Danza de los Voladores, a must-see while visiting Playa del Carmen
Any trip to Playa del Carmen should include a visit to the local flying pole dancers. You may have heard their music or seen them – a handful of vibrantly dressed men climbing a sole pole not far from the beach in central Playa del Carmen.
The ritual is called Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) or Palo Volador (pole flying) and is an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony that is practiced today in a modified form.
Referred to as a ceremony by some and a ritual by others, it is – for all events and purposes – a form of rain dance that originated in central Mexico. The ritual of pole flying consists of five men climbing a 30-foot pole where four of them fly through the air upside down as they are rotated and lowered to the ground. While four men spin around on ropes, the fifth remains on top of the pole playing a flute and drum.
The history of pole flying dates back hundreds of years. According to Totonac myth, there once was a severe drought that brought hunger to the people. The gods were withholding the rain because the people had neglected them. The ceremony was created to appease the gods and bring back the rains. The ritual pleased the Mayan rain god Xipe Totec so the rains began again and fertility of the earth returned.
You may be left wondering why four flying men and why a central flute player. Well, in Maya mythology, the creation of the world is associated with a mythical bird deity called Itazmna, who lived at the World Tree (the center of the world).
Five “birdmen” at the top of a pole represent bird deities. The main dancer stands in the center and plays a flute, which represents the sound of birds singing. The four other “birdmen” (representing the four directions) spin around the pole to represent the recreation of the world and the regeneration of life.
The four flyers, representing the four directions and the elements air, water, earth and fire, make 13 aerial rotations before landing. Four multiplied by 13 equals 52, the number of week cycles that make up one solar cycle or one year according to the Mayan calendar.
Flyers wear multi-colored crested hats that resemble bird plumage. Two half circle garments draped diagonally over the shoulder symbolize wings. Long ribbons hang from the costume and stream though the air which represent a rainbow.
The legacy of this spectacular ritual is kept alive by groups of flyers from certain parts of Mexico and Guatemala, particularly those from Papantla, a region in the north of the Mexican state of Veracruz. A school for flyer children was established at Takilhsukut Park, where up to 100 kids receive formal instruction on the finer points of the flying ceremony. According to the traditions of the Totonac people — the people most associated with the dance — flyers must spend 10 to 12 years preparing before they may participate in the event.
The next time you pass by the large statue near the beach at the south end of Playa del Carmen and see a flying ritual about to get started, you will understand what it is you are watching!
In order to help the ritual survive, the Ritual ceremony of the Voladores was named an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2009. It is estimated that there are some 600 professional flyers in Mexico.