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La Danza de los Zancos

Stilt Dancers in Anguiano

La Danza de los Zancos. The stilt dancers are men and boys of the oldest families in Anguiano. Discover the old religious ritual held in La Rioja, Spain.

Stilt Dancers in Anguiano

Today in Anguiano, Spain, the famed stilt dancers take their dizzying routine to the streets. The circus didn't just roll into town, these pious prancers risk breaking their necks to honor the Magdalena (Mary Magdalene).

The stilt dancers are the men and boys of the oldest families in Anguiano, and the fascinating and highly-original ritual has been passed down from father to son for centuries. They wear brightly colored shirts and petticoats that trail down to their ankles and expose the 3-foot wooden stilts below. The dancers stare ahead in a fixed gaze to help them keep their balance as they maneuver around above the crowds.

Believe it or not, stilt walking is part of religious rituals in many parts of the world. In Ecuador, France, Puerto Rico and Central Africa the faithful take to the stilts as a show of faith. But the scene in Anguiano is definitely one of the most beautiful (and one of the most harrowing).

In Anguiano today, the action begins at the main church, where the dancers pick up a small icon of the Magdalena. Then they "dance" with her down the front steps of the church and down the steep, cobbled streets in the town square. The dancers move in a tight, spinning motion that requires plenty of dexterity and bravery. One of the key streets they travel on is named especially for them, the Cuesta de los Danzadores. From there they proceed farther down the hill where they drop off the icon at a small shrine created just for her.

Anguiano is a small village located in a mountainous region of the Spanish state of La Rioja, an area known for creating splendid rioja wines. The streets of Anguiano are narrow and extremely steep, making it particularly difficult for the dancers. But these human tops rarely spin out of control as they work themselves into an almost trancelike state and have faith in the Magdalena to make their journey a safe one.

The Spanish refer to Mary Magdalene as "the one with ways about her a little freer than modesty allows." But she left her questionable lifestyle behind after hearing Jesus speak and became one of his most ardent followers. She is a very popular saint in northern Spain, but how the stilt dancing became part of the celebration is anyone's guess. It is probably part of some long-lost pagan ritual that was integrated into Catholicism by the local priests many centuries ago.