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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The colors, sounds, and rhythm of Mexican folk dance

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Mariachi music is one of México’s best-known cultural exports, but the country is home to hundreds of other unique music and dance forms. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Mexico is a country brimming with folklore. Its crafts, cuisine, traditions, and beliefs are a rich mix of indigenous and European influences, often infused with a dash of the kind of surrealism that makes Mexico’s culture unique. 

But as anyone who has traveled in Mexico knows, there is not one Mexico, but several. Each of its regions varies dramatically, not only in its geography but also in cultural makeup.

Bright colors and flowing dresses are one of the features most often associated with traditional Mexican dance. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the ways in which this diversity is expressed is through the countless styles of music and dance unique to each region. Every state in the country has several types of music and dance for which it is known, which often resemble ceremonies or acts or remembrance as much as they do dance or music. 


As it used to be part of Yucatán, Campeche takes many of its cultural clues from this state. But over time, Campechanos developed their own take on dances like the jarana to create variations, including Campechito Retrechero and El Pichito amoroso. These folk dances borrow heavily from Spanish tradition in both their outfits and style, though Maya elements are also to be found. 

A joyful performance of the Campechito Retrechero to the rhythm of the Jarana. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine


In many ways, Chiapas shares more culturally with Guatemala than it does with Mexico. This makes sense as large parts of Chiapas once belonged to this Central American nation. One of the ways that this is most obvious is the heavy use of the marimba in Chiapanecan music, as well as the weaves and patterns of their folk dress. One of Chiapas’ most unique dances is el alcaraván. During performances, men and women emulate hens and roosters lovingly pecking at each other. 

A couple performs el alcaraván, one of the many folk dances of the state of Chiapas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine


Mexican independence kicked off in Guanajuato, and people from the state are keen on highlighting this fact in many of their traditions. Dance is no exception, with their costumes making allusions to the struggle for independence and lyrics to music enthusiastically boasting about kicking the Spanish out. 

Folk dress from Guanajuato calls on European and local influences and allusions to specific time periods. For example, the bandanas worn by leaders of the independence movement like José María Morelos. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine


The state of Jalisco likes to boast it is the most Mexican state of all. In many ways, they are not wrong, as they are the birthplace of many of the country’s most beloved traditions, including the production of tequila and the ever-present mariachi. Their most well-known dance, the jarabe tapatío, originated in Guadalajara, Jalisco, in the 19th century. It represents a man courting a woman.

Mexico City

Traditional dance in Mexico City is heavily influenced by its Aztec past. Some of the most common dances include the dance of quetzalcoatl, the conch shell dance, and the white eagle dance. Though the influence of Aztec culture is clearly visible in the dancers’ outfits, these performances’ elements are idiosyncratic and have evolved over time as a way to connect with the distant past. Certain elements have analogs stretching back to the time of Tenochtitlan


Though European influences are not completely absent in the folklore of Michoacan, its indigenous roots really shine bright. One great example of this is the state’s most recognizable dance, known as la danza de los viejitos, or the dance of old men. During performances, men wearing paper mache masks take the stage and begin their performance doing not much more than circling around their cane, only to break out extremely fast moves and often even play a sort of game with a flaming ball. Often, the twist comes at the end of the performance, in which the men take off their masks to reveal that they are indeed old men and not the youngsters one would expect.

La danza de los viejitos is often performed at cultural events and tourist hotspots in Michoacan. Photo: Courtesy


Known as one of the most culturally rich states in all of Mexico, Oaxaca is known for its exotic cuisine, bright colors, and unique traditions. Perhaps one of the most outstanding of these is the danza de los diablos, or devil’s dance. During performances, dancers wear demon masks and even sometimes cover parts of their bodies with horse hair. But despite what some may think, the dance/ceremony is intended to ward off evil spirits and welcome spirits who are pure of heart, especially during All Saints Day. It is believed to have been kicked off by Afro-descendants who combined elements of their own culture with those of the Zapotec peoples of the region.

Elements of African and Zapotec culture can be seen in Oaxca’s striking Danza de los diablos. Photo: Courtesy


The danza del venado of Sonora is performed by the Yaqui and Mayo men dressed in deer antlers and masks with traditional garb. It is a sacred dance used to honor the deer and pray for rain and good harvests. The performance begins with the dancers entering the dance area in a single file. They then begin to dance in a circle, imitating the movements of a deer. The deer dance is very energetic and demanding. 


Despite what some visitors believe, the tradition of the dancing flyers of Papantla is not merely a tourist attraction but rather an ancient fertility ritual. Because of the ceremony’s ritualistic nature, the practice was forbidden by colonial authorities in the 15th century but survived in isolated communities. The ritual has become so closely identified with Veracruz that many people call the ceremony the Papantla Flyers, named after the town home to the ancient city of El Tajín. The ritual takes place atop a tall tree trunk (or, nowadays, often a sturdy metallic pole) topped with a rotating platform, sometimes called la manzana, or apple. The participants take their spots on the rotating platform, secure themselves to ropes, and then begin to spin. On the ground, members of the community play traditional instruments to entice rain and fertility deities to release their bounty.

Watching the flyers of Papantla spin is a dazzling sight, but one can’t help but worry for their safety. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine


The state of Yucatán is home to a wide variety of traditional dances, including la jarana, el torito, and la cabeza de chochino, in which a person wearing a pigs head (real, or now usually made from paper mache) chases jaraneros around on stage. But one of the best-known and commonly performed is la danza de los listones, performed by a group of men and women dressed in traditional Yucatán garb. The men wear white pants and shirts with a red sash, while the women wear long, colorful dresses. Each dancer holds a ribbon in each hand. The dance begins with the dancers forming a circle around a tall pole. The dancers then begin to dance around the pole, weaving the ribbons in and out of each other’s arms. As the dance progresses, the dancers move faster and faster, creating a beautiful and intricate pattern of ribbons.

The danza de los listones symbolizes the unity and strength of the Yucatán and its culture. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In Mexico, there is a virtually endless amount of other unique folk dances and traditions, so if we missed one of your favorites, let us know.  

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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