The ritual of the Volador

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In Mesoamerican times, the ritual of the Volador was performed throughout much of what is now Mexico and extended as far south as Nicaragua. Information about the original ritual (Danza de los Voladores) Dance of the Flyers, or Palo Volador (Pole Flying), was partially lost when the invading conquerors from Spain destroyed so much of the indigenous cultures. Enough survived through legend, oral history and early written materials that anthropologists and historians have been able to document at least part of the story of this ancient religious practice. This ceremony is associated with the Totonaco people, with whom we are working in VIDA.

A Totonaca myth tells of a time when there was a great drought that brought hunger to the people. The gods were withholding the rain because the people had neglected them. The ceremony, involving taboos and meditation, was created to appease the gods and bring back the rains. The ritual begins with five men circling a tall pole with a small wooden rotating platform at the top. One of the men plays music with a flute and a small drum.

They then climb the pole, and position themselves on the platform. The man playing the music is called the caporal. He stands in the center, playing his flute and drum, and does a dance, facing each of the four cardinal directions in turn. This is one of the most tense moments for the audience as he performs his dance standing at the top of a pole without a harness or any protection. The platform begins to spin and the four voladores (representing the gods of the earth, air, fire and water) launch themselves off, and begin rotating around the pole upside down. The caporal remains at the top of the pole as the others descend. In their descent, each volador circles the pole 13 times. Thirteen times for each of the four voladores, for a total of 52 rotations, represents the number of years in the Mesoamerican calendar cycle.

The Voladores are a source of great pride to everyone in Totonocapan – the region of the Totonaca. Although the ritual did not originate with the Totonac people, today it is strongly associated with them.

The Totonaca people continue to perform the flight of the Voladores for several reasons. First, it keeps a part of their traditional culture alive for everyone to see. Second, it provides additional income for the Voladores and their families. Thirdly, it provides a sense of group pride, a way to celebrate heritage and diversity. The ceremony has been named an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in order to help the ritual survive.

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