Dancing with my Ancestors

By Wilma Doris Loayza ~
Special to Andean Air Mail & PERUVIAN TIMES ~

From the Andes to New York, and Back ~

In 2008, I was invited to dance as a Palla by Abya Yala, a Peruvian cultural group in New York, for an Inti Raymi celebration at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan. Palla is the Quechua word for “Incan noblewoman.” Inti Raymi is Quechua for “Festival of the Sun,” the Incan celebration of the Andean New Year.

This event sparked my decision to act on a dream I had since I was a teenager, to be a cargo (host) for the Fiesta Patronal of my hometown, where I first saw Pallas. Not only to host them, but to dress up and act as a Palla.

I was born in Llamellín, a village of 3,000 people in Ancash in the North Central Andes, where Quechua is still spoken. In Llamellín, the Pallas appeared two times a year: during the Fiesta Patronal in December, and during the St. Peter Festival in June.

When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by the Pallas. I used to follow them and observe every detail. The way they sang. The way they moved and danced. Their costumes, with colorful adornments.

The word Palla was first mentioned centuries ago, by Incan chroniclers Garcilazo de la Vega and Don Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala. Today, their characters appear at fiestas mostly in the North Central Andes of Peru. In his book Llamellín y su Fiesta Patronal, Pedro Silva Ascencios describes the Pallas of Llamellín:

“Las pallas, con vestidos de vistosos colores y bordados, llevan aretes, collares y pulseras, y un ramillete de flores artificiales en la cabeza; en algunas ocasiones llevan sombreros igualmente adornados, paraguas y un manojo de pañuelos.” (The Pallas, with colorful embroidered dresses, wear earrings, necklace and bracelets, and artificial flowers on their head; sometimes they wear adorned hats, umbrellas and handkerchiefs.)

I had a very strong connection to the Pallas. For me, they represented such a different image of women than my mother. She was very traditional Andean woman who always stayed at home, always working, never with a social life. The Pallas, in contrast, played the role of women who appeared to be so free, in a social context. When I was growing up, I didn’t know anything about the history of the Pallas. They just appeared, twice a year. Like a mystery.

When I was 11 years old, I migrated to Lima with my family. However, I maintained a very strong connection to the Fiesta. Most years in December, my family and I took a bus 16 hours (or more) back to Llamellín for the fiesta.

I studied psychology at San Marcos University in Lima, and then worked as a community psychologist. Later I studied arts education. I moved to New York City in 2007 to study English and continue studies in arts and dance therapy. Fortunately I met many Peruvians in New York, like the people in Abya Yala. This helped me to stay connected to the Peruvian culture.

After participating in the June 2008 Inti Raymi event in New York, I decided to propose “hosting” the Pallas at the Llamellín Fiesta Patronal the following year, in December 2009.

The Fiesta in Llamellín honors the Virgin Mary, the patrona of the town. It takes place from December 6 through 12. The fiesta is complex. There are various hosts, with different responsibilities for different events. Taking responsibility for the Pallas is one of them.

In Llamellín, it is customary to propose a position of responsibility for the Fiesta at least one year in advance. I told my parents, who live in Lima. They agreed to support me with the whole process, which is very complex and must begin at least one year before. Because I was living in New York, my parents traveled to Llamellín, to ask the Tesoreros (the administrators of the fiesta in charge of finding the hosts) if the position was available. It was, and they accepted. So then I was committed to carry out many responsibilities.

Main Preparations

Chicha de Jora

Chicha de Jora is the fermented corn drink of the Andes since pre-Incan times. The preparation is complex and takes more than a year. It is made with a special kind of red corn that only grows in the high Andes. The corn needs to be planted in the spring (October/November), corresponding to the cycle of agriculture.

Today the Jora, the main ingredient prepared from corn, is sold in the market. However, my parents and I decided to grow and prepare it ourselves in the most traditional way, because this is an important ritual that connects us with our ancestors, and with the nature.

My father planted the corn in October 2008. The corn was harvested in June the following year. The kernels were removed from the cobs, and then dried in the sun for several weeks. The next phase was to germinate it, to turn it into jora. The corn was spread out in shallow big holes in the ground under the shade of trees, then covered with water from time to time and straw, and left for one month to germinate. Then, on one special morning before sunrise, the corn was taken to a very dark room and covered with many blankets to dry in the dark. The idea is to keep the corn away from sunlight. As my mother says, the jora needs to “sleep” for a few days, until the sprouts turn black and the kernels become very sweet, almost like raisins.

After the sprouts are dried, the corn — now called jora — was placed in the sunlight to dry for a couple of weeks. The jora was then taken to places with running water, where mills still exist to grind the jora. My mother was so proud and excited to make the jora in the traditional way.

The jora is the most important ingredient, but we had to collect other ingredients for the chicha, including the amshi (Quechua for wheat husk), quinua, and habas (fava beans). A group of women were invited to prepare it. Ten days before the beginning of the fiesta, these ingredients were boiled together in a giant pot for an entire day, then put in special containers placed in dark rooms where they “sleep” (ferment). We prepared enough chicha to serve hundreds of people for seven days.


I had to find musicians, typically two violinists and one harpist. One guy was from the town, well known, the only remaining maestro who could play the specific music for the Pallas. The other one lived in the Puna, the high Andes. He always sang in Quechua, songs that people in the Puna still sing. It reminded me when I used to go to the Puna, and see children walking after their animals, singing in high-pitched voices. I could hear them even if they were far away, on the next hill, because the Puna is so quiet.

I found out that they were charging 10 soles ($3.50) a day per musician for the previous year. When my father asked for the price, they responded 30 soles. He assumed they meant 30 soles total for the three musicians. Musicians are usually hired by local farmers who know them. They don’t use written contracts.

When I returned to Llamellín in November 2009, I met the musicians to ask them again the price. They told me 30 soles per day — for each musician. Three times more than the previous year. I complained that it was too expensive, but they didn’t lower the price. They threatened to not play if I didn’t meet their price. So I had to pay them. I was angry, and also worried that people the next year would also have to pay the same amount or more, and probably couldn’t afford to.

I found out later that the musicians were talking with people, and learned that I lived in the USA. They probably assumed I was rich. This is an example of what is happening with fiestas today. With more migration and more money, fiestas are becoming more expensive. My mother remembers that when she was growing up, musicians and dancers were paid not with money, but with goods, like a large piece of meat, guinea pigs and bags of grains. At that time, few people used money. People still used the ancient system called trueque, the Quechua word for “exchange.”

This has changed radically. Many people have migrated to the city. The people who stay are more connected to the cities with better roads, cell phones and Internet. Today, more people are expecting to be paid with money for their work, even during fiestas.

For me, 30 soles for each musician each day seemed very expensive. So I was surprised to hear my mother say that 30 soles per person was cheap, compared to the traditional ways of paying with goods. She did the math, and calculated that buying the goods today would be more expensive.


Besides the musicians, I needed to confirm the women who would play the Pallas, beside myself. I found four women who could sing energetically for seven continuous days, in the streets and houses. They had done it many times before. They charged 70 soles for seven days, for each person. The same amount as the previous year.

Why didn’t they increase the price? My guess is that, in my culture, women expect to be paid less than the men, and they don’t question this issue yet, at least not openly.

What is the role of the Pallas in Llamellín? The Pallas need to sing and dance throughout the fiesta, in a unique way found only in Llamellín and the surrounding valley. Their songs are high-pitched, pentatonic melodies that originate from the harawi, sorrowful songs from Incan times. People who visit from foreign countries or big cities often say that the melody reminds them of Chinese song. The lyrics are a mix of Spanish and Quechua, usually referring to the Last Incas (in Quechua), or the Catholic traditions (in Spanish).


Another very important character in the Llamellín fiesta is the Rucu, which means “old man” in Quechua. They represent the shepherds from ancient times who used to travel long distances with their animals. They wear wigs made of animal skin and hair, and carry leather whips.

During the fiesta they represent other roles. They act as protectors of the Pallas and the Incas. Walking in the streets, they clear the space by cracking the whip on the ground, producing a sound that drives away the “bad” spirits.

They also assume the role of clowns, to play with the public. Sometimes they wear modern things, like sunglasses and parody the people who return of the of the cities. When they dance, they imitate the movement of the condor.

Returning to the Fiesta

In Mid-November I flew from New York to Lima, then took the long bus ride to Llamellín. I arrived two weeks before the Fiesta to help with the preparations. My parents were already there. There was so much to do: finishing the preparation of the Chicha de Jora; rehearsing the songs with the Pallas; baking the bread; and much more. It was a tense time. Finally the Fiesta arrived.

December 6: Rompe (the Fiesta begins)

Around 8 p.m., after many days of rehearsal, the Pallas (including myself) went to the plaza and began to sing. So the Fiesta officially started. We call that rompe, which in Quechua means “break.” Like breaking with reality. We sang a mix of Spanish and Quechua words, syncretic odes to both the Virgin Mother and Incas. An example:

Lirio weyta janallanta (Quechua: In top of the lily flowers)
Caminemos capitana,  (Let’s walk capitana)
Mamantzipa jutillanchu (Quechua: In the name of our mother)
Las glorias entonemos (Let’s sing these hymns)

We visited the houses of the other hosts. When we arrived, we sang a song to greet the host. Before leaving, we had to sing another song to say goodbye. That is the ritual, making visits to many houses during the fiesta to pay our respects.

That night I did not see the other Pallas dancing. I was surprised. I asked them why. They told me that one of the Tesoreros prohibited the Pallas from dancing before Mass. They also told me that this Tesorera had a special connection with the Virgin. The Virgin appeared in the Tesorora’s dreams and told her what must be done in order to keep her happy.

For me, this was confusing, because in our region, Pallas were also called tushuy, Quechua for “dancer.” Besides that, I had consulted on the first day of the Fiesta with the other Tesorero, a younger man. I asked him about the rules for dance. He told me that the Pallas dance from the very first day.

This is just one example of how customs and rules are often not fixed, are subject to interpretation, or changing over time.

December 7: Cabildo (Encounters)

It was dark and freezing at 3 a.m. when the Pallas and musicians came at my house. Together, we walked to the Tesorera’s house, singing in the streets. Inside the house, we sang special Quechua songs requesting the dresses and jewelry for the Virgin Mother.

Then we walked to church, where the Catholic ritual takes place, La Bajada de la Virgen. While the Father leads Mass, a special group changes the clothes of the Virgin Mother. At the end of the ceremony, the Pallas are permitted to sing, a mix of Quechua and Spanish that reference the Virgin. This is the only day they are permitted to sing in Church.

I remember when I was growing up, the Bajada happened during the afternoon. But the current priest changed the time when he arrived in the early 1990s. The reason is not clear.

In the afternoon, the Pallas gathered in the plaza to accompany the Tesorero with music and songs. The Rucus were there too, making funny performances.

December 8: El Día central (Main Day)

I woke up at 5 a.m. The Pallas met at my house and we walked to mass. The procession of the Virgin followed. As the procession circled the plaza, the Pallas sang, walking backwards, facing the Virgin. Why? Perhaps to show respect, and not turn their back on the Virgin.

I also observed this in Andamarca in the Southern Andes, where the campesinos (not Pallas) also walked backwards. Perhaps this symbolically shows how the religion imposed itself, forcing people to walk backwards. It is not clear yet, but an interesting topic to research.

In the afternoon, the Pallas gathered in public spaces, like bodegas, to sing and receive drinks and food. Then they returned to my house, where we danced and sang more, late into the night. People of the town were welcome to join us.

December 9: El Día central (Segundo Día)

We again woke up at 5 a.m. to go the plaza. On this day we circled the plaza three times while singing, before ending up in front of the church, where we continued to sing. Why three times? Nobody seems to know. Then we visited people’s homes, singing and collecting food and drink to bring home and share with our guests. The same routine as the day before.

December 10: La Corrida del toros (Bullfight)

This was a different kind of day, a break from the Andean and catholic rituals to make room for the Spanish tradition of the bullfight. The bullfight happened in the afternoon, in the bullring. The whole town was excited with anticipation for the bullfight, especially the men. The energy was very different. The music was louder and faster, so is the dancing in the streets. More young people were dancing arm-in-arm, laughing and singing and shouting. There was more beer everywhere.

It seemed to me that the energy of the town was wild that day, like the energy in the bullring. with the animal, the bullfighter and the spectators. In contrast, the Pallas returned to the plaza later that night, walking and singing, circling the plaza. The music is melancholy, almost like they were crying in from of the church, like a children crying in front of parents, looking for comfort.

These two groups gathered the same day, yet with totally different feelings and rhythms, representing two different eras, social and economical groups. This duality is constantly present during the seven days of the fiesta.

As anthropologist Zoila Mendoza write in Shaping Society Through Dance:

“Through ritual performance, relevant socio cultural categories, paradoxes, and ambiguities are not only focused upon and made visible but also how they are given specific form and reshaped, subsequently affecting people’s everyday lives” (pg. 32)

December 11: Prendimiento y degollacion (Performance of the Death of Atahualpa)

As usual, we left the house before sunrise to circle the plaza three times, before returning to my house for dancing and breakfast of hot soups (caldo de cabeza is a favorite), coffee and rolls. In the afternoon we gathered in the plaza, where all the cargos brought symbols — chicha, wawa (Quechua for “baby bread” and cuy (guinea pig) — to give to the person responsible for hosting the fiesta the following year. We danced more before returning home, where we changed into dark clothes, which represented of the death of the Inca. Then we visited other houses.

In the streets, the mood was more somber. The Pallas continued to sing, but the bands and most of the guests had already left, returning to their regular lives in Lima or other places. Only the families and close friends of the hosts and performers remained. There would be no more loud music on the streets until the next year.

But the guests who left would miss the Llamellín version of the La Muerte de Atahualpa, the famous theatrical play that represents the memory of our past, when the Spanish conquered the Incas.

The play begins in the plaza with a ceremony. The Rucus build a huerta with leaves and branches at the entrance of the plaza. They sit in the middle and perform funny stories. Many children stand close, laughing.

Suddenly the Pizarros enter the plaza on horses, symbolizing the violent Spanish entrance of the Incan Empire. They are going to destroy the “Empire,” but the Rucus defend it with their whips, making loud sounds to keep the bad spirits far away. The Pizarros keep returning, until the huerta is destroyed, a symbol of the destruction of the Incan Empire. This is the memory, the ritual, that repeats each year.

The children enjoy the movement, running behind the horses. They encounter the Pallas and Pizarros, who are building two castles, draped with colorful woolen blankets, two floors each.

The Pallas and Rucus typically do another ritual, killa gaty, Quechua for “follow the moon,” that represents the Incan lunar calendar. A metal replica of the moon is hung from yarn that is strung across the plaza, from the church tower to the highest pole of the castle built on the plaza. Accompanied by the musicians, the Pallas, wearing black dresses with jewelry, sing about Incan times.

The Pallas and Incas stand by the Church, as the Pizarros approach on horseback. The Pallas sing:

Imamanta shamurkeyki (Quechua: Why are you coming?)
Don Francisco Pizarro, Mister Pizarro
Manan mantzatstu shamunkeykita (Quechua: I am not scared of you)
Ay ayayay, ay ayayay

The Rucus crack their whips to defend the Incas. Suddenly the Incas start to run. The Pizarros chase after and capture Inca Atahualpa, and bring him to the second floor of the castle,
The Inca’s head is then “cut off.” The Pizarro symbolically sprays the audience with the blood (actually, chicha morada, purple corn drink).

The Pallas, the Pizarros and the musicians begin to dance around the plaza together, symbolizing the mixing of the cultures. Everybody in the public is invited to dance with them.

December 12: Aehualle (Goodbye, in Quechua)

The Pallas danced all day, visiting many houses, where they were offered plenty of food and drink. The goal was to drink all the remaining chicha and wrap up the fiesta until the next year.

Several days after the fiesta, I returned by bus to Lima with my family. A few weeks later, I flew back to New York with my husband.


My dream was to dance as a Palla, because I grew up idolizing them. As I got older, I appreciated more how important this tradition was in my hometown. I wanted to see it continue, for future generations. I wanted to be a part of that ritual, to have a role in the memory of my ancestors.

I had other motivations, however, besides connecting with the past. I wanted to celebrate and connect more with my family, in the present. I live in New York City now, not Peru. Of course I stay in touch with my family in Peru, with technologies like email and Skype video. But this is not the same as being together. And when I am together with my family, we celebrate with dancing, and fiestas. My parents are getting older. I wanted to have this experience, together.

The strange thing was, I didn’t feel completely satisfied after the festival ended. I hoped that I would close a cycle, and feel fully satisfied, but I didn’t.

I had my family there. I had all the resources. I danced and sang. But there were parts that I didn’t understand, and it was often overwhelming and exhausting. I saw the other Pallas eating and drinking all the time, yet they never got tired. In some ways I felt alone. I didn’t feel a connection to the other women. I couldn’t be like them.

Maybe part of the difference was that I was in charge, responsible for so many things, and always I had to observe what is going around me. Meanwhile the others were just completely involved and living the present.

Maybe I had idealistic expectations. For example, I always had the memory, the perception that the Pallas were free from the conventional restraints of being a woman in the Andes, like my mother. But the fiesta, I saw something else, how they seemed bound by scripts, by the Tesoreros, the authorities.

In August 2011 I returned to Llamellin for a week with my parents. Several women hugged me, and asked if I would dance again as a Palla at the next fiesta, and my “gringo” husband would again play a Rucu.

This feedback was very good for me. Now, two years later, I feel proud again about what I did at the Fiesta. I did learn a lot about myself, and more about the reality of the fiesta and traditions. I would actually love to do it again. If so, next time I would go with a different goal, to understand better what the Palla tradition means for the other women and authorities. Ask more questions. Do more research.

Also in the past two years, I have learned much more about the possibilities of dance, in ways other than for general celebration.

Through dance therapy workshops, I have learned about dance for healing, especially through the works of Anna Halprin.

I have been learning and thinking more about dance in the context of social issue moments and political movement, thanks to projects like Vannia Masias’s Angels D1 project in Lima, which uses dance to help urban street children, and the Dance and the Occupy Movement in New York.

I am not sure how I will use or reference Andean or other “tradition dances” in my new explorations as an educator and researcher. There is much to learn. I am excited.



Silva, Pedro, Llamellín y su Fiesta Patronal, Editores Lluvia, 2000

Condezo Victor, Danzas e Identitad Nacional, Universidad de Huanuco y Editorial San Marcos, 2003)

Mendoza, Zoila, Shaping Society Through Dance: Mestizo Ritual Performance in the Peruvian Andes, University of Chicago Press, 2000

Mendoza. Zoila, Crear y Sentir lo Nuestro: Folklor, Identidad Regional y Nacional en el Cuzco, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Fondo Editorial, 2000

Millones, Luis, Dioses Familiares: Festivales Populares en el Perú Contemporáneo, Ediciones del Congreso del Perú, 1999

Millones, Luis, El Rostro de la Fe: Doce Ensayos sobre Religiosidad Andina, Universidad Pablo de Olavide, 1997

León, Rafo, Chicha peruana, Una Bebida, una Cultura, Univ. San Martin de Porres, Lima, 2008

Max Hernández, Moisés Lemlij, Luis Millones, Alberto Péndola, Maria Rostworowski. Entre El Mito y La Historia: Psicoanálisis y Pasado Andino, Biblioteca Peruana de Psicoanalisis, 1991

Wilson, Wilson, Returning Home, documentary about dance educator Anna Halprin, who uses movement as a means of connecting the individual to nature, and art to real life (DVD)

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  1. Doris, I reckon that when you’re little, you imagine yourself doing all those appealing things, stepping in the shoes of people you admire, and secretly hoping that one day you will get to be them. Even for a flicker of time. It’s an enthralling thought that you cherish for years. And then you’re given that opportunity. Which is such an amazing thing in itself – to be able to act out something you aspired to as a child. It is indeed a whole cycle that comes to an end. It’s important to value it for what it is, because not every one gets that chance. Some people grow out of their values and their dreams. So the moment comes, and quite often, things are not exactly the way you expect them to be. And you’re not sure why. You’ve grown up, you met people, you saw places, you lived things, your perspective has been altered. You’re still the same person, but at the same time, you no longer are. You feel a slight itch, maybe not of disappointment, but rather a yearning for getting something more out of the experience. As if you couldn’t believe that was all there was to it. And then times passes by, usually teaching you a thing or two about humility, and you realise, that the experience you had, was much better than all your childhood expectations, because it was about the people you shared it with, and that in the long run, it is the only thing that matters. It’s about sharing with those whom you cherish, reconnecting with those who paved out the way for you and your family to be able to carry on with those traditions, and making sure younger generations learn about the prevalence of patience, dedication and effort. There are things that cannot be purchased, abbreviated or simplified. The greatest experiences in life come out of taking time doing things the way they ought to be done and not the way to make them smooth and easy. That’s a steep and winding path, but the only one that is really rewarding. I’m glad you took it. And I always knew you would.

  2. Fernando Pomalaza says:

    Fasinante articulo. UN LLAMADO DE LA MAMA PACHA Felicitaciones; una inspiración para los Peruanos que vivimos lejos de nuestros pueblos.

  3. Margaret Eisenhart says:

    This is an absolutely beautiful story, Doris. Thank you so much for sharing it. I am so grateful to have spent time with you and your family in Llamelin during the fiesta in 2009. It was an amazing and wonderful experience, and I was immediately carried back there in reading your story. You also helped me understand more about the fiesta; I hope you will be able to fill in some of the gaps so as to help preserve this wonderful tradition.

  4. Hope Jinishian says:

    Wow, buenaso articulo! Mil gracias! So well spoken and shared. Thank you..a true gift to your ancestors. My love, Hope

  5. Junia Gail Imel says:

    Doris, This was an amazing piece! I could feel your love and connection to your family, your ancestry, your country, your hometown. I can’t wait to go there with you!!! Are you going back this year???
    In Munay,

  6. Mabel Valdiviezo says:

    Thank you for sharing your unique experience as a Palla in Llamellín. Your story inspires me to establish deeper connection to my Peruvian culture. Reading your story, full of colorful visuals, rich sounds and unforgettable characters, is a great pleasure for my soul. I was specially intrigued about the preparation of the “chicha de jora”. My grandma, who used to be a healer, used to prepare the “chicha de jora” in Lima but her way of doing it was from the Andes in the North of Peru. Only by reading your article, I realized that jora actually comes from corn. That is amazing. Thanks, again, Doris for this brilliant article.

  7. Doris, This is such a wonderful telling of the story of the Fiesta de la Mama Purisima in Llamellin. As it did with Margaret, it transported me back to Llamellin in 2009 when she and I were the only “gringos” in town, other than tu esposo, Mitch. I loved listening to you and the other pallas sing, going to hosts’ homes and dancing – with the Capitana, drinking chicha with you, your family, and neighbors, enjoying the music of those “high-priced” musicians, meeting tus padres, and visiting with your family. I, also, learned some new things about the fiesta. I”m sorry that we were not there for the end of it – the death of the Atahualpa and the goodby. Yes, there is always more to learn; hopefully you will continue to help us remember the traditions.

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