The Spaniards conquered the Zapotecs of the central valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, almost 500 years ago, in an earth-shattering series of events. It changed everything in the lives of the conquered. So many died that many indigenous peoples came close to disappearing; some estimates hold that the indigenous
population of the Americas was reduced by 90% in the two centuries following the conquest. The population drop was so great that the Spaniards later had to
bring slaves to labor in their plantations on the Costa Chica (Oaxaca’s Pacific coast).

Such change and catastrophe, however, produced one of the world’s most beautiful dances: Danza de la Pluma (The Dance of the Feather). Today, it is performed in a number of towns in central Oaxaca, among them the weaving
village of Teotitlán del Valle. In one of life’s ironies — the forced migration of the Zapotecs driven from their homes by poverty and conquest, helped this commemorative dance survive.

The name Teotitlán, comes from Nahuatl and means “land of the gods”. Its Zapotec name is Xaguixe, which means “at the foot of the mountain”. It still retains its Zapotec culture and language. Danza de la Pluma is performed in the town plaza in front of the Preciosa Sangre de Cristo Church (begun in 1581 and completed in 1758). The church sits on the ruins of a Zapotec temple, which the Spanish destroyed.

The dance is explained briefly below and although there are many figures that play a part in the dance, we will have five main dancers, including Moctezuma, dancing at the Feria. This dance is physically very demanding and to achieve the skills required for the varied movements with their heavy headdresses — it is a “must see” performance.

Danza de las Plumas takes its name from the colorful feather headdress with which the dancers adorn themselves. It is a dramatic dance; with a plot and characters that alternate with danced parts. It was created after the conquest and is represented by two contending sides. One side are the Spaniards, led by Hernán Cortés together with the Malinche. The other side are the native Mexicans led by Moctezuma together with Zihuapilli.

The dance is practiced in different communities of Mexico’s central valleys. It has its origin in the community of Cuilapam de Guerrero, created by the Dominican
friars who had their settlement in the monastery located in that area. It is also performed in the Oaxacan communities of Zimatlán del Álvarez, Zaachila, San Bartolo Coyotepec, Teotitlán Del Valle among others. The musical
accompaniment is flute and drum.

Danza de la Pluma is interpreted in the festivities of the Catholic calendar as an important part of public worship. So much so, that the dancers constitute a recognized body of the civic-religious structure that gives cohesion to the community.

The dance is presented with the two contending factions and the segments of the conquest that it represents are:

  • The daily life of the inhabitants of the Anahuac Valley in pre-Hispanic times
  • The arrival of Hernan Cortés in Veracruz
  • The first messages between the protagonists
  • The reception of Moctezuma to Hernán Cortés
  • The work of the translation of the Malinche
  • The battles and confrontations of both armies
  • The help that Moctezuma asks for from the four cardinal points
  • The imprisonment of Moctezuma
  • The subjugation of the Mexicas and
  • The fusion of two cultures, interpreted with the dance of Malinche and
  • The total representation of Danza de las Plumas lasts up to three days, with 30-minute breaks.

It is one of the most important dances in Mexico and is the danced the most in Oaxaca — the striking spectacle of the plumes and the dance steps amaze the viewer.

This dance represents the most important means of dissemination of historical facts regarding the Spanish conquest. It is the most important representation of
the Zapotec legacy and it illustrates their astronomical knowledge. Through oral tradition, it is known that the dance was performed in the celebrations of the Zapotec kings, but when the Spanish arrived, its focus changed due to the missionaries who used it as a means of evangelization. The clothing corresponds to the strategies of indigenous evangelization — this is demonstrated by being a symbol of the sacramental ornaments used in Catholic rites by the priests.

The attire has elements of religious nature as does the fabric of the costume — this fabric is also used in the clothing of religious images — for that reason it is called as brocado or liturgical fabric. It is the last number of the traditional Guelaguetza in Oaxaca.

The most attractive accessory of the suit is the plume. On a tin
base called a crown, it has hieroglyphic engravings. Feathers are attached to a reed frame forming a semicircle adorned with ribbons and large mirrors, framed
in tin, with hanging cotton tassels. To hold the crown to the head, they use a strap woven on a back-strap loom called a barbiquejo.

The rattle and the baton are symbols of power. The dance elicits the basic history of the conquest. At the time of the Spaniards’ arrival, indigenous people had been living in Oaxaca’s central valleys for 11,000 years. The first site of human habitation is not far from Teotitlán, in the Guilá Naquitz cave near the town of Mitla. The discovery of corncob fragments indicates that the world’s first people to cultivate corn lived there. The dance calls to mind the basic history of the conquest.

The rank that the dancer represents, Moctezuma, teotiles, captains, kings, who are identified by the characteristics of the plume. They also occupy a place on the stage related to their rank: those who play the teotiles go to each side of the Moctezuma as his second in command, the four in the center are the four allied kings and the last are the two captains who guard the gates of the Montezuma's palace.

 Miscellaneous Information

Guelaguetza: The Guelaguetza has to do with members of a community coming together and sharing their cultural heritage and all the things that make them unique. The festival recalls a human attitude with which one is born, which invites love for others
and sharing of nature and life. This year it is the 17th through the
24th of July.

 Malinche: Marina or Malintzin, more popularly known as the
Malinche, is an object of hatred and veneration. She is blamed for the defeat of the feathered warriors of Tenochtitlan and the end of purely indigenous civilization in Mexico. But she was also the mother of one of the first children born of this enormous clash. While the union of the Malinche and Cortes gave birth to the mestizo, this did not free indigenous people, who were forced into conditions close to slavery

 Zihuapilli or Cihuapilli: An Aztec noble woman

 Mexicas: During the twelfth
century C.E. the Aztec (or Mexica) were a small and obscure tribe searching for a new homeland. Eventually they settled in the Valley of Mexico and founded their capital, Tenochtitlan, in 1345. At the beginning of the sixteenth century it was one of the largest cities in the world.