Academic journal article Ethnologies

From Global Decisions and Local Changes: The Ceremonial Dance of the Voladores Becomes UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

Academic journal article Ethnologies

From Global Decisions and Local Changes: The Ceremonial Dance of the Voladores Becomes UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

Article excerpt


   ... the sun is the father and the earth is the mother; we are sent
   to the heights and we carry this energy; and we carry this seed
   which fertilizes the earth. This is how we see it; this is how we
   feel it. (1)

The Ceremonia Ritual del Volador, also known as Danza del Volador, (2) is a ritual dance or ceremony, today mainly practiced in Mexico. Its origins can be traced back to the Mesoamerican pre-classic period (Najera Coronado, 2008; 5Iff). It is not only known because it is spectacular but also because of its rich symbolic meaning as an expression of Mesoamerican indigenous culture in ancient, as well as in present times.

About fifty years ago, the ceremony was primarily practiced in indigenous communities of a few ethnic groups in eastern Mexico, such as the Otomi, Nahua, and especially the Totonac people, who comprised most Voladores-dancers in Mexico and are still known best for this dance. It was usually practiced as a fertility ritual at festive activities, as well as a syncretistic ceremony to honor God and the saints, for example on fiestas patronales--annual celebrations dedicated to the patron saint of a community (Bertels, 1993: 96). Outside the indigenous communities the ceremony was seldom seen in public places. With the rise of "culture" as a significant factor for international tourism, (see Timothy and Boyd, 2003), the dance became increasingly popular among cultural tourists from Mexico itself, but also from all over the world. Because of the growing popularity and its potential as an impressive symbol for a multicultural nation (Bertels, 1993: 299), the State of Mexico applied in 2008 for recognition of the ceremony as representative of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and was officially listed in 2009. Due to its international importance, recognition by UNESCO of a cultural element as "official heritage" always provokes supraregional impacts that local actors have to deal with one way or another. This impact often leads to different changes of the inscribed element and it applies especially to intangible heritage, since under the given circumstances the performing people as "bearers" of the respective element are in focus. Instead of naming a static object, the attribute "intangible" refers to practices in constant recreation, which are carried out by the people performing them and shaping them differently in every new context (Tauschek, 2010: 32ff, Hauser-Schaublin and Klenke, 2010: 25f).

This paper is going to analyze some of the impacts that the UNESCO declaration had on the Ceremonia Ritual del Volador, focusing especially on the notable changes in the executive process of the dance. The findings presented in this paper are based on data the author collected during four months of research in Veracruz, Mexico among Voladores of the Totonac people aged between 17 and 86 years. At the beginning of the research the hypothesis was stated that the declaration as UNESCO Intangible Heritage initiated a transformation process in different aspects of the ceremony, which led to an increasing commodification of this cultural element. The methodology during the research included biographic and semi-structured interviews, methods from the cultural domain analysis such as freelists and a consensus analysis, as well as a standardized questionnaire.

The Ceremonia Ritual del Volador

The entire Ceremonia Ritual del Volador consists of four different episodes, which include the selection, preparation and positioning of a pole 25-30 meters in height, made from the trunk of a special type of tree, as well as the main part of the dance known as vuelo--flight. The latter is the most important part of the ceremony and is often perceived as the actual dance. Because the dance is currently so popular among tourists, it is presented many times a day on numerous occasions. …

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