Defying Gravity and Tradition: Women Soar in Mexico’s Dance of the Trapeze

In Cuetalán, Mexico, more and more female trapeze artists are taking part in the “Dance of the Trapeze,” a ritual that traditionally only involves men.

34-year-old Elena Garcia comes from Cuetalán, a small mountain town in Puebla state, Mexico. She said: “Every time I jump off a high pole in my performance clothes, I get an unparalleled sense of freedom.”

The “Dance of the Flying Man” is a religious ceremony of the indigenous people in the pre-Hispanic period (before Spanish explorers discovered and occupied the Americas). The performer will first dance around a 30-meter-high pole, then climb to the top of the pole, tie a safety rope around the waist, jump headfirst to the ground, and use the pole as an axis to spin and land with open arms.

“There are usually five performers, four of whom represent the natural elements — fire, water, air, wind — and the fifth represents the sun,” Garcia said. This is one of Cuetzalan’s most remarkable traditional ceremonies since pre-Hispanic times.

But until modern times, this ceremony was performed only by male dancers. Garcia, who has been performing since she was 15, is one of the women in Cuetzalan who challenges this convention. Their inclusion opens up a new space for female participants.

Cuetalán is nestled among mountains, forests and waterfalls. The area has a large indigenous population who carry on the traditions of the Nahua and Totonac peoples. “It’s hard to say where this dance first originated. I personally believe that the trapeze tradition was born at the same time in different regions of Mexico,” Garcia told me.

To be sure, this ritual has changed over the centuries. In pre-Hispanic times, it was a way to communicate with the gods and pray for a good harvest. After the arrival of Spanish colonists, the dance became a tribute to Catholic saints during religious holidays. Today, Cuetzalan has become a popular tourist destination, and locals perform this ritual not only during festivals, but also on ordinary Sundays. Tourists flock to the town square to witness the spectacle.

This skill is usually passed down from generation to generation within the same family. But there are exceptions. For example, Garcia had no family members involved in trapeze, and her mother was furious when she first announced she was participating in the show. “My family was worried that I would encounter various dangers. But in the end they supported my decision,” she explained.

Before Garcia, the first generation of female trapeze artists had to overcome a lot of prejudice and discrimination to become dance performers. Women are often considered too weak to perform on the trapeze, or are teased for “trying to act like a man.”

51-year-old Jacinta Theresa is one of the first generation of female trapeze artists. “Sometimes I feel like other male trapeze artists are jealous of me because I’m allowed to perform as a woman,” she says. Theresa is the oldest performer still actively involved in dance.

In a still quite conservative social context, where gender roles are strictly defined, the act of trapeze can be seen as a metaphor for liberation – the emergence of female trapeze dancers means that ancient traditions are broken and people move towards A step towards a more equal society.

Today, there are more and more female participants in trapeze groups. “Participating in the trapeze is a way to join the community.” said Yolanda Morales, a 23-year-old female trapeze dancer from the town of Etmoren. There is growing support in the local community for women taking up trapeze artistry.

But female trapeze artists still face more obstacles than male trapeze artists. Once women get married or have children, it is almost impossible for women to continue performing on the trapeze because they are traditionally required to spend more time taking care of their families, and many become full-time housewives.

Given these challenges, only a few women continue to perform the trapeze beyond a certain age. Some female pilots are single, while others are partnered with men from the same team. One of them is Garcia, who met her partner Arturo Díaz at the age of 18 at the top of the trapeze. The two shared a love of trapeze and passed down the skills to their daughters, especially Nickette, who began training on the trapeze at the age of six.

Nickette, now 13 years old, is a member of the latest generation of trapeze artists. From a young age, she already showed a great passion for this tradition and a determination to work for an equal society. “I don’t understand why women can’t take part in the trapeze,” said Nicot. “To me, the pole is a symbol of motherhood. Before the leap, we tie a rope around our waists and it’s like an umbilical cord that connects us.”

Garcia took up the topic, pointing out the close connection between trapeze and fertility. The process of a trapeze dancer leaving the pole and flying to the ground is like a flower scattering its seeds to the earth. “It’s the cycle of life – we come to this land, we grow, we die and then we return to the earth,” she said.

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