Matachines Dances

Matachines. The exotic name of the dance alone invokes an aura of ancient mystery and intrigue. Then again, the masked, caped, and ribbon bedecked dancers that swirl and bow to the rhythm of the rattles accompanying the haunting repetitive violin music appear to be just as mysterious as the name. A young girl dressed in a white dress is led around by two strangely masked whip-carrying characters and threatened by a dancer dressed as a bull. Who is she supposed to be? Why is the bull chasing her? What is this dance? Where did it come from?

Each time I watch the dance as it is performed in various communities around New Mexico, onlookers invariably ask me these questions and many more. My honest answer is that I don’t really know the true answers to any of these questions and I doubt anyone does at this point in time. I admit that there are many people who will tell you exactly what the dance is and where it came from, but there is no definitive proof to back up any of the myriad of explanations of the dance.

In their seminal 1931 work on Native American dances, Bessie and May Evans playfully described the many conflicting theories this way:

"It is derived from a beautiful old religious ceremonial of southern Europe. It is found in Persia. It celebrates the conversion of the Indians to Christianity. It is the Indian version of the age-old, symbolic conflict between good and evil, with the ultimate victory of good. It represents the warfare against sin that began after the Resurrection. The little girl typifies the church; she is pursued by Sin and the Devil, but escapes from them; and she rescues the people, as the Church rescues those in its fold. The two grotesque mimes personify Sin and Death; they are at war with, and are finally destroyed by, the Church, or each other. It represents a Mexican bullfight. It is an old comic dance, with a mock fight, that was once well known in France and Italy. It is a Mexican dance. It came from Montezuma, last ruler of the Aztecs. It is of Moorish origin and was brought over by the Spanish. And so it goes."1

Matachines dancers from the Jemez Pueblo
photo by Claude Stephenson

I have spent many years in libraries and archives researching and tracking down the sources of every serious theory that has been put forth about the origins and meaning of the Matachines. Try as I might, I have not been able to substantiate any of them, and so I have simply chosen to let the mystery be and just enjoy the dance for what it is: a very graceful, moving, and compelling performance that brings the people of small New Mexican communities and Pueblos together in celebration.
The Matachines dance, with its curious cast of characters, is one of the very few dances performed both by the Pueblo and Hispanic people of New Mexico. One hundred years ago, almost every Hispanic or Pueblo village had its own Matachines group that would dance on the town’s annual feast day. Today, that number has shrunk to less than two dozen villages, among them Alcalde, Bernalillo, Chilili, San Antonito, and Tijeras. Many Pueblos, such as Taos, Picurís, San Juan, San Ildefonso, Jemez, and Tortugas, also continue to dance Matachines.

A typical Matachines dance will have somewhere between five and 11 parts and last anywhere from thirty minutes to well over an hour. It is most commonly accompanied by violin and guitar, but it is accompanied by drum and vocals in some Pueblos. In the dance proper, there are two files of dancers, typically numbering between five and eight dancers per file, lead by a captain, or Capitane. Both files are headed by a Monarca who leads the dancers through the series of set dance segments that make up the performance. The Monarca is accompanied through much of the dance by a character called the Abuelo who carries a whip and serves to keep order within the dance and among the audience. The Abuelo acts as an escort and occasional mediator to the other characters in the drama of the dance.

There is also a young girl, who traditionally wears a white dress, called la Malinche, and who is central to the dance. Another character commonly found in a New Mexican Matachines troupe is the Toro, or bull. The bull, who can be either a young boy or a grown man, creates havoc among the dancers and the crowd. The Toro is usually symbolically killed, and sometimes ritually castrated, at the end of his solo dance segment by the Abuelo. In several villages and Pueblos, there is yet another character participating in the dance who is called the Perejundia. The Perejundia is a male who is cross-dressed as a flamboyant female and serves as an outrageous counter to the Abuelo. As the dance has evolved differently from place to place, there are many variations on the cast of characters. For example, Alcalde and San Juan Pueblo each have two Abuelos and Tortugas Pueblo has no Toro.

The dance always begins with the entrance or Entrada by the masked and costumed dancers or Danzantes. Other common segments of the dance are la Cruz (the cross), where the files of dancers make a cross; the Cambiada (mixing), where the dancers cross back and forth; the Malinche’s dance, where the Abuelo and la Malinche slowly circle the kneeling Danzantes; the Monarca’s dance, where the kneeling dancers are raised up and whirl in 3/4 time; the Toro’s dance, where the Toro is killed; and the Patadita (little kick) or Zapateado (shoe stamping), so named by its distinctive kick step and stamp; and finally, the Despedida, or farewell dance. In many communities the dance is often preceded or followed by a procession through the village carrying a statue of the patron saint.

As noted above, Matachines dances in Hispanic communities are usually performed on the feast day of the village’s patron saint. For example, the dance is performed in Bernalillo on the feast day of St. Lawrence on August 10. Other common days that one can observe Matachines dances in New Mexico, especially in the Pueblos, are Christmas and Christmas Eve and the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12. Matachines dancing can be found in Arizona among the Yaqui, as well as all across Mexico. It is especially popular among the Tarahumara Indians of Chihuahua and the people of the state of Zacatecas.

To learn about dates that the Matachines dance is performed in the Pueblos, check out the calendar at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. Tortugas and Jemez Matachines dances take place on December 12. Alcalde dances are on December 26 and 27.

To learn more about the dance itself and its significance and meanings, read Flavia Champe’s The Matachines Dance of the Upper Rio Grande: History Music, and Choreography, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1983, or Sylvia Rodriguez’s The Matachines Dance: Ritual Symbolism and Interethnic Relations in the Upper Rio Grande Valley, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1996.

1 American Indian Dance Steps, Bessie Evans and May Garrettson Evans, 1931: 74-75; A.S. Barnes and Company, Inc.

Claude Stephenson, Ph.D, is Folklorist for the State of New Mexico

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 23

Related Pages

Poetry of the Pueblo Dances article

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