Hola, amigos! I recently had the pleasure to watch one of the most fascinating rituals in Mexico- the Dance of the Flyers. I’ve had the privilege of watching it several times in my life, but it never ceases to amaze me. In this post, I’ll tell you all about it and I even have a video for you to watch!
Follow my blog and fall in love with Mexico!
The Dance of the Flyers is a ritual performed at several of Mexico’s top tourist spots, as well as in a few festivals and fairs around the world. Along with the Day of the Dead celebration and Mexican cuisine, it has been recognized as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
What is the Dance of the Flyers?
It’s an ancient ritual, dating back to pre-colonial times. In it, five men perform a sacred ceremony that involves music, dancing, and jumping off a 100-foot pole. It’s breathtaking to watch.
Where does it come from?
The Dance of the Flyers originated centuries ago, in the Totonacapan region of Veracruz province in Mexico. This is the place where vanilla comes from, and even today the air in Totonacapan still carries wafts of vanilla in it.
Legend says that centuries ago, there was a terrible drought in Totonacapan, and many people died of hunger. The wise men of the Totonac people believed that the gods were angry, so a ritual was devised to appease them.
Five young, chaste men were chosen to go into the rainforest and pick out the best, tallest, and sturdiest tree. After performing a ceremony, they cut down the tree, cut off the branches, and carried the trunk back to their village. There, it was turned into a long, smooth pole and erected in the center.
The five young men then performed a sacred ceremony high atop the pole so that the gods might hear their prayer. At the end of it, the men jumped off the pole. The ritual worked. The rains returned and the gods spared the Totonac people’s lives.
What is the ritual like?
The ritual begins with the cutting of the tree. A ceremony is performed in the forest, and the trunk is carried back to where it will be turned into a long, sturdy pole.
Then, another ceremony must be carried out. An offering of food -tamales and liquor- is placed beneath where the pole will be erected, so that it will be satisfied and refrain from “eating” the flyers.
Next, during one of the high holidays, the five flyers will walk up to the pole to begin performing their ancient ritual. The leader, or caporal, plays a mesmerizing tune with a wooden drum and flute, while the others pace around the pole.
After that, the flyers climb up the pole. Four of them will sit on each of the four sides of a revolving scaffold at the top and wrap a length of rope around their feet.
Meanwhile, the caporal will remain perched in the center. There, atop the 100-foot pole, he will play a ritual song and perform a dance, turning towards each of the four cardinal points.
Finally, when the song ends, the four flyers will jump off the pole. They will glide down, slowly circling the pole until they are close enough to touch the ground. Their flight and the ritual will be over. The gods will be appeased again.
What does it mean?
The Dance of the Flyers has a deep and ancient meaning. Long ago, it was only performed during the high holidays, such as the spring equinox, to assure rain and fertility in the land.
Legend says that in ancient times, the flyers dressed as birds, with costumes made of real feathers. Many of the old ways changed after the Spanish Conquest, and nowadays, the flyers’ attire is very different but just as meaningful.
They’re always dressed in white with red pants and sashes, which is the color of fertility and the sun god. They wear a headdress that represents a bird’s feathers and the sun’s rays. Their costumes are embroidered with figures of birds and flowers reminiscent of spring. And colorful ribbons dangle from their back, like a rainbow after the rain.
There should always be five men, one for each of the ancient mesoamerican cardinal directions- north, south, east, west, and center. During their flight, they should circle the pole 13 times each. Fifty-two times in all, just like the ancient mesoamerican calendar of 52 years.
Why do they perform it?
Long ago, the Totonac people prayed for rain. The gods answered, “Dance, and we shall watch.” In this day and age, there is no need to appease the rain and sun gods, but the flyers still perform this ancient ritual to preserve it as a part of their cultural heritage.
Flyers are trained since they are 6 years old. As long as they are flyers, they must remain chaste and abstain from drinking liquor. Most of them are of Totonac descent and hail from the Totonacapan region. For this reason, they are also commonly referred to as the Flyers of Papantla (Voladores de Papantla). Papantla is the regional capital of Totonacapan.
Where can I watch this ritual?
You can watch the flyers perform at the Xcaret and Xel Ha parks in Yucatan, near Cancun. You will also find them in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, which is where I just saw them. Of course, you can also find them in their native city of Papantla, and at the nearby archeological site of Tajin, which was the ancient capital of the Totonac people.
FYI, not all the flyers’ poles are made equal. The pole in Papantla is the highest, at 120 feet. The other poles, such as the ones in Yucatan and in Mexico City, are only about 80 feet tall. Come to think of it, that’s still pretty high up.
If you are nowhere near Mexico, you can still watch the flyers in action because I have a video for you!
These flyers are the group in Chapultepec Park, in Mexico City.
When you come to Mexico, make sure you see the Dance of the Flyers. It’s something that is definitely worth a look. You’ll never forget it!