Los Voladores (the flyers) spin 80ft (24m) off the ground. Their arms are wide; their heads angled towards the crowds below. Their bodies are strapped to the soaring pole. They are upside down. One man dances alone, at the very summit of the pole. His drum beats a steady tattoo; his pipe plays a heady tune. The flyers start twisting, around and around the pole, in death-defying feats of acrobats. It seems that gravity is challenged too, as the flyers control their descent to the earth and the cheering, gasping onlookers. They arrive and applause roars through the crowd.
This is Danza de los Voladores (the Dance of the Flyers) and it pre-dates the coming of the Spanish. It is not merely entertainment, though the people gather and a hat is passed around for donations for the dancers. This is a ceremony, make no mistake; a ritual worship of the god, Quetzalcoatl. It is a petition for crop fertility and a bountiful harvest.
There are four flyers and each represents an element: air, fire, water and earth. Wrapped together, these elements are the stuff of life. The wooden pole is phallic. It has been especially cut, shaped and blessed for this purpose. The elemental flyers weave around it. Their dance has taken them down the shaft to touch the ground. The symbolism should be clear. They are the strong, active seeds of life and they are in the soil.
The priest is the man who remains at the top. He, alone, is not tied by rope to the pole. His drum is the voice of Quetzalcoatl. His pipes are is the song of birds. He opens and closes the ceremony; first turning to the east, the direction of the rising sun, then to the south, west and north. At each cardinal point, his music and dance are invitations to the guardian spirits to watch over them. He is invoking all of nature to attend to their spectacle, as well as calling upon deity.
Each flyer does not merely represent an elemental force, they become it. While the priest opens the circle, the waiting flyers will be focusing their mind and self-identity. For example, the man taking on the aspect of water will be thinking hard about a nearby lake, or a waterfall, or the ocean. He will be meditating upon all that water is and does. By the time he makes his fall, his whole attention will be upon the element of water and he will continue this deep, almost trancelike focus, until he is safe on the ground and the ritual is closed.
This is not street entertainment, it is sacred.
Danza de los Voladores is performed all over Mexico, though it is most often associated with Papantla, a town in Veracruz. UNESCO have listed it as a ceremony of 'Intangible Cultural Heritage'. In this way, it will be promoted and protected, as an ancient tradition of Mexico. There are several variations of the ritual, notably in the deity being called upon. Xipe, Totec and Tlazotlteotl, all rain and solar Gods, have been associated with this ceremony.
There is always an element of danger in this ritual. Voladores have suffered accidents, sometimes fatal, up on the pole. As recently as October 3rd, 2010, in San Jerónimo, Mexico City, a flyer reached the top and sat on the frame, only to discover that it was unstable. He and the frame both plunged to the ground and he tragically died upon impact. Each of the flyers know that the potential for something to go wrong is huge, but that is what makes the ritual so strong. They are willing to risk sacrificing themselves to ensure the fertility of the crops.