Saturday in Tequila, as in many places, is market day. I wander down to the town square by the magnificent cathedral. In truth the market isn’t much beyond a couple of rows of stalls mainly dedicated to tourist trinkets, but something else catches my eye. A handful of men in traditional garb, looking suspiciously like Mexican Morris dancers. “This could be interesting” I think.
Even as I select my vantage point they rise from their bench and gather round the base of a huge pole (was that there yesterday?) with ropes dangling from it. “Aah”, I say to myself, “more sort of Maypole dancing then; wonder if they’ll do with swords or something to make it more interesting?”
They don’t. Neither do they use the ropes. They dance slowly and purposefully to the sound of a whistle and a tiny drum played simultaneously by one of their number. I’m a tad disappointed by the lack of spectacle.
However, just as I think it’s all over, one of them starts to climb the pole. My interest is revived with interest.
At the top of the pole is rickety looking frame that turns out to be a sort of square roundabout. The climber starts rotating himself about the pole, whilst tidying one of the ropes. Another dancer follows him, and another, and another. In a couple of minutes there is a dancer sat on each side of the rickety square roundabout, and the music stops; while the musician climbs up to join them.
Now I’m really intrigued. Where is this guy going to sit? Yep, obvious really, he’s kind of like the fairy on the Christmas tree.
The music starts again and the rickety roundabout begins a slow gyration as the ropes wound around the top of the pole. Shortly thereafter, the musician stands up.
Stands up on the very top of a 30 meter high pole. There is no safety equipment here; no hard hats or hi-viz vests to help the accident investigators find your body on the unforgiving flagstones ninety eight and a half feet below. Definitely no safety harness. Health and Safety in the UK would be apoplectic. I find out later that even in easy-going Mexico, many places have banned this 450 year old ritual because of the number of injuries and deaths…
What happens next is spectacular. The other four climbers who have been gathering momentum on the rickety square roundabout, hurl themselves off backwards.
Each has tied one of the ropes around his waist and they fan out, upside down, and spiral downward as the ropes unwind from the pole, correcting their orientation at the last moment before landing, perfectly synchronised and perfectly evenly spaced about the pole.
Meanwhile the musician has played on, straight-backed from his lonely elevation. He doesn’t stop until the other four have unhitched themselves, then climbs down. He looks older than me, but maybe he’s just afraid of heights…
History bit (paraphrased from Wikipedia)
The “Dance of the Flyers” is an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony/ritual still performed today, albeit in modified form, in isolated pockets in Mexico and Guatemala. It is believed to have originated with the Nahua, Huastec and Otomi peoples in central Mexico, and then spread throughout most of Mesoamerica.
According to Totonac myth, the ritual was created to ask the gods to end a severe drought.