Dance in Carnival Makes a Vibrant, Fertile World

During Carnival, throughout Cuzco, people of neighborhoods and communities will put up a yunza tree. This is a tree they have previously cut down and then “replanted” after laden it with goods. At the heigh of the celebration, since each moment is market by food, music, and drink, people dance around the upright tree and, as couples, chop at it until it falls.

This act of dancing around the tree that produces goods is a rich one laden with symbolic importance. Dancing is more than folklore and more than mere culture—in the popular sense of the word. It is a constitutive act, something that presents a reality and makes it happen. In this case, it is tied to the notion of winds and fertility wt this time of the year, the high rainy season when fields and trees fill with fruit.

Dancing Carnaval Cuzqueño
Dancing Carnaval Cuzqueño

The chronicles mention the importance of dances when the Spanish came to the Inca Empire. They saw them accompanying important moments and important events. For example, Garcilaso mentions dances in the same breath he discusses sacrifices to the gods, or other sacred moments.

He gives the impression of dance as perhaps a liturgy. Like liturgy it is expected to create and not just to represent. It transforms and makes things happen, in this case in a kind of co-participation.

Such is the case in Carnival. The dances co-participate in the season and hence make fertility happen as they dance in couples.

Playing with Water at Carnival
Playing with Water at Carnival

In Quechua, Carnival is called Puqllay, a verb that is generally translated as to play. This does pick up some of the carnivalesque as the great Bakhtin called it, but not all of it. This is not the time of inversion or breaking the order more than any other time in the Andean calendar, though it is playful and fun. Rather it refers to the sacred role of the time in the engagement of earth and sky through rains and lightning which, like couples having sex, can lead to fertility.

Inge Bolin makes this point in her book Rituals of Respect. She argues that in Carnival the people of the rural community of Chillihuani where she studies “marry” their animals—their llamas and alpacas—to each other and then engage in a sustained period of dance and ritual focused on love, sex, and fertility.

She writes:

Women and men line up in parallel rows for the Pukllay dances, called qhashwas, which are performed in a circular pattern. These dances originated in Inca times of before. The more people dance, the happier the deities will be, the better the harvest will be, and the more numerous the animals of their herds. The thumping sounds of the dancers’ feet, the swirling skirts, and the swinging warak’as mix with song and laughter, flutes and drums to produce a vibrant atmosphere . . .

It is the same in the city of Cuzco, where the sounds and joy of Carnival in an Andean sense blend with water play and tossed colored four and inks. It is a vibrant and vital time.

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