Commentary

Dance in Cusco and Change

Watching Alas Peruanas Dance (David Knowlton)

Dancing in troupes is symbolically rich in the Andes, as it is here in Cusco. You can read about it in the chronicles, the narratives of Inca life, as an important part of public ceremony, and at the end of the sixteenth-century people tried to revive old way in a powerful movement of dance, called the Takiy Onqoy. Yet changes continually take place.

As I write, a private university, Alas Peruanas, is presenting its saludo (salute)  to the city and region through dance. The different dances are organized according to schools and programs, departments.  They present their dances along two sides of the Plaza in a theater-like presentation where the flow between these spaces does not seem important while the dance presented there does. 

Under portable roofs protecting them from the intense sun, judges sit and evaluate the performances.  As the dancers finish a choreographic section, it is not uncommon for the spectators to applaud, reinforcing thereby the theatricality of the performance and the audience’s role as spectators, very much in the modern mode,

Yesterday, was the grand procession of Corpus Christi. Dance stood out in its absence, even though each of the saints has troupes that are associated with them.  In many cases, such as San Jeronimo, they will join the Saint again in eight days, when the saint makes the long march home. Furthermore, unless I remember wrong, they dance troupes used to accompany the saints in the procession. Carolyn Dean, in her important book on Corpus, makes a point of how important the dances were in the baroque theater of Corpus Christi during the early colonial period.

I do not know when the dances were stripped, although it is within the last twenty years. I say such because I remember when Corpus included the dance and was even more magnificent. The dances have been moved to parish events and processions, I believe.

In the meantime, the Church has purified its event to focus on what it sees as significant while pushing the public presentation of dances as “culture” and as representative of Cusco to the events organized by EMUFEC, the municipal authority for festivals.

While dance performed other roles and meanings earlier, now it stands as a performance, a tangible token, of Cusco’s “culture”, its set of designated, codified, and defined dances (and more) which people can perform and for which they can be judged. The performance is now on a stage and people respond by applauding the quality of representation, while during a procession they comment about the roles local people are playing in the cosmogonic presentation of the saint, larger than life, moving, nay almost dancing, around the plaza on the shoulders of its parishioners. People also comment on the Saints.They compare and contrast them and speak of their vestments. In this, through watching, they add to and maintain their devotion to these holy figures or even lack of devotion to particular ones.      

The movement to “culture” began in the sixties, I believe, although I saw it in action in the early eighties as people in the rural Aymara area, with whom I was working, first stopped performing dances in fiestas, and then restarted them as culture for local and regional presentations, as well as those in different institutions.

Cusco’s style of dance is a particular, local form of this broader movement.  This symbolic, codifiable, and typical culture is not the same as what anthropologists traditionally mean by culture as a way of life, although it does influence how people live. If nothing else, it opens space so they can both be themselves to themselves, and participate in global culture and the global economy which also depends on selling and manufacturing culture for them.

Dance as typical culture—a type, a kind that stands for an institution, a people, a city, a region— is one place where people take on this identity and culture, embody it, perform it, and get judged. It also carries a narrative, a story now, whether it did before or not, about what its meaning is as am emblem (a kind of snapshot) of life before urbanization and modernity, that is of tradition. The dance creates and performs these pictures of a once upon a time life that go into the notion of cultural type.

Things change. Despite that, the people of Cusco still dance in troupes. They still find meaning and importance in this movement.

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