To Be like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization

To Be like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization

To Be like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization

To Be like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization


The Maya of Mexico and Central America have performed ritual dances for more than two millennia. Dance is still an essential component of religious experience today, serving as a medium for communication with the supernatural. During the Late Classic period (AD 600-900), dance assumed additional importance in Maya royal courts through an association with feasting and gift exchange. These performances allowed rulers to forge political alliances and demonstrate their control of trade in luxury goods. The aesthetic values embodied in these performances were closely tied to Maya social structure, expressing notions of gender, rank, and status. Dance was thus not simply entertainment, but was fundamental to ancient Maya notions of social, religious, and political identity.

Using an innovative interdisciplinary approach, Matthew Looper examines several types of data relevant to ancient Maya dance, including hieroglyphic texts, pictorial images in diverse media, and architecture. A series of case studies illustrates the application of various analytical methodologies and offers interpretations of the form, meaning, and social significance of dance performance. Although the nuances of movement in Maya dances are impossible to recover, Looper demonstrates that a wealth of other data survives which allows a detailed consideration of many aspects of performance. To Be Like Godsthus provides the first comprehensive interpretation of the role of dance in ancient Maya society and also serves as a model for comparative research in the archaeology of performance.


A series of rocket explosions reverberates through the village as two bands play competing rhythms in the main square, amplified by massive loudspeakers. It is 5 a.m. on December 22, 2004, and the annual festival in the highland Maya town of Chichicastenango is underway. Food stalls have been active for hours, adding their pungent smoke to the clouds of blue incense burned by Maya shamans on the shaded church steps. in the cobbled rectangular plaza, teams of twenty-five masked men dressed for the Toritos, or Little Bulls, dance arrange themselves in front of the band pavilions. They begin to dance, alternately in double rows and circles, clutching gourd rattles that they use to signal the musicians. As the sun rises over the church, the plaza is suddenly filled with the glistening light reflected by their multicolored costumes (Plate 15).

Through pantomime movements and a text that takes several hours to recite, the troupes tell the story of the death of bullfighters (see Edmonson 1997: 83– 112). the men who participate have sacrificed time and money to complete the training for the dance, which honors the local patron saint. By 9 a.m., the festival reaches a crescendo, marked by the tolling of church bells, the cry of vendors, and music so loud that a vendor’s balloons nearly burst when he walks in front of the speakers. and yet the men dance, marking time with vigorous heel or toe stomps, pausing only when the statues of the saints emerge from the church, borne on huge feathered and mirrored litters.

Even though it is of recent origin, the Little Bulls dance evokes a performance tradition nearly two thousand years old. During the Classic period (AD 250–900), the ancient Maya participated in elaborate dances, often organized by god-like kings. Although many aspects of Maya civilization have been studied, performance arts such as dance have received little scholarly attention. An obvious reason for this neglect involves the ephemeral nature of performance, which leaves minimal traces in the archaeological record. in addition, the study of ancient Maya performance has been hindered by the traditional disciplinary boundaries of western academe, which separate the sciences from the humanities, and therefore, archaeology from performance studies.

In an attempt to reintegrate these seemingly disparate areas of inquiry, this book examines ancient Maya . . .

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