Danza goes Zumba


By: Tlakatekatl

(Full disclosure; I have been a danzante[1] and immersed in Mexikayotl for almost fifteen years)

So, apparently there is a hullabaloo over a fitness group out in California, Ollin Ixtli, which is using “traditional” Aztec dance steps (Danza Azteca)[2] as a way to distinguish itself from all the other dance-your-way-to-fitness programs that have sprung up in recent years. The main criticism I gathered from reading the comments on the group’s YouTube videos is that the Danza is being misrepresented and abused for profit—the Danza’s sacredness is being defiled! My immediate reaction was, “So what else is new?”

Native culture has been continuously appropriated by the profit vultures since Europeans stumbled onto America. Why should Danza not suffer the same fate? But this controversy offers a great opportunity for me to bring up some points that I plan to elaborate further in future posts; is Danza really so sacred that there is no room for deviation, and has Danza stayed influence-free over the last five centuries?

Not many danzantes know or care to admit that what they do is not actually strictly pre-contact.[3] Nor do their feathers get ruffled when Danza is misused for personal or group benefit in a non-sacred setting. For instance, if Danza is as sacred as it is made out to be, then why do most groups perform at public events, like parades, street fairs, and the like? As a danzante myself, I have always had a problem with doing those sort of public exhibitions, especially at the time when my spiritual connection to Danza was the strongest.

The most common reason I was given whenever I voiced my protest over dancing at the parking lot of the local mercado (market) was that, “It’s a way to expose our gente (people) to la cultura (the culture),” and it made sense. I was convinced for a while that reducing Danza to a sideshow was benefitting our people, but I wasn’t convinced for long.

One of the most humiliating moments I experienced as a danzante occurred at a pow-wow, the last place I imagined I would feel as disgraced as I did that day. Upon arrival, after traveling almost four hours to get there, the program director informed us that our performance was scheduled during the lunch break that is customary at these events. I thought to myself, “Oh, it shouldn’t be bad.” The long and short of it is that, by the time we actually got going, the arena had virtually cleared out, and we danced to an almost empty place. That was the moment when my previous reservations about public dancing multiplied. It changed my outlook, and I have since limited my public dancing considerably.

But what does this have to do with what the zumba fitness group, Ollin Ixtli, is doing? My point is that even danzantes unintentionally commit “sacrilege” against Danza by using it to fundraise or showcase the culture. Something that is sacred should not be used in any way other than for sacral purposes. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sacred as: dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity; worthy of religious veneration; and of or relating to religion, not secular or profane.[4]

Is this what danzantes mean when they speak of the sacredness of Danza? If so, then any activity that does not conform to this definition should cease immediately; either that, or stop calling it sacred. You can’t have it both ways—that’s called hypocrisy. Am I trying to discredit Danza or danzantes? No, I’m just tired of people that go around on their high horse telling others what they can and cannot do when they themselves are misinformed or doing the exact same thing.

By misinformed, I’m referring to the origins of modern day Danza. What we call Danza tradicional has its roots in the sixteenth century. It’s a syncretism of indigenous and Catholic rituals. Dr. Francisco de la Peña (ENAH-México) discusses this syncretism in his essay entitled, “Milenarismo, Nativismo Y Neotradicionalismo en el México Actual” (2001):

“En el imaginario de una gran parte de las organizaciones mexicanistas, se reconoce en la tradición de los grupos llamados “concheros” el origen más o menos lejano del nativismo mexicanista. Los concheros…son agrupaciones tradicionales que practican espectaculares danzas de inspiración prehispánica que forman parte de un complejo ritualístico muy popular en México.

Se sabe de su existencia al menos desde el siglo XVIII, aunque sus antecedentes son más antiguos y se remontan a la época de la conquista española. Se piensa que la “conchería” es uno de los productos más representativos de la conversión religiosa de los indios del centro de México al cristianismo. Practicantes de un cristianismo fuertemente sincrético, los concheros combinan en sus cultos vestimentas, instrumentos y objetos ceremoniales prehispánicos con un catolicismo popular no del todo apegado a los dogmas de la Iglesia oficial.” [5]

–Within the Mexicanist organizational imagery, the traditionalists recognize the “concheros” as being more or less the distant source of Mexicanist nativism. The concheros… are groups who practice a spectacular and traditionally inspired pre-Hispanic dance as part of a ritualistic complex very popular in Mexico.

Their existence has been known of since at least the eighteenth century, although their background is older and dates back to the time of the Spanish conquest. It is thought that the “conchería” is one of the most representative forms of the religious conversion of the Indians of central Mexico to Christianity. Practitioners of a strongly syncretic Christianity, the conchero cult combines pre-Hispanic costumes, instruments, and ceremonial objects with a popular Catholicism that is not fully attached to the official dogmas of the Church (translation mine).–

The quote above offers an explanation as to why concheros are intimately connected with Catholicism, and it supports the notion of the Danza’s sacredness. I have met concheros over the years, including some that adopted the ideals of the newer Danza Mexica,[6] for whom Danza still holds a deep spiritual meaning; yet, they have no problem participating in public events that have no spiritual significance. This has always puzzled me, and I’m still struggling to make sense of that. This begs the question, “What is meant by traditional?”

If the religious roots of Danza make it sacred, then does the fact that it has been practiced continuously for over five hundred years make it traditional? The obvious answer is, yes. However, since the practitioners of Danza have misused it for non-religious purposes for many years, is it still traditionally sacred? Considering the definition of sacred, the answer is a resounding no.

The word “traditional” carries a lot of baggage when used to describe indigenous practices, customs, and cultures. The adage “adapt or die” comes to mind here. All cultures must adapt to the demands of an ever changing world, those that don’t remain static and die. The same is true for Danza; concheros realized that the only way to continue their sacred dance was to incorporate it within the new religious order, Catholicism.[7] The melding of indigenous spiritual dances and Christianity was the only viable recourse for its survival, which is why it exists today.

This is no to say that Danza could not have survived on its own, tucked away in the sierra, awaiting a more sympathetic and tolerating society in which to emerge.[8] It is possible that some communities kept their traditions secret until times were less antagonistic towards indigenous customs. Accepting that claim highlights the sacredness of Danza even more, but in today’s day and age, Danza is no longer secret—it’s at the Cinco the Mayo parade and at the local bazaar, and there’s nothing sacred about that.

If individuals want to use traditional practices that have lost their essential sacredness, such as Danza, so be it. Is it any different from the parading, showcasing, and fundraising that Danza groups use it for? If it is, it’s not by much. The danzantes griping about using Danza inappropriately should take a hard look in the mirror before they can claim a moral authority on how, why, and whom can use it. Danza lost its sacredness to the public; it’s up to danzantes to redeem it by making private again.

For further reference:

“Las nuevas religiones en México como forma de identidad colectiva,” por Yolotl González Torres.

Tensiones entre el esencialismo azteca y el universalismo New Age a partir del estudio de las danzas “conchero-aztecas

“El movimiento mexicanista; Imaginario prehispánico, nativismo y neotradicionalismo en el México contemporáneo,” por Dr. Francisco de la Peña.

The dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda

Works cited:

[1] A “danzante” is a person who practices Danza.

[2] The Danza Azteca “Conchera” is a traditional, spiritual, and ritualistic form of dance that emerged from the syncretism of indigenous and Catholic spiritual practices in Mexico after Spanish contact.

[3] The term “pre-contact” is a non-Eurocentric alternative to pre-Colombian and pre-Hispanic in contemporary academic language. The topic of Danza’s influences is still relatively unknown and merits its own essay.

[4] Merriam-Webster, “Online Dictionary”, n.d., http://www.merriam-webster.com/.

[5] Francisco de la Peña, “Milenarismo, Nativismo y Neotradicionalismo en el México Actual,” Ciencias Sociales y Religión/Ciências Sociais e Religião 3, no. 3 (2001): 99.

[6] The Danza Mexica (Mexika) is a splinter movement that emerged in the 1970s which consciously rejected the Hispanic influences found within concherismo and dedicated itself to redeeming Danza from Catholic influences while immersing itself deep in “authentic” indigenous practices.

[7] An alternate interpretation I have heard is that it was the missionizing Catholic priests who decided to use indigenous dance as a way to lure more neophytes to the churches. I am still searching for a documented source that supports that claim.

[8] This version of the Danza’s survival posits that it remained hidden in the rural and high-country communities until persecution of indigenous practices abated.



  1. This is an interesting discussion of sacredness and traditional. Does public performance and commodification take away the sacred? I ask this same question about curanderismo. Thanks for this insightful essay!


  2. Thanx Jenny!

    “Does public performance and commodification take away the sacred?”

    I guess that’s something I’ve wrestled with myself for a long time. I suppose the answer depends on your perspective, and my position leans towards yes. I just feel that by definition, things that are “sacred” lose their sacredness when they are used for non-sacred purposes. If we compare doing Danza for entertainment to say, the Whirling Dervishes, we see some similarity–the thin line between religious performance and entertainment. According to the all knowing fountain of knowledge, Wikipedia, the Dervish dance, “though not intended as entertainment, has become a tourist attraction in Turkey.”

    So for Dervishes, their dance is still performed as part of sacred ritual, even though it has attracted tourists; however, in Danza, there are instances when this occurs, my problem is directed more towards the conscious act of performing for entertainment/educational purposes. I think that diminishes Danza’s sacredness.


  3. Tlakatekatl I have to enthusiastically disagree with your position here. I’m one of the adminsters of the Boycott against Aida Landeros & Ollin Ixtli and I’m here to state unequivocably that our boycott against this group is completely justified and neccessary.

    I’m sorry Tlakatekatl that you have lost your faith in the sacredness of danza. I’m here to tell you that you are in a small minority of danza azteca practitioners that have such a pessimistic degraded view of our sacred traditions. The vast majority of danzantes across the continent don’t feel as you do, and for good reason. Agreed, some performances or presentations of our culture do not live up to our high standards of sacredness. However this does not mean that within a public presentation of danza azteca you cannot make an authentic expression of our sacred spiritual traditions. The fact that a group might accept money for such a presentation does not at all negate the fact that we did in fact touch many many people deeply in their hearts and plant a seed that may grow magnificently & honorably in the future. I’m sorry but myself and countless other azteca dancers know by our own experience that your argument on this point simply does not hold water. Money or public simply does not automatically kill sacredness.

    So many people are getting hooked on the commercialization-making money part of this, which in my opinion is the least of Ollin Ixtli’s offenses. This boycott is focussing on 3 primary grievences with this group: 1. the sexual perversion & degradation of our indigenous women 2. the perversion & degradation of our sacred ceremonial instruments 3. the perversion & degradation of our our dance tradition from complete dances in a ceremonial circle with the clear purpose being the authentic expression & practice of our culture and spiritual tradition, intentionally changing it’s purpose to ‘fitness’ isolating the steps to be done in repetition. The fact that they are charging for classes and using our culture to package all this non-sense to sell to the mass public market, effectively misrepresenting our true culture in the process, is the straw that broke the camels back and why we are focussing on Ollin Ixtli for an organized boycott.

    Within the introduction of our boycott it reads “This Boycott Petition is not meant to be the final solution to these issues. Rather it is meant as a catalyst for discussion and self reflection within our danza community on the issues of sexualization- showing more skin, posing for the camera, commercialization of danza, changing danzas to new forms, amongst other issues. Although we realize there is much variation between danza groups on these issues and we may never agree on what is exactly ‘traditional’, we hope we can at least agree on what is NOT traditional. Rather than do nothing, this is one thing that we CAN DO”

    We fully realize that our own danza azteca house (a continental size house with countless tens of thousands of people) is not scrubbed completely clean. Absolute perfection today and throughout our entire history of danza azteca is a not a requirement for not being labeled a ‘hypocrit’. But this does not at all mean we have no moral rights to work against a group who is outcast from our traditional community, blatantly & intentionally misrepresenting & exploiting our culture and degrading the very essence of who we are as indigenous people in the mass consciousness of the society in which we live.

    to be continued . . .


  4. Interesting article. My own opinion and response is to point out that the Danzantes of prehispanic times were highly regarded and rewarded monetarily, if I may say so and with the highest respect. Also lest we forget during the invasion of Mexico as in the case of Cholula they were hacked to death as they danced. I don’t believe it was a choice to change danza to adapt to the changing times. They had to in order to survive at all.. There is a difference. For me it’s about respecting what you do with what you’ve learned. Workouts are great but using the articles of danza just for personal gain or as a gimmick to sell an idea is wrong. The misuse of such things is just as bad as the misuse of any knowledge. I admit the rebirth of Danza Mexica is still in its infancy but there are respects to be paid to those that preserved what is left. It’s a powerful thing this cosmic dance and the temptation to use it however we see fit is a fine line for certain. I firmly believe that there are just not enough teachers to go around and that means the quality of the music and dance will suffer for it. I also believe that the Danza will take care of itself for afterall, there is a Prophecy at work here and it has nothing to do with Fitness classes or sex appeal. It’s about storytelling through movements. It’s about sacred knowledge. It’s about cosmic vibrations. Revival and rejoicing in our survival. Respecting the balance and the elements of nature and the guardians of those things. I can go on but I’m sure I’ve already written too much. In Xochitl In Kwikatl. Ixtemoc


  5. Mike…Thanx for the comment. I appreciate thoughful responses like yours, especially those that disagree with my position.

    Part of me agrees with your reasons for boycotting the group, but I still have to wonder if any action is worth the effort. I think we as a people have bigger fish to fry than to get bogged down over a virtual unknown group of people that think it’s hip to dress up like Aztecs and use danza to workout. I don’t think I need to go into the long list of issues that plaugue our communities to underscore my point, but I do realize the validity of your grievances.

    That said, I’d like to address some of the points you brought out:
    First of all, it’s never really been clear to me that danza is in any way sacred beyond what certain people have claimed. I’m not really sure what you mean by sacred either, because if we were to take a poll, the likelyhood of there being a consensus on its meaning is highly unlikely. In addition, based on the dictionary definition, I stand by my argument that sacredness is something that is not done in the public realm. My most memorable moments of danza have been those that were private, as I’m sure you can relate. What it boils down to is that there are many danza groups out there that have turned it into a business similar to a dance troupe touring from show-to-show and city-to-city. Where’s the outrage over those groups? Where are the boycotts and calls to action against them for ‘degrading’ and ‘perverting’ the sacred danza?

    In my opinion, those groups do a greater disservice to what the danza stands for, but they get away with it because the mask their actions by pretending to belong to the ‘great danza house’ while attending ceremonies and playing Indian. Then there’s the issue of charlatans who go around pretending to be great teachers that hold vast knowledge, mis-educating their eager students, when in fact all they are doing is parroting new agey nonsense they heard someone say or read in a book. When placed in that context, targeting an inconsequential fitness group with little to no impact on the danza community overall is just silly in my view.

    There’s more to this laundry list, but I think I’ve made my point. That’s what I meant where I stated that “danzantes should take a hard look in the mirror,” because the house is far from being clean, as you rightly recognize. I realize that these are things that I didn’t address in my original post, but they informed the reaction that prompted my response.

    Before I conclude, I would also like to point out that danzantes are guilty, to some degree, of the things you are objecting to:

    1. “the sexual perversion & degradation of our indigenous women” – I have met danzantes that have a reputation of being sexual predators and have done things far worse than simply objectify women.
    2. “ the perversion & degradation of our our dance tradition” – My maestro de danza, who is from El DF and has danced for nearly 60 years since the age of 5, has personally told me that danza has a lot of ballet influence. Additionally, he admitted to making up entire dance routines and modifying older ones to make them more theatrical; something that he says is commonplace among danzantes in Mexico. So much for keeping the integrity of danza.
    3. “posing for the camera” – Really? You mean to tell me that when you and your cohort do shows and events, you nicely refuse to have your pictures taken with the fans.

    But I digress…


  6. Thanx Ixtemoc…Being a historian in training, and a skeptic by nature, I’m intrigued by your assertion that “Danzantes of prehispanic times were highly regarded and rewarded monetarily.” Maybe I missed that somewhere, but would appreciate a source for that claim.

    Thank you for reminding us about Cholula, a horrible incident, but how does it bear on whether or not modern day danza has lost its ‘sacredness’?

    “I don’t believe it was a choice to change danza to adapt to the changing times. They had to in order to survive at all” – if you read my post carefully, that is in fact what I said.

    “there are respects to be paid to those that preserved what is left” – I agree, but that is not the issue here.

    “there is a Prophecy at work here” – there a several prophecies floating around, which one are you referring to?


  7. I am glad my thoughts are able to inspire such intrigue. You’re position is well intentioned as a historian in training, however not everything that is real and true is written down to be studied then filed away as fact. We are in a period of enlightenment at the moment and I believe that with so much that’s been destroyed or lost, it is up to each one of us to express ourselves in ways that will bring about other questions outside of the current debate. I personally think it’s a waste of energy to attack and or attempt to discredit each other for the sake of argument. All I know is people both mexica and non mexica alike appreciate and are moved by what we do with our danza. The fact that we do events both big and small both public and private does not diminish the spirit and or sacredness of what we do as danzantes. Our offering is just the same and to be rewarded is not a crime as you have heard of tribute. I do not have to justify my knowledge of such things for I live it and learn just as you. It can take an entire lifetime and we’ll never know everything. But I ask the questions what will be our legacy? What are we passing down?


  8. Ixtemoc, I don’t want to get into discussion about beliefs and facts here. I’m planning on posting on that subject soon, and you’re more than welcome to respond and disagree, if that’s the case, there.

    Now, you say that “it’s a waste of energy to attack and or attempt to discredit each other for the sake of argument.” To my knowledge, I wasn’t attacking or discrediting anyone, I’m simply trying to have an honest discussion about the things that I find problematic in our danza/Mexikah communities. I think there are issues that have yet to be resolved, however, from my experience, we just ‘dance’ around (pun intended) the problems or feign ignorance as to not face them head on.

    Humans in general prefer not to rock the boat (until they have no choice that is), and, from personal experience, I have seen what this does to danza groups. Some people get away with questionable and outright immoral actions simply on the basis of their assumed authority. The chismes and factionalism follow, bringing disunity and disharmony, resulting in schisms because those that question a respected individual are singled out as provocateurs. I, for one, don’t like to ‘taparle el ojo al macho.’ If there is something that needs addressing, I bring attention to it. I don’t see that as a “waste of time.” And, on the point about monetary reward being a “crime,” where did that come from..

    “But I ask the questions what will be our legacy? What are we passing down?”
    On this, I totally agree with you; I have, as many of us have, asked these things about ourselves, and it’s a huge reason why I’m in school. But, I gather from your response that, although we agree on the question, we probably don’t fully agree on the answer.


  9. Tlakatekatl, our organized Boycott against Ollin Ixtli was started precisely because this group is not just any other small time danza group going around doing performances to small crowds at local events. They are set up as a proper business, they have a lawyer and a publicist and are having popular mexicana actresses such as Fernanda Romero endorse them publicly. They are marketing themselves very effectively to the masses using internet, social media, YouTube, etc. They currently are filming a full length aztec fitness video DVD to sell. Their calendars they use to promote their intentionally sexualized danza azteca (sex sells) showcases known professional fashion models wearing rented trajes and copilli’s. They are going after the trendy affluent Latina/Hispanic fitness market and using a sexualized degraded version of our dance tradition to sell it to them. Recently they gained national TV exposure on Despierta America-Univision where even the hosts displayed racist ignorance to a national audience. Our Boycott has received new members with calls of disgust over this from New York, Miami, Chicago, Minneapolis, and throughout Mexico. So this is not just another “virtual unknown group of people”. They more than any other before them have the potential to spread ignorance & disrespect of our true culture to become the next trendy shiek azteca-sexy fitness craze sold to the masses. If this happens the vast majority of us within the traditional community feel it would be a real tragedy for our people and our place within society. What we hold truly sacred is worth our organized efforts to protect.

    When I say sacred, as it applies to our danza azteca, I mean the intent we do it with is to pray and give thanks for all our blessings and acknowledge the various aspects of creation. Our danzas themselves when done in a ceremonial circle are done for this specific purpose as you well know- Tlalok, Tonatiu, Tonantzin, E’Ekatl, Tlet, Tezkatlipoka, Huitzilopochtli and so on. Each of these danzas are our own unique & ancient expression through movement of our people’s view of our world and an act of honoring all this and is a major aspect & building block of what we can call our “culture”. Ollin Ixtli is using (many say stole) this to make themselves popular and package a degraded un-authentic “aztec fitness” program in our culture to sell in todays health trendy and culturally ignorant mass market. This is the definition of exploitation of our women and our culture. Skeptics can attempt to minimize, moch & trivialize our position on this matter but the vast majority of our community know this to be true in our hearts.

    Our indigenous azteca traditions, which Aida claims she has great respect for, are an area of spiritual tradition for indigenous people that is not normally mixed with sensual revealing fashion modeling. You would not use Catholic Church instruments, symbols and dress and try to change it to do a sexy fashion model photo shoot would you? A sexy half naked Nun? The mixing of the spiritual religious traditions and sensual fashion modeling is generally considered sacriligious and very controversial to say the least. Aida Landeros & Ollin Ixtli is crossing that line between spiritual tradition & sexy fashion modeling with her calendar photos, mixing the two, and she makes no apologies for it. If it was Catholic Church spiritual tradition she was mixing then she would gain the condemnation of the whole world. But because she is using Indigenous spiritual tradition, she is getting away with it for now because the general public is not well informed about Indigenous spiritual tradition and danza azteca.

    It is for these reasons above, among others, that we are focussing an organized Boycott against Ollin Ixtli. These facts stand on their own and are not dominished at all simply because some other groups have made up more flambouyant dances in the past, sexual predator danzantes existed or simply because we also take photos in our trajes at public events. None of this we are trying to sell to the media & wider mass market- that’s rediculous. You cannot possibly compare us who take a picture after an event with a few people in plain clothes with this group who goes to the beach in rented trajes & Copillis with fashion models who don’t do danza azteca at all and drop our Huehuetl on its side and have the model splay herself across it in a sensual manner like in a Sports Illustrated swinsuit magazine photo shoot. That is the major difference in the way this groups operates- using our ceremonial instruments and regalia to exploit who we are.

    It appears as though you are saying that we should just be quiet and accept the real exploitation Ollin Ixtli is perpetrating only because we have some rogue elements within our danza azteca community. We simply don’t believe this argumnt holds water.


  10. You must forgive my figures of speech. It’s the way I talk. I will make my points more clear. 1. Discrediting ollin ixtli is what I meant by a waste of time. They already do that very well on their own with no help from me. 2. Dancing in public does not make it any less sacred to me since I approach it with the same reverence. 3. To be compensated for ones gift, time or craft if you will is common practice and a sign of respect. We are in fact the practitioners, dancers and musicians alike. The sacredness comes from the blessing of the grounds, the asking permission from the four cardinal points, the gathering of medicine from years of dedication. The giving and receiving of energy between ourselves and the Earth through our movements and vibrations. It’s not that complicated brother and if others have spread bad medicine, then it’s on them. I feel sorry for them and pray that they have more respect in the future for what they’re doing. We must always keep our medicine good and that’s what my group, my family and I strive for. You stated you don’t wish to discuss facts and beliefs at this time. Your very question of what is sacred is at the core of what others believe and I just was trying to point that out. Maybe you didn’t get the response that you had hoped for. It seems to me that you are in search of answers and you wish to confront or point out some instances from your own research or what you have been told to support your position. As they say…be careful what you ask for my friend. My question to you is do you still dance? If so I would encourage you to continue on. Myself, I am approaching the 20 year mark and I will think about retiring in about three more years when Im 52. Until then I will continue to share and preserve the best of what I know of the culture in general and danza in particular. Paz


  11. Just wanted to say that you make a good case for your argument, Mike, and I’m still thinking about what we’ve exchanged thus far. With the start of school this week, I’ve been a little busy, but expect a response soon. Same goes for Ixtemoc.

    In the meantime, both of you should read the article linked below. It brings up some of the issues that I, and others, have been discussing for a while.



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