Aztec Dancers: Centuries-old tradition alive in Taos

Every July, right at the start of the Fiestas, a group of Aztec dancers perform in front of the St. Francis de Assisi Church in Ranchos de Taos.

Story originally published in Raíces, Taos News

A symphony of color, music and movement, la danza is a memorable event. In preparation for it, dancers and other members of the community take part in a vigil the night before, when they spend hours singing hymns (alabanzas), praying and spiritual cleansing (limpias) around an altar that has been covered in flowers, candles and mementos for the occasion.

“During the vigil, we offer prayers and blessings not only for our friends and relatives but also on a global level,” said Aztec dancer Deborah Gonzalez-Anglada.

The next morning, after participating in Mass and receiving the priest’s blessing, the dancers go outside the church and begin a ceremony that is as much performance as it is prayer.

“The Aztec dance is a prayer in action,” explains Tanya Vigil, the capitana or leader of the group. “It integrates the elements of cuicatl and xochitl (song and flower in Nahuatl). These two elements represent the connection that the Aztecs had with nature and the importance of music and rhythm in their culture.”

The dance is quite elaborate and each movement has a particular meaning.

“When the dancer imitates a serpent, that’s a reference to fertility as well as Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent worshipped by the Aztecs,” Vigil said. “The zigzag steps are reminiscent of water. Everything is highly symbolic.”

The group, called Izcalli In Nanantzin, also dances in other public and private events throughout the year.

Dancers in full regalia

When they perform, the dancers wear elaborate outfits made of colorful cloth, or, in some cases, animal skins. The women’s tunics are embroidered and ornamented with shells, seeds, and sequins. Some dresses also have small, delicately crafted pieces of mirrors sewn into the fabric. They represent the life force of the sun.

“As it happens with the dance movements, many of the ornaments have a particular meaning,” Vigil said. “The outfits are not costumes like those that people wear in Halloween, but ceremonial clothing. They can be expensive and dancers often make sacrifices to get the best attire they can afford.”

The headdresses are made of feathers of peacocks, pheasants, macaws, and other birds. They move in time to beating drums and create a hypnotic effect on dancers and spectators.

“The ankle rattles are also very important,” said Vigil. “They are covered with seeds and their cloc-cloc sound helps us keep the rhythm.”

The group’s Mexican roots

The first group of Aztec Dancers in the state of New Mexico was formed in Taos in 1981. Vigil was one of its founders and she called it “Grupo Taoseño.”

“At that time, I really didn’t know much about Aztec traditions,” she admits. “The idea of the group came to me like an inspiration, a sincere desire that I, and other dancers, had to practice these rituals that are part of our heritage. But we lacked real knowledge of the ceremonies and their meaning.”

That changed in 1986, when the group attended a traditional dance event at the Pima reservation in Phoenix, Arizona. It was there where Vigil met Capitan Moises Gonzalez Barrios, who became the group’s teacher and spiritual guide.

Gonzalez Barrios was from Mexico City. His family had practiced Aztec ceremonies for generations and he was well versed in them. For that reason, he was often invited to teach and dance in the United States.

Yet he felt “very disappointed” by the fact that many dance groups here didn’t follow the correct protocol for ceremonies.

“I explained to him that we did the best we could,” Vigil said. “We weren’t fakes, but we needed schooling. He was very understanding and took Grupo Taoseño under his wing. It was the best thing that ever happened to us.”

A few months later, he invited the Taos dancers to the city of Queretaro, so they could learn the dances and traditions in a place where they had been preserved for hundreds of years.

“With that trip, we began a journey of faith that continues today,” Vigil said.

The association of the group with the Mesa Central de Queretaro (the local headquarters of the Aztec dancers in that region) was a crucial step for the further development of the Taoseño dancers.

Upon receiving instruction from the Mesa Central de Queretaro, which included many of the songs and steps they use today, their leaders gave “Grupo Taoseño” an estandarte, a banner that they have kept all these years as a symbol of their links to the Mexican culture.

The banner depicts Señor Santiago de los Cuatro Vientos, the Spanish equivalent of St. James. (Interestingly enough, Santiago is also the patron saint of Taos.) Next to him are portrayed “the four winds.” They correspond to the Virgin of Guadalupe, El Señor de Chalma, the Virgin of Remedies, and the Christ of Sacromonte.

“Our group was the first one, of all the American Aztec dancers, to receive an estandarte from a Mexican mesa,” Vigil said.

But that was only the beginning.

Gonzalez Barrios also the changed their name from “Grupo Taoseño” to “Izcalli In Nanantzin,” which means Resurgence of Our Mother Earth. He made Vigil a Capitana, the official leader of the group.

“The traditional Aztec dance groups function like military units,” she said. “We are considered spiritual warriors. Hierarchy is respected and discipline is also very important, from the rehearsals to the actual moment of the dance.”

Two years later, she invited Gonzalez to visit the group in Taos. His arrival in New Mexico marked the beginning of a new stage for “Izcalli In Nanantzin” which continued growing and attracting new members every year.

“In the end, the dance as a spiritual performance is all about honoring our roots and ancestors,” Vigil said. “By sharing these traditions, we make sure they are passed along to our children and continue to be a part of our collective heritage and faith.”