DANZA GOES ZUMBA
(Full disclosure; I have been a danzante 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) 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. 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.
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.” 
–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, 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. 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. 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:
 A “danzante” is a person who practices Danza.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.