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Conchero dancers carry forward Mexico’s pre-Hispanic traditions

Conchero dancers perform in Mexico City’s Zocalo, the Templo Mayor location in the former Aztec city-state of Tenochtitlan. The dances honor the gods and create a connection with the cosmos through a kind of meditation in movement. RNS photo by Irving Cabrerra Torres

(RNS) — An ancient dance tradition with roots in Mexico’s indigenous culture, the Conchero calls down ancestral spirits to give their blessing and to purify observers through ritual smoke. Conchero dancers merge body and spirit in rhythmic harmony, giving thanks for creation in a ritual circle that represents the universe. 

Conchero dancers perform in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo. The cathedral stands on the site of the Aztec’s Templo Mayor, where Mexicans before the Spanish conquest venerated their gods Huitzilopochtli, Tlaloc and Coyolxauhqui. RNS photo by Irving Cabrerra Torres

It is widely believed that the Conchero dance tradition originated around the time of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. Around 1531, conquistadors confronted the Chichimecas, an ethnic group that inhabited the center of the country on the hill of Sangremal in present-day Querétaro state in central Mexico. During the battle, a shining cross appeared in the sky along with the Apostle James, whose message of peace provoked the surrender of the Chichimecas.

Amulets used in Conchero dances on display in Mexico City’s Zocalo, including a turtle shell (standing in for the more traditional armadillo shell), snails, incense and pre-Hispanic figures made from obsidian. RNS photo by Irving Cabrerra Torres

From the ashes of defeat, the Conchero dance emerged, using traditional indigenous movement. Some say that the dance is a reenactment of the battle against the Spanish, with the steps containing hidden meanings and echoing old rituals, though few have been explicitly identified. The dances have been passed down through families for centuries. For many years, the dances were reserved only for indigenous people who forbid outsiders from viewing their ceremonies. There are dances especially dedicated to Huitzilopochtli (god of the sun and war), Quetzalcoatl (feathered serpent), Tlaloc and Tezcatlipoca (smoking mirror, supreme god, who is everywhere), among others.

The dances also incorporated Christian elements and have been heavily influenced by Catholicism.

The Metropolitan Cathedral was built on the site of the Templo Mayor, the former religious center of the Aztec city-state Tenochtitlan. Formerly a wholly religious ceremony, the Conchero dance now has cultural significance and is considered by many to be a folk dance. RNS photo by Irving Cabrerra Torres

Today Conchero dances are considered Mexican folk dances and are performed in public, most frequently in Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo, where even tourists receive cleansings and purifications from the Concheros.

A Conchero performer stands as a guardian of Aztec and pre-Hispanic traditions next to the Metropolitan Cathedral. RNS photo by Irving Cabrerra Torres

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