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Thursday, December 8, 2022

The death-defying ancient ritual of Mexico’s dancing flyers

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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. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
The indigenous dancing flyers ritual performed just outside Mexico’s National Museum of History and Anthropology, atop a 25-meter tall metallic pole. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

Despite what some visitors believe, the tradition of the dancing flyers practiced in several parts of Mexico is not merely a tourist attraction, but rather an ancient fertility ritual. 

The ritual is thought to have its origins in Mesoamerica’s pre-classical age among cultures in central Mexico and survives today most notably in Puebla and Mexico states, but perhaps most famously in Veracruz. 

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 refer to the ceremony as the “Papantla flyers,” named after the town home to the ancient city of El Tajín. 

The stunning Pyramid of the Niches in Papantla, Veracruz. Photo: INAH

With the migration of Nahua peoples to Central America, the ceremony made its way to Guatemala where it is still performed by its Quiche inhabitants in locations such as Chichicastenango and Joyabaj.

A flyer in Mexico city begins his ascent to the top of the 25-meter tall pole. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Aside from its associations with fertility, the ritual itself is meant to represent the four cardinal points that were so important to diverse Mesoamerican cultures including the Maya, Olmec, and Zapotec.

For Mesoamerican cultures like the ancient Maya, each cardinal point was associated with a particular color and deity. Photo: Courtesy 

The traditional clothing worn by the aerialists is quite elaborate and typically shares most of the same elements, though regional variations do occur. 

A young flyer plays his traditional flute in full traditional Nahua garb before ascending to the top of the ceremonial pole. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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. 

Dancing Flyers begin to check their ropes before initiating their descent. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The participants take their spot 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 spin is a dazzling sight, but one can’t help but worry for their safety. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Once the four fliers have all taken on their positions, a fifth flier makes his way up the pole and sits at the top of the platform to play a traditional wind flute, and presumably makes sure everything is safe. 

Though accidents are relatively uncommon, they do happen from time to time such as when in 2020 a 25-year-old flyer in Guatemala fell over 15 meters when one of his ropes snapped, just narrowly avoiding death but not severe injury.

Then, suddenly the flyers release themselves from the platform to the audible gasps and clenched hands of the spectators below.

As the flyers continue to spin at great speed around the base, they gradually descend lower and lower towards the ground, symbolizing rainfall. 

When in “flight,” the flyers take part in the ritual and strike a variety of poses which are themselves part of the ceremony. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The dramatic nature of the ceremony understandably catches the eyes of tourists and the ritual is now performed at tourist hotspots around the country including El Tajín, outside of Mexico’s National Anthropology Museum, and even theme parks like Xcaret. 

Though at most locations the ritual is performed tipping is not compulsory, it is in extremely bad taste not to do so if you choose to stick around and observe the ceremony. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“This is not just about money for us, it’s an ancestral practice and we take it very seriously. But we also have to eat so we are very appreciative of donations,” says Tonatiuh Macuil, a flyer in Mexico City. 

After 52 times around the pole, representing the 52 years cycle of the Xiuhmolpilli calendar, the flyers make their way back to earth and then ceremonially touch their own feet to symbolize the end of the ritual. 

Closeup of a flyer as he slowly begins to slow down and approach the end of the ceremony. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In 2009 the ritual was awarded world heritage status by UNESCO, and in the year 2000, the flyers won the prestigious award from the Academy of Mexican arts and sciences in the category of traditional art.

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