La Danza de los Voladores

by Cat Calhoun
San Miguel de Allende, GTO, México

Miss Ramirez, my 4th grade social studies teacher, clicked from one slide to the next. Green trees, exotic birds, and brightly clad people filled the white cinderblock wall she was using as a screen for her “what I did on my summer vacation” presentation. I wasn’t really engaged until she showed a slide of men in red and gold climbing up what looked like a very tall telephone pole. Nothing gets the attention of 9 year olds like danger and the lure of things we aren’t supposed to do. Suddenly all of us were looking at the screen and asking questions.

Mexico No Filters - Volador climbing the giant pole

“Where are they going?”
“Why are they dressed like that?”
“How high is that pole?”
“What are they going to do?”
“What if they fall?”

And then…

“Oh WOW! They’re flying …. upside-down!”

And they were. Grown men were playing in a way I would never have been allowed, but suddenly desperately wanted to. All five of them sat for a moment at the top of the pole as a man lifted a flute to his lips. In the next slide four of the men were upside down, ropes tied around their waists, arms spread in the air. The slides continued with the men closer down to the ground in each frame, spinning around and around the pole as the ropes tethering them unwound. The man on top playing the flute, seemed enraptured in his music. Finally all four men were on the ground and the flute player was climbing down the pole again.

Though we peppered her with questions, Miss Ramirez didn’t really say why they were doing what they were doing, just that it was their culture and their religion. She moved on rather quickly to pictures of food, possibly worried we might try to recreate the dance of the voladores on the tetherball poles outside of our portable classroom.

I found a way to make my next writing assignment about the Voladores and became enthralled by them. Though no one mentioned them again when I was in school, I remained fascinated, looking them up in every library I entered. Seeing them dance in the air definitely made it into my bucket list.

Now, many decades later, the Festival de San Miguel gave me a chance to see them in person. In the big public square in front of the Parrochia (the big church in the center of San Miguel), several men and boys dressed in traditional red and white garb gathered around a huge metal pole nearly 100 feet in height. They danced first around the base of the pole, the caporal (the guy who doesn’t fly) playing both the flute and the drum simultaneously. Their movements looked somewhat bird-like.

One by one they ascended the pole and began to wrap the thick yellow rope by which they would be suspended around the top part of the pole in preparation for their descent. The caporal climbed up last and perched, untethered and unrestrained, at the cap. He began to play his flute as the four dancers flung themselves backwards and out away from the pole. Effortlessly, their feet wrapped round the rope, they spun out and away from the center thirteen times before reaching the ground, arms open in surrender.

Though the ritual seems kind of chaotic and casual on the surface, it is actually a deeply spiritual expression with a tremendous amount of preparation. Thirteen revolutions, one for each moon cycle of the year. Four dancers, one for each cardinal direction and the four seasons of the year. Multiply the four dancers with the thirteen revolutions, and you get 52 – the number of weeks or mini-cycles in a year and also the number of years in most pre-Columbian Central American calendar cycles.

The shamanic roots of this ritual seem clear. Once upon a time, this was a far more complex spiritual expression which included searching for and felling a very tall tree, which had its own ritual. There were pre-dance meditations, purifications, and dietary preparations so that the dancers could fully embody the spirits of totem birds. This is one of the reasons the dancers are sometimes called hombres pajaros or bird men. This dance in the air was associated with and performed during harvest rituals, celebrating and invoking the fertility of the land and abundance of the corn that has traditionally fed the peoples of México. Old stories says that the dance was created to bring the people back into harmony with the earth, which was suffering from a severe drought.

When I first read about this long ago in grade school I thought it was just a pretty cultural ritual. Reading about it later, I assumed it was superstition and magical thinking – perform a created ritual, get instant healing – the same mentality promoted by devotees of “The Secret” and in some of the “claim it in the name of Jesus” religious communities. But it is a deeper spiritual practice than that.

Being out of harmony with the earth is the very thing that is causing our current droughts and other wildly and increasingly destructive weather patterns. If something like this could serve as a reminder to our collective peoples that we need to reign in our selfish, greedy patterns and treat our environment and all other beings as the neighbors they are, we could change most of the sickness in our world…both external and internal.

Click the links below to see: 

  • More photos of the Voladores
  • The Festival de San Miguel
    476th birthday of San Miguel and the feast day for our patron saint. Party!!
  • The Blessing of the Horses
    Caballeros and caballeras who flow into San Miguel to have their horses blessed in front of the Parrochia.
  • Danzas Indigenistas – Indigenous Dancers 
    Amazing indigenous dancing up close and personal, featuring costumes that would scare the crap out of you if you were one of the conquering Spanish. Seriously. After looking at the pics would you want to meet one in the forest on a dark night?!
  • Quema de Monitos (coming soon)
    The burning of the monkeys – not literal monkeys and not just fire. This is a fun display involving blowing stuff up in a show of the battle against evil.

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