The Dance of the Flyers (Danza de los Voladores) is NOT MayPoling (or A-Holing, like I first thought). Okay, it’s obviously not A-Holing, but it rhymes with MayPoling and that’s funny. We’ll get to MayPoling in a moment, but first indulge me as I stumble down Amnesia Lane…The first time I can remember seeing the Dance of the Flyers was in the small border town of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico over 20 years ago.
Reynosa is just across the border from McAllen, Texas and it used to be my old stomping grounds. Me and my gal pals would get our Mexican culture on by singing in cantinas for free beer and/or shots. The town was debaucherous, yet safe and fun for this little 18-20-something to wander around in search of a good time. Plus it was a 10 minute walk across the border – sweet freedom!
One dusty day in Reynosa, I was 2 or 7 hours into a Cantina Crawl when I turned the corner and saw 4-5 dudes performing an act that I had never seen before. I’ll never get that sight out of my head. I know what you are thinking. It wasn’t that….Miss Jackson, if you’re nasty.
If you were to combine: 1. Dancing around a Maypole without the ribbons and 2. The pole being about a million feet tall with 3. Men dressed in colorful, feathery costumes swinging upside down with ropes tied to their waists and 4. A high probability that someone was going to fall off and die, then that would partially describe the Dance of the Flyers (or Danza de los Voladores in Spanish). And then, of course there’s the flute blowing and drum banging.
Needless to say, I put my Cantina Crawl on hold and wondered if the 8 tequila shots had officially kicked in while I watched this Mexican ceremony unfold in front of me. I didn’t know what I was looking at, but it was pretty badass and nobody died…that day. Some other guy did though, but I’ll get to that in a second.
Fast forward 20 years (OK, it’s closer to 28) and I find myself wandering around México in search of a good time again. This time I was in Chapala, Jalisco strolling down the Malecón (boardwalk) looking out over Lake Chapala when the flashback of that first Dance of the Flyers hits me – hard. There were 4 dudes spinning through the air in majestic feathery outfits with ropes slowly lowering them 50-ish feet down to the ground on the shore of the lake while one stayed on top blowing the shit out of an old school flute and beating a drum he must have picked up from a toy store. Luckily my spouse had his trusty GoPro on him. Check it….
This time witnessing the Dance of the Flyers felt more peaceful and super cultural. It was the perfect combination of a timeless Mexican tradition with just enough danger to keep the crowd riveted. As I do in situations like this, I bought another oversized margarita and decided to learn more about this whole ritual that I had been referring to as “Mexican MayPoling, not A-holing”. Because neither one is correct. Who knew?
The Dance of the Flyers (Danza de los Voladores) tradition started in Papantla, Veracruz to appease the Gods.
The Dance of the Flyers was first known as ‘The Papantla Flying Men’ which had started in Papantla, Veracruz as a way to offer gratitude to the Gods of Sun, Spring, Fertility and Rain, and an all around expression of love for Mother Earth. Versions of this were a big religious deal for at least 3 native Mexican tribes in central Mexico in pre-Columbian days.
Now it is mostly associated with the Totonacs. They are/were an indigenous tribe who lived in Veracruz, Puebla and Hidalgo and who used to be the world’s main producers of vanilla!
As usual, Wikipedia has to weigh in…”According to Totonac myth, at least 450 years ago there was a severe drought that brought hunger to the people. The gods were withholding the rain because the people had neglected them. The ceremony was created, to appease the gods and bring back the rains. In some versions of the story, the ritual is created by the old men of a village, who then chose five young men who were chaste (aka virgins!). In other versions, the five men themselves create the ritual. The tallest tree in the nearby forest is cut down, with the permission of the mountain god, stripped of branches and dragged to the village. The trunk is erected (erected!) with much ceremony. The youths climb the pole and four jump off while the fifth played music. The ritual pleased the rain god Xipe Totec and other gods, so the rains began again and the fertility of the earth returned.”
Anyhoo, when the dirty evil Spaniards invaded Mexico they tried to expunge this tradition from Native Mexican history since it is soooooo not Catholic – literally they destroyed records about it because they thought it was pagan. As if.
The Totonac people of Veracruz practiced in secret (on a 30 meter pole?!) and kept this tradition alive. Now it doesn’t serve so much as offerings to multiple gods as it is used for entertainment and to teach the Mexican youth about their mixed heritage. Plus, it is now an actual J-O-B, like you can make some coin…”Makin’ it rain!”
The Ritual Ceremony of the Voladores of Papantla was officially recognized as an Intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2009 marking its significance in Mexican history and helping the ritual survive and thrive in the modern world.
There are now Dance of the Flyer demonstrations all throughout northern and central Mexico and even down into Guatemala. For example, (pic above) on the clear opposite side of the country from Veracruz is me in Puerto Vallarta with a Birdman just after here was lowered back down to Earth next to the Pacific Ocean. Nice guy. Always 1 or 2 of the crew walk throughout the crowd asking for a few pesos after each performance and happily pose for pictures. Can’t say what the guy up top blowing his toy flute and drum does with his time, but he probably gets great cell reception up there.
The Flyers intricately wrap their ropes around the top of the pole so as to not die.
It goes like this: The Flyers climb up the pole, called the tsakáe kiki, carrying their ropes. Poles range in height from 50 to 100 feet depending on if it is an actual tree trunk or made of metal. When they are at the top they sit on the sketchy looking wooden square frame and start wrapping the pole. They do this by slowly turning the wooden square clockwise around the top of the pole while each rope is wrapped under the next one securing each others’ rope. “Don’t go dyin’ on us!”
After they fall backwards, the wooden top slowly rotates in a counterclockwise direction with their weight spinning the wooden frame and their ropes slowly lowering them to Earth. Some pretty solid engineering that’s been successfully tested for generations. As long as they stay completely still…nothing will go wrong!
The Flyers are also called Birdmen.
The flyers, much like birds, climb up towards the sun and then fall off of their perch spinning through the sky each representing a parrot, macaw, quetzal and an eagle. The legend also mentions the flyers representing a butterfly, crow and an owl so either way, they are spinning Birdmen. They spin 13 times around the pole (representing 52 years in the Aztec calendar round) upside down with their legs and arms specifically positioned so they look like birds flying through the air. They remain completely still throughout their descent until they grab their ropes and turn themselves right side up just as they touch the ground.
They end up landing like you do when you’re skydiving and haven’t fucked up your descent. Or the wind hasn’t yanked you on your ass with your parachute like it did to me that one time. I would not be a good Birdman or woman for that matter. It’s a good thing too, cuz…
Females were not allowed to be Pole Flyers until the early 1970’s.
Once upon a time (the early 70’s), a man by the name of Jesús Arroyo Cerón taught his 4 daughters to be Flyers in Puebla…pretty progressive dad! But proving this isn’t the safest hobby/job you can learn, Jesús plummeted to his death during a cultural festival in 2006 at the age of 70. Eek.
Some traditionalists (and even some of his family members) claim that this was divine retribution for teaching ladies to do a ‘man’s’ job. For generations only men were allowed to be flyers. This shitty sexism still exists today since the school for flyers in Veracruz has two criteria to be accepted into the program: The student must speak Totonac and be male. Total bull crap.
At least we can say ‘Salud!’ to Jesús Arroyo Cerón for trying to empower his daughters by teaching them an art form, religious ritual and solid Mexican tradition in a male dominated profession. Bust through the glass ceiling of the Dance of the Flyers – Vamanos Girl Power Voladores!!
Girls trapesing around a pole has traditionally been associated with MayPoling. Just to clarify again that MayPoling is a totally different thing from the Dance of the Flyers AND regular pole dancing. VERY DIFFERENT. Since I made the mistake for so long and since May is upon us, I want to clarify the difference between Pole Flying, Pole Dancing and MayPoling – I’ll spare you the A-Holing…for now.
According to the Mother Nature Network, “The first of May is a contradiction as far as days of observance go. It’s a holiday suffering from multiple personality disorder; one identity dedicated to strike and protest, the other embracing all things spring and frolicsome.
May Day (May 1) is probably best known now for the medieval tradition of ‘dancing the maypole dance,’ a custom that continues to be practiced. Fair young maidens circle the decorated pole weaving together patterns of ribbons in the process. Hawthorne and lily of the valley are traditional flowers used for garland. Similar ribbon dances were performed in pre-Columbian Latin America and were later incorporated into Hispanic ritual dances.”
See how we brought that full circle?! I knew I wasn’t completely that far off. Both customs have always reminded me of the movie musical, “Camelot” when Vanessa Redgrave frolics around singing “The Lusty Month of May!” while loads of young women wrap their ribbons around the Maypole. Lusty indeed.
So some advice this May Day for all you young ladies out there (all you broads too, I suppose)…when someone tells you to stay off the pole…you just tell them to be more specific!
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Are you looking for more inspiration from México? Check out the TexMex Fun Stuff Blog for more sights, sounds and badass-ness uncovered while exploring México searching for handmade fun stuff for you!