Musings on (a poster of) the Feather Dance, Tourism, and Authenticity

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 12.58.32 PMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

This is a vintage travel poster for Oaxaca, or at least a reproduction thereof. I bought it because I liked the colors, because it promoted Oaxaca in bright marigold yellow, my favorite of those colors, and because it had those weird little Keane-like kids down in the corner, staring at the dancers with their very big eyes.

So, off I go to find out what they’re staring at. It’s the Feather Dance (Danza de la Pluma), which comes from the Valles Central surrounding Oaxaca de Juárez, the capital city of Oaxaca, and represents a reenactment of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. The Dance includes Moctezuma and Aztec warriors, Cortés and Spanish soldiers, and La Malinche, the Nahua woman who was one of twenty slaves given to Cortés in Tabasco. (Apparently with an eye to moving on up, she became mistress, advisor, translator, liaison to the locals, and mom to Martín Cortés, Mexico’s first mestizo.)

The Guelaguetza

The Feather Dance is a highlight at the Guelaguetza, an annual festival held in the city of Oaxaca on the first two Mondays after July 16th, except when July 18, the day Benito Juarez died, falls on a Monday – then it’s held a week later (in 2015, the days of the Guelaguetza will be July 20 and 27). In Zapotec, Guelaguetza roughly means “reciprocal exchanges of gifts,” and more broadly, an “offering” in ancient ceremonies to propitiate and thank the gods of corn and water for bountiful harvests. The Spanish, of course, converted the pagan ceremony to a celebration of the Virgen of Carmen, adjusting the Virgin’s date to match up with the feast of Xilonen, goddess of tender corn.

The modern Guelaguetza began in 1932, the 400th anniversary of Oaxaca’s being designated a city. The gifts and offerings include major dances from the seven (actually, now there are eight) regions of Oaxaca, and it is a major tourist event, a collaboration among the State Tourist Board, cultural organizations, and villages with indigenous populations that provide the cultural substance of the festival. The new auditorium (2010) atop Fortin Hill (Cerro de Fortin) holds over 12,000 people, thousands more attend associated events throughout the city, and uncounted more watch on television; the event surpasses Day of the Dead and Christmas celebrations in contributing to the local economy. The Feather Dance is most often the closing dance, performed by a dance delegation from one or another town in the area – Zaachila, Teotitlán del Valle, Cuilapan de Guerrero.

Once I started checking out the schedule for the Guelaguetza, I discovered that each delegation only gets about fifteen minutes to perform. Hmmm. Will I get to see Cortés marching, hooking up with La Malinche, and Moctezuma dying? Apparently not – the full-length story, which can take most of the day to perform, is reduced to “one long series of leaps,” with the feathered headdresses the main attraction.   If you know what you’re watching, or understand the “plot summary” provided in a spoken introduction, you can appreciate Moctezuma’s star turn, but that’s about it.

So I began to wonder about authenticity, a theoretical issue much beloved by the relatively new field, the anthropology of tourism. I discover that the Guelaguetza itself has been tarred with controversy by people who feel that indigenous culture is being exploited for commercial tourism, particularly after the performances were shortened (in 2005) so there could be two seatings a day. More general protests by APPO (Asamblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca) against the long-powerful PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) expanded to include the Guelaguetza, and in 2006 the state-sponsored event was replaced by a Populist Guelaguetza sponsored by APPO. By the next year, however, the government, police, and military suppressed any alternative celebration.

Not that the Guelaguetza doesn’t seek “authenticity.” Every year, an “authenticity committee” of anthropologists, and “other upper-class cultural mavens” goes out to villages that have been preparing performances to audition for the Guelaguetza. According to Chris Goertzen, author of Made in Mexico: Tradition, Tourism, and Political Ferment in Oaxaca (University Press of Mississippi, 2010), “Checking authenticity just means making sure that there is no plastic in the outfits, no rock dancing, nothing that will seem jarringly modern to audiences.” (Guess what, there’s a rock version of the Feather Dance on YouTube by Noesis Ñuu-Savi, an interesting band from Huajuapan de León, Oaxaca:

In a major article that appeared a while back (1997) in the LA Times Magazine, “Fine-Tuning the Authentic,” dance critic Lewis Segal points out that the four-minute sequence included in the Ballet Folklorico de México’s “Guelaguetza” dance medley didn’t make Oaxacan feather dancers happy. According to Jose Guadalupe Villareal, a local Feather Dance troupe leader interviewed by Segal, it’s a misappropriation of Zapotec cultural property, essential to Zapotec identity. Moreover, “She changed a lot of the steps and made it very stylized. You see her dancers mostly walking and this whole dance is about jumping. She also changed the story of the dance and changed the tradition.”

“She” is Amalia Hernández (1917 – 2000), who founded the Ballet Folklórico de México (see article on page 10). When Hernández spoke with Segal in 1997, she maintained that the changes were inherent in the process of adapting and abstracting the dance to achieve the essence of what it needs to communicate to audiences. As an artist, she believed she, like Beethoven, had the right to reshape folk resources into creative, rather than folkloric, performances “based on the style, mood, and personality of the original.” What appealed to her about the Feather Dance was the “combination of Indian and Spanish influences in both the movement and the costumes.” She says, “What I admired is how the two elements matched. “When you find both together, in synchronization, you can say you have the history of Mexico.”

There in a nutshell is the authenticity debate. To whom does the tradition belong? Can it be appropriated and changed? How valid is the vision of whoever wants to appropriate tradition? How important is the purpose of appropriation? Who benefits from the appropriation?

Before the Feather Dance Gets to THE Guelaguetza

Should you wish see a more authentic Feather Dance, you need to go to one of the villages of the Central Highlands that present performances, some in local guelaguetzas. Perhaps the best source of information on local performances is Norma Hawthorne, the “Oaxaca Cultural Navigator,” through her blog-style website; just put “Dance of the Feather” in the search box in the left column. Hawthorne leads visits and photography workshops focused on the dance. The website covers how the dance is staged, how it is perceived, and what it means to the local villages committed to preserving it.

Hawthorne describes the three-year promesa, or commitment, made by dancers to learn and perform the Feather Dance, its pre-Hispanic roots, and how the dance was turned to Spanish purposes shortly after the conquest, as well as its fluid form – the famous headdresses are actually a Spanish addition to the “pagan” agricultural ritual. (The closeup photos come from Hawthorne’s website; she has also posted a video on the meaning and practice of the promesa [].)

According to Hawthorne, at least ten villages in the Valles Central have their own versions, all different. Of the three villages most often chosen to be in the Guelaguetza, Teotitlán del Valle has the most elaborate costumes and longest version, Cuilapan de Guerrero is where it was discovered (and supposedly where Martín Cortés had his baby christened – Martín is reported to have played his dad in one of the first Spanish versions), and Zaachila brought their two-hour version home from the Guelaguetza to refine and perfect.

So, the more specific it gets, the more complicated the authenticity debate. Is it possible to present as authentic any version of a dance that differs based on location of origin? Or that has been transformed and reduced to suit the needs of commercial performances? Or that presents a post-Conquest storyline but is constructed from pre-Hispanic elements? Or is authenticity what the dance is now, to those who dance it, no matter what the form?

Back to that poster!

While the authenticity debate may be relatively recent (first time the academics thought about it was 1973), the 1943 poster symbolizes issues of “appropriation,” of taking indigenous tradition and, put bluntly, turning it into a tourist attraction.

It turns out the graphic for the poster was painted by the multi-talented José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud (1904 – 57), an artist well-known on the international stage and whose “cosmopolitan modernist” talents ranged from graphic arts (posters, caricatures, stage design) to fine arts (painting in oil, water color; book illustrations), to music, film, anthropology and archaeology, and particularly, dance. So why would such a famous guy be doing travel posters, in 1940s Art Deco style, for the government and the Mexican Tourist Association?

Turns out that’s a long and complicated story, destined for another article, no doubt, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Post-revolutionary Mexico was exhausted and broke, various officials and business folks thought tourism could be a good tool for modernization and economic development, but they still needed to make good on the inclusive promises of the Revolution. Creating travel posters with cleaned-up, romanticized versions of indigenous cultures was one way to do it. Mexico’s tourism policy is pretty well characterized in the title of a recent book by Dina Berger, The Development of Mexico’s Tourist Industry: Pyramids by Day, Martinis by Night (New York, 2006). It worked: Berger points out that despite the Great Depression in the states, foreign tourism increased by 500% from 1930 to 1934. By the 1940s, there was an “explosion” in American tourism to Mexico.

Thus the entire notion of tourism, in 1940s Mexico and today, may come to grief if we actually think about whether what we’re seeing or where we’re going is really giving us an “authentic” experience of another culture. According to the academics, it all depends on whether you think authenticity is “nominal,” that it lives in the thing itself – this dance is authentic because they jump and that one is not because they don’t – or “expressive,” that a particular instance of the dance expresses a community’s internal values and traditions, in such a way that the content and meaning can be appreciated by the external audience. As I look into the big eyes of the little kids, I wonder what THEY saw.