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The Dance of the Flyers

Los Voladores de Papantla

Voladores de Papantla. The ceremony is placed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, what obliges Mexico to preserve the ceremony.

Voladores de Papantla

The dance of the flyers is a Mesoamerican ceremony in which five participants climb to the top of a 30 foot pole and then, suspended by ropes wound around the top of the pole, four of them fly through the air upside down as they are rotated and lowered to the ground. The fifth dancer remains at the top of the pole playing a drum and a flute. Flyers, known as voladores (flyers in Spanish), wear bright colored, traditional attire which highlights their dance (flying costumes originally were decorated with real feathers). They also may strike elegant poses in mid flight as they revolve around the pole, reminding observers of a colorful bird soaring through the skies. The likeness is not a coincidence; the ancient origins of the ritual are based on Mayan creation myths that center on the figure of a bird deity.

Today, the legacy of this spectacular ritual is kept alive by groups of flyers from certain parts of Mexico and Guatemala, particularly those from Papantla, a region in the north of the Mexican state of Veracruz. UNESCO placed the Voladores de Papantla ceremony (title: Ritual ceremony of the Voladores) on their Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2009, a listing that obliges Mexico to preserve and promote the ceremony. To this end, a school for flyer children was established at Takilhsukut Park, where up to 100 kids receive formal instruction on the finer points of the flying ceremony. According to the traditions of the Totonac people (the people most associated with the dance), flyers must spend 10 to 12 years preparing before they may participate in the event. The element of danger is clearly present, where poorly knotted ropes and other types of improper preparations have caused fatal accidents. Participants climb the pole with no safety ropes of any kind and the musician remains unharnessed throughout the event as he spins atop the pole on a small wooden platform.

Flyers of a wide variety of ages participate in the event. 70 year old flyers have been known to participate. Totonac tradition strictly prohibits the participation of women. Women have been known to fly however, most notably in versions of the ceremony held in the state of Puebla.

Mythological symbolism makes appearances in nearly every aspect of the dance of the flyers tradition. The four flyers (representing the four directions and the elements air, water, earth and fire) make 13 aerial rotations before landing. Four multiplied by 13 equals 52, the number of week cycles that make up one solar cycle, or one year according to the Mayan calendar. Flyers wear multi-colored crested hats that resemble bird plumage. Two half circle garments draped diagonally over the shoulder symbolize wings. Long ribbons hang from the costume and stream though the air which represent a rainbow. The ritual itself is thought to have begun as a special request to the gods for rain during a drought.

The ancient ritual may strike poorly informed first-time viewers as a dare-devil acrobatic stunt performed simply for the viewing pleasure of awestruck spectators. Some observers that hope to preserve the integrity of this spiritual ritual which recalls Mayan creation myths, have voiced the growing concern that the ceremony is turning into little more than a commercialized spectacle put on for the amusement of tourists. It is estimated that there are some 600 professional flyers in Mexico. Regular Dance of the Flyers performances take place outside of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and in popular beach resort vacation destinations such as Puerto Vallarta and the Mayan Riviera. The spectacular event will likely continue to attract intrigued crowds as long as the voladores keep the high flying tradition alive.