance of Michoacán and it was developed to mock Europeans. The white masks were added to highlight the quicker aging process of white people than brown people. Juan, a carpenter by day and instructor of traditional music and dance tells me that each Purepecha village has their own version of the dance. The original dance was done by four priests, not Christian priests, but the priests of the indigenous religion. Each priest represented one of the four seasons of the year. It was a dance of thanksgiving. The original masks were red or dark but were later replaced by white masks to make fun of the Europeans.

Today, says Juan, “We do the dance to give thanks to the Virgin and to God.” Mari and Carlos, from Quinceo, Michoacán say the dance is deeply imbedded in their culture; it is something that children participate in as soon as they are able to walk (two and three year olds practice along with the older children, youth and adults). The dance has another name in Purepecha that does not translate well into Spanish “I cannot explain it,” says Mari, “but it is something like dance of the pants.” We had a good laugh over that.

Antonio Flores, who for the last several years has dedicated his time and energy to community organizing around grass roots immigration reform and to founding “Orgullo Purepecha,” (The Pride of the Purepecha). Antonio has become well-versed in the traditions and history of his people. Antonio tells me that the dance originated as a sacred dance to honor God, and the elements of God, fire of the earth and sun of the heavens. He stressed that fire and sun themselves are not gods, but are expressions of God. The dance would go on all night, and it was considered a sacrifice, a sacrifice of energy.

One of the stories about the dance after the introduction of Christianity, is that one year, the baby Jesus was too heavy to be lifted (elevating of Baby Jesus in February is one of the most important events in the Church calendar year for Purepecha communities). The elders were called on to dance, and they danced all night, in the morning it was very easy to lift up the baby Jesus.

The original masks said Antonio were those of deer heads because the deer is the caretaker of the people. Later, the masks became human faces, brown, and were representing the elders, upon contact with Europeans, white masks were added, eventually “the white masks and brown masks became an expression of economic classism and the dance became a joke to mock the white conquerors.” Almost as an after thought, Antonio added that the noise and rhythm of the “tata tata tatatatata” from the shoes represented the end of a rain storm and the water rushing off roof tops.

Why do you come, to practice, even in the rain, snow, ice and wind?

Mari and Carlos say they come to keep in contact with their culture and to give honor to the Virgin who is very important. Juan reminds me that his brother Salvador was the teacher a few years ago, and now he has taken over the teaching. “I have become more interested in who I am as a Native person, especially after coming to the United States. It is very important to protect our tradition,” he said.

Minerva sent to Mexico to purchase traditional dress for herself and her children. She says when she puts on the traditional dress, she feels like she is back with her people and her land. Minerva said she of course has always known she is Purepecha, but does not speak the language. She has learned much more about traditions after she came to the U.S. (mainly through Orgullo Purepecha), and it has become very important to her.

Antonio says “We have to keep the dance for spirituality,” the dancers are not professionals and they do not dance for money. The process for bringing the community together to practice during November begins a few months before. Each household is visited by the teacher who asks for a donation of time and energy. It is understood, that later in the year when the family is in need, the “community of dancers” will take care of them. It is reciprocity. Antonio also says there is a lot of pressure to participate, and to refuse would anger the Virgin or Jesus.

What are one to three things that are important to teach Purepecha children about their culture?

Minerva says it would be language; she is very frustrated that she missed out on learning it, the customs are very important, and that “my children know that they are indigenous people.” Juan says, “it is very important to teach our roots, especially to our children who are born here (in the U.S.).” Mari and Carlos do not want their children to forget where they came from. “They are from here and of here (meaning the U.S.), but they need to know where they came from.”

Antonio has a different request: he says alcohol is abused during the celebrations, and even small children are given sips of tequila. “Please, in the church can you help me to start a campaign beginning with the children on education around alcohol abuse?” We have agreed to take that on in 2012 as a team.

What the children say

I talked with 10-year-old Salvador and nine-year-old Erik, both born in the U.S., and have never been to Mexico. Salvador says, “It is a dance we do for God every year, and it comes from Quinceo,” Erik says, “Coming to the dance of God, it is from Michoacán and it is Purepecha.” Erik speaks English, Spanish and Purepecha, Salvador speaks English and Spanish.

In closing

Each night of practice is a community night, a meal is provided and the hospitality is generous. At St. Matthew/San Mateo, Auburn other church activities are happening in the building, an Education for Ministry (EFM) group for example, and those members who peek into the parish hall to watch for a few minutes are immediately brought a plate of food and welcomed.

At St. Elizabeth in Burien, the community calls itself “Santa Maria Magdalena” after the patron saint of Quinceo, also welcome all who come by. Between the two communities about 200 people are participating in the dance three to five nights a week (three in Auburn and two in Burien).

There is so much here – as we approach this Christmas season, the Purepecha and many Indigenous communities also are observing Las Posadas (The Inns) by re-enacting Mary and Joseph looking for a room in Bethlehem. Like Mary and Joseph, these communities are knocking at the doors of our churches, and we must ask ourselves when do we open those doors? They bring a great gift.

--Submitted by Dianne Aid, TSSF, Jubilee Ministry Coordinator, St. Matthew/San Mateo, Auburn, WA