Peru is celebrating this week after UNESCO inscribed two ritual dances in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritiage of Humanity.
On Wednesday, UNESCO announced that the scissors dance, a traditional competitive dance from Quechua villages in Peru’s south-central highlands, and Huaconada, a festival dance from the central Andes, met the criteria for worldwide notice.
“We are a country of talented people and I’m very happy that our friends, the scissors dancers, have this recognition,” state news agency Andina reported musicians Bartola and Marco Romero as saying.
“We hope that in the coming years other cultural expressions from Peru receive a similar seat of honor,” said Peru’s Culture Minister Juan Ossio.
Scissors dancers hold in their right hand iron rods, which represents scissors blades. The dancer, which wears a multicolored outfit, forms a team with a violinist and a harpist that represents their village or community.
Two or more teams compete during a scissors dance performance. The competition, which can last up to 10 hours, involves the dancers striking the blades to the rhythm of the musicians. A winner is determined based on physical ability, quality of the instruments and talent of the musicians.
Each village passes on the knowledge of the dance orally from generation-to-generation.
Several anthropologists link the Scissor Dance with the Taki Onqoy, an Andean religious movement that appeared in 1564 in the Chanka area (Ayacucho, Huancavelica and Abancay) in rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. The Taki Onqoy movement advocated for a total rejection of the violent imposition of Catholic faith and the extirpation of native spiritual beliefs. According to Spanish chronicles, the Huacas — pre-Hispanic deities — would “possess” the bodies of indigenous highlanders, enabling them to writhe in the feverish dance for hours or days, signaling a prophesy and prompting the return of the Old Gods to defeat of the Spanish’s Christian God. But the goal to expel the Spanish invaders never materialized. The Spanish Inquisition took up the task of exterminating the rebellion, which completely disappeared by 1572.
Not all scissors dance experts agree on that theory of historical origin, but nobody doubts its importance as a symbol of cultural identity in the Peruvian Andes.
The symbolism of the scissors dance, according to José María Arguedas, relates to an ecological process of life, death and regeneration vis-a-vis the Wamani deity. Arguedas, one of Peru’s greatest 20th century intellectuals, traced the dance to traditional Andean concepts of cosmic duality, as well as a clear rebellion against a foreign oppressor.
The second dance to be inscribed, the Huaconada, is performed annually during the first three days of January in the village of Mito in Concepcion province.
During the three days, masked men called huacones become the town’s highest authority as they perform choreographed dances in the center of the Mito.
UNESCO’s decision to include the Huaconada is due to its tradition of being passed on from generation-to-generation, regulating communal life and reflecting local cultural identity.
From the Archive
A pact with the devil:
The diabolical dance of the scissors
By Vanessa Baird
(Originally published in Lima Times, January 24, 1986)
Garivay put down the bundle he was carrying to his father’s “chakra” and tried. To his amazement he found he was dancing and leaping high into the air with an energy that seemed to come from outside of him.
It happened in the bleak Highlands of Yachu Huaychu, Ayacucho – a place that Garivay described as being one of “silence and phenomena, and where there are no people.”
On that day the youth entered a lifelong pact with the Devil; a pact that expresses itself in the bizarre “Danza de Tijeras” or scissors dance.
“The devil was a voice in the silence,” he recalls. “He gave me a name “Tragalaso” and described what costume I should wear.”
The pact was not one to be entered lightly. The devil’s demands on his dancers are great.
First they must have the endurance to dance for days at a time, and ordeal that takes them beyond the brink of exhaustion to a kind of zombic ” high.”
Then there are the more gruesome feats, like sewing a violin string through the lip, dangling the violin from it and playing it. Or rolling on crushed glass, swallowing a live toad or 30cm-long knife blade, dancing all the while, of course.
The dance takes the form of the duel and will go on until one of the dancers drops. Traditionally it takes place in the small Andean villages, mainly around Ayacucho and Huancayo.
One of the rules, though, is that the dancer must never dance in his own village. If he does so it will bring down a curse upon the community.
The “Danza de Tijeras” is said to have originated from Good Friday when Christ died. On that day all the dancers and musicians got together and made a pact with the devil.
It seems more likely, though, that the Christian angle was just tagged onto a pagan ritual that had probably been going on for centuries before Christianity ever came to Peru.
There are some fairly dramatic customs surrounding the ritual. When a dancer dies, for instance, he has to be buried face down, mouth open “like the devil.”
The soil on which the dancer has danced becomes impregnated with the sacred, supernatural power. Heaven help anyone who treads on it within 24 hours of the competition. The devil certainly won’t.
There are other signs of how the pagan deal with the devil has become oddly mixed with Christianity. For instance, different stages of the dance ceremony are giving Christian names, like “Santa Rosa.” These little touches probably kept the priest happy when he came on his rounds of the remote Andean villages.
But who is the “Diablo” that the dancers serve? Is he the evil devil of the Hebrew and Christian tradition? It seems not.
“Diablo is a supernatural force,” says Garivay. “He is not evil, exactly.”
He’s not particularly good either. It’s another concept of devilry. But one thing is certain, the dance is definitely and always “diabolical,” says Garivay.
The pact with the devil always occurs in a place of intense solitude. Although the dances held in public, it remains a very private, solitary affair, with the dancers seemingly oblivious to the audience, conscious only, it seems, of the strange power the drives him on and on.
It is spectacular to. The dancers costume consists of a large lapse, disc shaped hat edged in long tassels, baggy trousers and a colorful jacket covered in sequins.
His face remains expressionless throughout the ritual, eyes hidden behind the fringe of tassels, body and soul committed to the devil and he performs increasingly demanding and dangerous dancing feats.
All the time he’s clicking the scissors in an infernal accompaniment to the frenetic playing of the fiddler, flautist and drummer.
Some observers have suggested that such endless resources of adrenaline must be stimulated by the taking of some potent natural drug. But Garivay firmly denies this. “The energy comes from the devil and the devil alone,” he says.