Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland
The fragrance of fresh flowers intermingles with the aroma of handmade tamales as preparations for the annual Danza de la Pluma (Dance of the Feather) come together in the pueblo of Teotitlán del Valle. I grip my arms, looking back and waving to the group of little girls who I spent the last 10 minutes pushing on a non-operational carousel as they shrieked “¡Órale!” in unison from their fiberglass horses. Directly ahead of me, tuba music swells into the air and I head over to Iglesia Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (Church of the Precious Blood), which serves as both the heart of Teotitlán, as well as the revered focus of the current fiesta.
This community of roughly 5,600 people is most famous for their weaving of exquisite wool products, however this seven-day celebration is noteworthy in its own right. Monday, July 6, 2015 marked the first day of the festivities with a parade of women in traditional Zapotec dresses who carried baskets on their heads and swayed to a live band as they wound their way down the streets. Tuesday and Wednesday include the Danza de la Pluma, where local men share a focused expression around Zapotec identity and cultural vitality in an intricate series of movements, along with another performance on Saturday, July 11, 2015. The final day of the celebration is Sunday, July 12, 2015, and until that fateful day the streets are awash with food vendors, bumper cars and bouncy castles.
Soon, the Danzantes (dancers) raise their feathered headdresses and move into place. These men have all been chosen to take part in this ancient pre-Hispanic rite, which is a three-year commitment. The placement is a part of usos y costumbres, a semi-autonomous form of governance that has been adopted by one-third of the 570 municipalities in Oaxaca.
Rattles shake and feet begin to move in tune with the live band that is set up on the far side of the church entrance. Each of the Danzantes wears a large (and heavy, I’m told) circular headdress that is comprised of an array of brilliantly hued feathers, mirrors and artificial flowers. The men wear matching white shirts and khaki pants that have been altered with fringe and geometric-patterned fabric. To keep the headpieces in place, heads are tied with bandanas and a strap sits under the chin of each participant.
Story after story unfurls in a series of movements, with occasional comedic relief by two men in black masks that are adorned with tusks and puckered cherry-red lips. Two little girls, one dressed in colors to represent Mexico, and one in a lacy turquoise dress with matching hat to represent Spain, shuffle along the line of dancers, hands flinging scarves out from their elbows as they pause in tune with the beat.
Nearly four hours later, the dance continues, and I make a move to catch the green bus back to the center of Oaxaca (10 pesos each way). As the lush green mountain that watches over the pueblo passes by my window, I am joined by Brenda, a student from DF who is currently in Oaxaca on a social service placement for her university studies. Smiling widely, she asks what I love most about being in Oaxaca – the food, the people or the culture. All of it, I answer with all sincerity in my broken Spanish, I love all of it.