Mexico's Day of the Dead holiday traces its root back to Aztec celebrations of the death goddess. Spanish attempts to stamp out the pagan tradition were unsuccessful and the best they could do was merge it with Catholic All Saint's Day. Today, Day of the Dead celebrations embrace Mexican folklore, an important part of which is expressed through regional folk dances. Costumed in provincial attire but unified by the ubiquitous catrina makeup (decorative skull paintings), these dances take on a supernatural aura.
In Guanajuano, where streets wind and curve around the mountainous terrain, music calls out from narrow alleys and hidden plazas. Following your ears leads to strange and wondrous surprises as you stumble into events, both staged and impromptu, that cry from another world. In Plaza de Allende, a flamenco is performed in full skeletal costume, adding a Mexican touch to what is a traditional Spanish dance:
LA DANZA DEL TORITO
On a stage in front of the Basilica Nuestra Señora, a Guanajuatan folk dance called the Dance of the Bull is performed to an audience overflowing the Plaza de La Paz. The dance tells the story of a bull breaking free from its enclosure. A host of archetypes unsuccessfully try to ring it in one at a time: a landlord, a cowboy, the landlord's daughter, a drunken servant, a dandy, an old religious man, Satan himself, and finally Death. Farce ensues, with the dandy and the cowboy fighting over the daughter, satan and the old man taunting each other, the drunk stumbling into the others, and everyone trying to evade Death. In the end, Death takes each life one by one, and even the slippery bull is unable to escape the inevitable:
In San Miguel de Allende, a half-dozen regional dances are performed by members of a local dance school as part of the city's weeklong La Calaca festival. One of the most captivating is a beautiful and haunting dance from Veracruz called La Bruja ("The Witch"). The steady clicking of the clogs are like the ticks of a clock marching towards death, the expressionless faces of those young girls made up like skulls echoing the indifference of time. And yet, the synchronicity of their movements, deliberate and precise, and their white gowns lit up magnificently in the darkness create a ghostly beauty that is hypnotizing.
Another dance from Veracruz is the spiritual opposite of La Bruja: fast, lively, and frenetic. In the Zapateado, men and women perform a rapid tap that has the energy and speed of a troop of horses galloping on the open plains. The ability of the dancers to start on the instant is inhuman; the woman here appear as animated dolls that come fully alive as if by the flip of a switch.
But not all dances are polished. Impromptu performances pop up in the streets and lowbrow charades spill out into the plazas. Here, in León, a cast of ghouls pour forth from a doorway to the sound of a country fiddle, flopping clumsily to the rhythm, their lack of coordination emphasizing their burlesque. Though death is the face of the festival, it is a lively and humorous celebration of life at its heart.