Mexican folk dance is an integral part of Mexican history, and many of the traditional dances are still performed today. There are many different folk dances from Mexico that you can learn to perform yourself or just enjoy watching.
The History of Folk Dance in Mexico
Mexican folk dancing is one of the most eye-catching international dance forms around. With a stunning display of colors and upbeat musical accompaniment, folk dancing south of the border signifies a good time.
Like many foreign dance styles, Mexican folk dance has been shaped and influenced by the country's history, including the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Colonial Period. Several cultural backgrounds are represented in any given folk dance performance and knowing the history can give you a better understanding of the various influences.
- Pre-colonial Mesoamerican culture was rich and complex. In Mexico, ritual dances to appease and appeal to the gods were a feature of the Aztec empire.
- History records that Hernan Cortes first marched into Montezuma's stronghold in 1519, where he took the emperor prisoner and murdered thousands of Aztec nobles during a ritual dance ceremony. Although the Aztecs fought back, successfully at first, by 1521 it was over. The Spanish Conquistadors prevailed over the once-great Aztec culture.
- The dances of the common people survived, but Aztec pagan religious rituals were redirected to celebrate Christian saints and feast days. For the next 300 years, during the Spanish Colonial period, Aztec dances were infused with European influence that included waltzes, ballet, fandangos, boleros, jotas, polkas, and the schottische.
- After Mexican independence in 1821, indigenous dances were performed in smaller towns and outposts where they developed individual regional flavors. Those idiosyncratic styles are celebrated and performed today as living artifacts of Mexican cultural heritage.
Today, there are three extant forms of Mexican folk dance:
- Danza, the native ritual dance used for religion and community
- Mestizo, a Western-influenced dance that has been combined with indigenous form, which is the type of dancing usually presented at Mexican Independence Day celebrations and other festivals and holidays
- Bailes Regionales, the regional dances that are created by individual communities; as a tourist in Mexico, you will often find these in community theater and dance studio performances
Types of Dancing
Within the three genres of folk dance, there are many dances that are popular and well known. Many are taught to school children in preparation for a particular holiday, while others are taught in dance studios or as part of a Mexican folk dancing team. These dances are not limited to within Mexico's borders; many Mexican-Americans enjoy participating in such dance troupes, and Europe also embraces Mexican dancing.
You may not recognize the Spanish name, but you surely know the dance. The Jarabe Tapatio, also known as the Mexican Hat Dance, is the most popular folk dance to ever spring out of Mexico. Considered to be the nation's official dance, many learn this as children and continue to dance it at festivals and birthday parties. The Jarabe Tapatio was historically a courting dance, with a story behind it of a young man trying to woo a Mexican maiden.
La Danza del Venado
Created by the Yaqui Indians of Mexico, La Danza del Venado reenacts a deer hunt, complete with dancers wearing masks to represent the deer and the hunter.
El Baile de Los Viejitos
El Baile de Los Viejitos, the dance of the old men, was originally written to mock the Spanish upper class. The men traditionally dance with machetes and masks, while the women move with fans.
This is a religious dance that portrays some of the rituals that were conducted by the pre-Columbian Aztecs. Named after a stringed instrument constructed from armadillo shell, the dance pays homage to the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The Concheros is a showy dance featuring ceremonial processions, feathered costumes, floral decorations, incense, and drums.
Danza de los Voladores
Danza de los Voladores, or Dance of the Flyers, is a unique style of dance where the dancers start out on top of a high pole and then hang upside down tethered to ropes attached to their ankles as they are lowered to the ground while circling the pole. Also known as the Mexican pole dance, this ritual dance is traditionally performed by five men: the musician, who remains at the top of the pole playing a flute and drum, and the four "flyers."
This dance form began in Veracuz, Mexico, and its music is distinguished by a blend of African, Spanish, and native rhythms. Son Jarocho events are known as fandangos. La Bamba, a song whose popularity has spread well outside of Mexico, is a prime example of the style of music that accompanies Son Jarocho dancers.
Matachines is a ritual dance performed during Catholic holy days throughout the year in honor of various saints. The dance originated as a morality play to depict the battle between Christians and pagans, and this theme is still carried on today. Dancers of all ages, from young children to seniors, dance to drums and carry rattles or swords while wearing elaborate costumes with fancy headdresses.
Parachicos is a traditional dance performed daily during a festival that takes place every January in the Mexican town of Chiapa de Corzo. The dancers shake maracas and wear masks along with fluffy headdresses and brightly colored serapes as they lead a procession through the city's streets while carrying statues of their patron saints.
Women are traditionally dressed in round, floor length skirts that are vibrant in color and design. A floral print or any sort of specific stitching on the dress may signify a certain region or style of dance. A flouncy or fringed blouse is also the norm. Men usually dress in modified cowboy suits, much as you would see a mariachi player wear, but men can also can wear linen shirts, dark pants, and boots. The dancers are accompanied by a flute and drums.
Learning Mexican Dances
Finding a way to learn folk dances from Mexico is simple. Check to see if your city is having a Cinco De Mayo celebration. Many of these will include a dance demonstration where others can come and learn. Larger cities, especially in states bordering Mexico, will have Mexican folk dancing teams that perform at local festivals and community centers. If you're interested in a vacation activity, you can learn by taking a trip to Mexico and signing up for an authentic dance class, which is not only a great way to experience dance, but also to get a taste of the culture.