The Baile de Venados — the dance of the reindeer — is still performed by the Q’eqchi’ Maya in the eastern jungles of Guatemala for numerous celebrations. I observed this dance in conjunction with festivities connected with the International Day for Indigenous People and the graduation ceremonies of students from the Ak-Tenimit NGO school on the Rio Tatin near Livingston.
I attended the celebrations being told that I was about to see an ancient Maya custom, some told me that the dance of the deer was a pre-Columbian ritual, others told me that it was “some pretty boring stuff,” while others squirmed, “They are out there doing their deer dance again.”
Through the smokescreen, I wanted to observe this dance, I wanted to observe any rituals that ran in accordance with the celebrations which were slated to run for an entire week. To these ends, I walked through the jungle on the first night of the celebration to the Ak-Tenimit compound with a Maya friend who had attended the school when he was a student. He learned how to be a waiter — sustainable tourism they call it — he now fishes on the rivers with his dad.
When we arrived at the school the time was nearly 10 PM, and we were just in time to find a long procession of people leaving the ceremony. As they filed by us the smoke from their incense burners was still wafting up purple in my nose. The incense burners were hanging down to knee level from chains. My companion saw some of his old friends and began chatting in Q’eqchi’. I asked him what was going on. He told me that they sacrificed a chicken but that I had already missed it.
Further reading has indicated that the costumes for the deer dance were probably also blessed with the incense during the ceremony.
At first it was unclear to me what the celebration was that I was attending. I stood at the door of a cafeteria, it was full of people were sitting in school chairs watching three guys playing a Maya xylophone, called a marimba. The crowd was over 100 people, some students, others parents, family members, other people from the network of communities surrounding the school. They all watched the marimba players and chatted with the people next to them. A guy with a microphone tried to get the crowd going — he got three couples to dance for a song. They danced in an up and down fashion, the couples bobbing together and turning but rarely touching.
It soon became apparent that I was observing a vigil, my companion told me that it would last until midnight. He then asked if I wanted to go inside. Of course. We walked through the cafeteria, he asked if I wanted to see the costumes used for the deer dance that they would be performed on the following day.
I could see piles of colorful clothe with shinny pieces and bright frills criss crossing them on the far side of the room laying on a cafeteria table. The costumes were neatly put on display, the masks laid out over the table.
“You can look at the costumes, but don’t touch them,” my Maya friend warned, “only the illuminados can touch them.”
The illuminados were the dancers. He then explained how they had to go into the forest to be cleansed by a culandero — a Maya medicine man — and that they had been learning the dance for the past year.
“The costumes cost 4,000 Quetzales each,” he added.
I found out later that these particular costumes were rentals from Coban, and that Ak-Tenimit was currently trying to range the funds to purchase their own.
As I looked over the elaborate costumes, and listened to the seriousness with which my companion was speaking of this dance I was a little unsure if what I was attending was an ancient Maya holiday or if it was only a school graduation ceremony combined with festivities for the International Day for Indigenous People — a holiday that the NGO school actively celebrates.
I asked around, “Is this a traditional Maya holiday?”
It was an end of the school year celebration. The dance itself was traditional but there was no historical bearing placed on the dates of its performance. It seemed as if whenever there is something to celebrate in the eastern jungles of Guatemala, they do the deer dance. In this case, graduation ceremonies would be performed, and for an entire week, from 5 AM until midnight the festivities would continue. The dancers would dance, people would watch, the xylophone players would play the soundtrack, the crowd would eat, observe rituals from culanderos brought in from the capital city, the school would be spiritually cleansed, and everyone would carry on.
Indigenous people all over the world seem to know how to take a ceremony or a celebration to its most extreme level. Where in Western culture a day or even an evening is enough of a celebration, in the indigenous world an entire week from sun up until midnight is a standard amount of time for a festival. The kids are graduating from another year of school, so an entire week was designated to the celebration.
“I suppose they want to celebrate until they can’t celebrate anymore,” I joked with one of the school’s administrators who is from the USA as we watched the deer dance going on in a field the following afternoon.
I had returned to the school the following day to watch the dance. The costumes that I had observed the night before were now full of people — teenage boys from the school — the deer were dancing.
The Maya Dance of the Deer
Simply put, the Maya Deer Dance is a parable acted out about how humans need to respect the natural world, and when they don’t nature takes revenge. It is a story about a time when hunters went into the forest and killed every deer they saw. They did not respect the balance of nature, they just slaughtered all the reindeer. This angered the other animals in the forest and they chased the hunters away. The moral of the dance is a reminder to not over step your place in nature, to not take more from the forest than your share.
Dance of the deer video 1
In the way the dance is played out today, the perpetrators are the Spanish, but this dance is far older than European colonialism, and the Conquistadors are a stand in for, simply put, people — bad people.
The dance is essentially an act set to music, and all of the 25 or so dancers are in particular costumes with appropriate masks. There are three main groups in this dance: the Spanish, the deer, and the other jungle animals. The Spanish have masks of white faces with long noses, yellow hair, and elaborate facial hair. Around ten of the dancers are dressed as deer, they have antlers. There was one dancer dressed as the Spaniard’s hunting dog, and the remainder were costumed as other animals of the forest: tigers, monkeys, and jaguars.
All of the dancers are masked. It is believed by the Maya that these masks, which are elaborately painted and carved from wood, hold a great amount of power — their handling is not taken lightly, and only certain people are allowed to touch them.
The Maya dance of the deer is more of a story set to music in which each participant has a particular role to play. This is an act, and the illuminados who play it are boys from the school. I was told that they learned the dance from the kids that did the dance the previous year. I tried to reconfirm if these boys were illuminados and that they had to go out into the jungle to be cleansed by a medicine man, but the people who were sitting around me did not seem to know for sure.
In fact, everybody that I asked about this dance gave me an answer that was a little different.
From what I could observe the storyline of the dance goes as such:
The white masked Spanish dance around with their guns shooting the venados — the deer — and their dog runs amok. The deer start to disappear throughout the dance and soon the other jungle animals — the tigers and monkeys etc — who had been dancing around the periphery take more of an active role as they converge upon the Spaniard’s dog. They pile on top of him. The dancers laugh as they do so — they are teenagers, they laugh and joke with each other throughout the ceremony. They animals then chase the Spaniards away.
Maya dance of the deer video 2
The dance is long, lasting hours, and is set to marimba (xylophone) music. When characters from the dance are “killed” they remove their skin — their costume — and lay it out neatly upon ground next to the dancing space. The area directly in front of the marimba players seems to be center stage, as the elements of the dance that should be focused on move into this area before doing their seminal acts. Often one group — the deer, the Spaniards, or the other animals — run onto center stage as another group exits in turn. Most of the pertinent action of the dance happens in this area in front of the marimba, while the rest of the dance occurs on the periphery.
The accountant explained to me that a local anthropologist told her that the dance is about the Spaniards disrespecting nature, but how they are now a modern stand in for the Maya themselves.
“That really goes along with the archaeological record, the ancient Maya did not have a good track record for environmentalism,” I replied, “Many Maya cities destroyed themselves through cutting down the forests and degrading the environment.”
“But the Maya cosmology has a lot to do with respecting nature,” my accountant friend countered.
“Yes, they probably needed a cosmology like that,” I said while laughing, knowing well that the ideology that cultures teach themselves is often very much the antithesis of how a culture acts.
The Baile de Venados is far older than European colonialism, it is a dance rooted deep in Maya culture and history. I wonder why it has survived as opposed to all of the other dances in the Maya lexicon that are no longer performed today. I heard of one other dance that the people here still perform — the Dance of the Moors –though the school was not able to afford the rental fees for the costumes.
So the deer dance continues throughout the week. I admit, its message is an omni-pertinent theme.