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Danza de la Pluma

This week sees the week-long annual town party of Teotitlán del Valle, a Zapotec community 30 minutes from Oaxaca. Teotitlan has a very rich and well-preserved history, and this week they celebrate their town and their church in la fiesta de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (Precious Blood of Christ – the name of the church in the community). It is a week of pretty much non-stop celebrating and accompanying the festivities is of course food: all types of delicious tamales, enchiladas, moles, dulces, and helado on offer.

P1060228During the week the main festivities are held in the grounds of the church – the Preciosa Sangre de Christo. The church is actually built on the site of a destroyed Zapotec temple (as was the custom of the time) and construction started in 1581, however didn’t complete until 1758. Some of the original temple stones were repurposed by the Spanish in building the new church and you can see in the walls carvings of gods and Zapotec patterns that would have decorated the temple.

Teotitlán is a self-governing Zapotec community and as such, each person in the community will undertake a service on one of the committees that looks after different aspects of life in the community. One of these committees patrons the tradition and history of Danza de la Pluma, or Dance of the Feather, and young men between 20-30 will be chosen to serve on this committee for 3 years, preserving the history and the honour of this tradition.

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This dance tells of the different battles and betrayals between the Aztecs and the Spanish during the Spanish conquest of the Aztez empire. The dance is presented with two warring factions: the Spaniards with Cortés leading accompanied by Malinche; and the other the Mexica, commanded by Moctezuma and accompanied by Cihuapilli.

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Two 9-year-old girls are part of the ensemble, portraying both sides of Malinche/Dona Maria, the Aztec princess who learned Spanish, became courtesan to Cortes, and betrayed her people according to legend. Two masked ‘clowns’, the buffoons, hover between the dancers and the sidelines, watching over the dance, and assisting the dancers with water breaks and replacing their heavy headdresses as required. The entire dance is 30 hours long, and will be performed in its entirety over of the course of this week.

The dancers wear very elaborate and significant costumes – heavy plumas, or penachos (headdresses), capes, and woven leggings which are unique to Teotitlán del Valle and change design each year.

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The dance is accompanied by a live band; the dancers shake rattles symbolizing weapons and Malinche clicks castanets symbolising her love and betrayal of her people. Leather sandals slap onto the stones and silk capes swish as dancers perform jumps, turns and twists, beseeching gods for help and negotiations between the two sides.

The week-long festivities culminate in a giant party on Sunday and so if you are in Oaxaca, Teotitlan is definitely the place to be, with many people from neighbouring communities also coming for the party atmosphere. I know where I will be!

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