To Be like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization

Article excerpt

Looper, Matthew G. To Be Like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009. viii, 276 pp., black-and-white drawings, black-and-white photographs, colour plates, appendix, notes, bibliography, index.

When the subject of research turns to past societies before the inventions of filming and sound recording, dance is as challenging to study as musical structure. However, formerly performed body movements that are considered dance can be analysed through contextual information derived from different sources, such as depictions preserved in art, texts referring to dance and music practices, etc., but also through ethnographical and ethnomusicological analogies, if there is not a continuity of traditions. Forty-five years after Gertrude Kurath and Samuel Martí's renowned book Dances of Anáhuac: The Choreography and Music of Precortesian Dances (1964), in which for the first time a selection of the above-mentioned array of sources on ancient dance practices in the Americas was discussed and combined in a comparative way, Matthew G. Looper presents another main work for dance research on the pre-Columbian societies of the Americas. While Kurath and Martí mainly focused on the ceremonial dances of the Aztecs (Central Mexico, Late Postclassic Mesoamerica, AD 1325-1521), Looper turns to dance practices within the Mayan civilization, which flourished in a topographically diverse area extending from the present states of Chiapas and Tabasco in Mexico towards El Salvador and western Honduras, and reached its highest development during the Classic period (c. AD 250-900).

The approach applied includes all existing sources on the topic (here, hieroglyphic texts, depictions in art, paraphernalia and spaces for performance, ethnohistorical and ethnographic information), which allows for in-depth interpretation on the manifold meanings, functions, and natures of the described dances. The author shares detailed knowledge of Mayan archaeology, iconography, and epigraphy, but also of ethnography and ethnomusicology, demonstrating that only in the combination of individual study fields and through a synthesis of the available information can true achievements in archaeo-choreography be made. The individual sources are discussed in six chapters in such a manner that the relationships among the data sets are revealed. Each chapter is provided with an introduction followed by case studies and conclusions, which correspond to detailed analyses of many aspects of the rich dance culture that once flourished in the Mayan area.

In his introduction, Looper reviews the theoretical and empirical background of dance research on past societies and discusses some common views on dance among the ancient Maya. He rejects the narrow perception of the indigenous dances as theatrical performances and spectacles that only served to represent the royal powers of Mayan city-state rulers (pp. 5-8). One of the reasons for this perception is related to a common problem in the iconography of dance, which is always the subject of focalization, deletion, and selection in the process of transforming a performance into an image (pp. 45-46). Images predominantly reflect the world of the elites, not only among the Maya, but in many ancient cultures.

In chapter 1 , Looper refers to the hieroglyphic evidence. This is of particular interest as, in contrast to other pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas, the Maya employed texts referring to dance (predominantly preserved on carved stele and vase paintings). In some cases, only the identification of glyph T516 as a verb meaning "to dance" reveals that the depiction is related to dance practices (a useful table of T516 dance expressions ordered by date is found in the appendix). Important for the understanding of the conceptual meaning of dance among the ancient Maya is the relationship between the terms for "dance" and "make an offering" (pp. 17-18). This is another strong argument for the notion that dance, apart from instrumental music and song, was understood as a conventionalized form of ritual worship and oblation (an element shared by all pre-Columbian cultures). …