Maya dance

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

In pre-Columbian Maya civilization, Ceremonial dance had great importance. However, since dance is a transient art, it is inherently difficult for archeologists to find and evaluate evidence of its role. There is little material information left behind, beyond a few paintings on murals and vases. This poverty of facts causes a wide range of interpretations by different archeologists.

Dance was a central component of social, religious, and political endeavours for the ancient Maya. The entire community danced, including kings, nobles, and common people. Dance served many functions such as creating sacred space, closing the gap between here and the otherworld, and releasing the dead from the grasp of the Xibalbans (see Xibalba).


In 1966, Michael D. Coe and Elizabeth P. Benson recognized the depiction of important lords standing with one heel raised was indicative of dancing. In 1990, Nikolai Grube deciphered the glyph for “dance” (read as ak’ot) in Maya script. Some interesting depictions of Maya dance of the Classic era are found on Maya ceramics and in the famous murals of Bonampak.


Ancient Maya dance is often characterized by transformations of human beings into supernatural beings by means of visionary trance. Some think that hallucinogenic drugs or entheogenic medicines were used to put the performer into an altered state of mind. Once in this state of mind the participants were transformed into their wayob or soul companions. These soul companions were depicted through the masks and the costumes people wore in the dance. Some scenes are painted on pottery such as that from the myriad ritual meals of Classic festivals. These vessels depict humans, both kings and nobles, dressed in costumes. Their human faces are shown in cutaway view inside the costumes of the fantastic creatures they have become through the transformation of the dance. Some of these wayob are recognizable as animals like jaguars and birds of prey, but others just look like strange monsters.

For the Maya, dance was a very public affair. It induced visionary trances where either individuals or groups went into an altered state of mind that allowed them to communicate with the other world. Those who were strong enough to travel there, told stories about how the land had things like rivers and trees in this world. Some of the great lords depicted themselves dancing out over the abyss that leads into the otherworld.

The distinction between the humans and supernatural beings was never sharply made. Through dance, people became gods and gods became people even if it were only for a moment. It is important to note that these were more than just acts of civic pride or piety. They were considered to be direct connections to the otherworld.


Dance from pre-Columbian Maya culture still exists in various altered forms today. However, dancing in the ancient world carried a much deeper significance in their sophisticated culture. Records of these dances have come to light through various murals, codices, and especially the Spaniards who first recorded their observations.

Spirits of the super-natural world and their relationship with Maya culture played an important role in ritual dance. Just as well, beasts were usually mimicked in ceremonial dance. The attire worn to some dances as depicted in murals show the links Maya dancers make to the natural world and to their worshipped gods who often took the form of animals. This is evident especially in the frescoes of Bonampak.

The elements as well were worshipped through Maya dance. In the Tzutujil Maya culture, it was believed that a spirit controlled the power of volcanoes. When the mountain began to grumble and shake, the Tzutujil priests would pick young women and girls who would partake in a large dance ceremony before being sacrificed into the burning mountain. Maya dance rituals often included sacrifice. For instance, the Tun-teleche¬ dance included victims whose hearts were removed before they died as a gift to underworld demons. On the other hand, some public ritual dances were even erotic in nature. Common throughout most all dances though was the importance of deities and the relationship between man and god.

In the book of creation, Popol Vuh, it is recounted that the dances of the Twin Brothers were part of a miracle ceremony. Just as well, the dances of ‘The Armadillo,’ ‘the Poorwill,’ and ‘the Weasel’ pleased the lords of death immensely.

Dance in Maya culture has also acted as a bridge between the ancient and post-Columbian eras. Spanish missionaries and lords as late as the 18th century were trying to eliminate the practice of ancient dance; however, natives maintained roots with their ancestors by practicing in secret. Even after the relatively complete conversion to Catholicism after the Spanish influence arrived, Maya people still respect their ancient deities through ceremonial dance, which has persisted through the generations since the golden age of ancient Maya.

Meanings within dances[edit]

One particular dance that has been discovered is called the Snake Dance. It was depicted on a panel that was looted from an unknown site. It depicted King Bird-Jaguar of Yaxchilan dancing with a snake. It also depicted the ruler of the town participating in important rituals with his king. Both men are wearing elaborate headdresses, personified wings, long feathers that arched behind them and they danced with snakes.

The Snake Dance was also celebrated by the lords of Palenque. This time the dance was done with a male who has an ax in one hand and a serpent in the other, and a woman who is grasping the lower body of the snake. These dancers wore costumes of First father and First Mother, the deities whose actions enabled the final creation and the birth of all the gods. This depiction is thought to point toward the role of dance in the story of Creation.

The most important instrument of mayan music is the rain stick.

The story of the Popol Vuh exhibits examples of this idea. After the Hero Twins are killed they come back to life as vagabonds and quickly enchant the people of Xibalba with their dancing and magic. The Twins danced such dances as the Dance of the Poorwill, the Weasel and the Armadillo and they are able to bring things back to life. All of this fame caught the attention of the Lords of Death who command the Twins to perform. As the twins perform, the Lords are amazed by their powers and finally ask the Twins to sacrifice them. The Twins do, but this time they do not bring them back to life, limiting the Xibalbans power over humans forever.


Looper, Matthew G. (2009). To be like Gods. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-70988-1. OCLC 690595806.