Diaz and Garcia: Danza Mexica

Agustin Diaz, of Memphis, learned the traditional Danza Mexica form when he joined the troupe Danza Azteca Quetzalcoatl in 2006. During his years studying at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, he gained a wide knowledge about the history and ancient culture of Mexico. “Danza gives a sense of identity and direction to the Mexican person; it is their patrimony,” he says. “It is their heritage. It is a medium by which we can establish relationships and share with other cultural groups. Danza is present in ceremonial, cultural, and educational events.” Agustin is the co-founder of the troupe he currently leads, Grupo de Danza Mexica Atlachinolli. 

Danza Mexica (X pronounced with a “Sh” or “Ch” sound), which originates from central Mexico, is a traditional dance that could best be described as “a prayer in movement.” It combines the music of sacred instruments—the drum (huehuetl), hand drum (panhuehuetl), the hand-held rattles (ayacaxtlis), and the foot rattles (coyollis)—with the movement of the dancer’s bodies. The danza ceremony creates a connection of the human spirit with Mother Earth, the Creation. Chicana/o Studies scholar Jennie Luna writes, “Danza is movement and human expression of natural and cosmic phenomena, creating consciousness and a connection between participants themselves and with the delicate balance, equilibrium, and harmony of the earth and universe. Danza was viewed as a science of human movement, a bodily expression of cosmic philosophy/theory, and a form of spiritual empowerment” (2012, 89). Part of the  mexicanidad, or “mexicanity” movement, Danza Mexica, in contrast to the Conchero movement of indigenous dance, is defined by use of the Náhuatl language, the Aztec solar calendar, the celebration of seasonal changes, and the practice of pre-Hispanic spirituality. 

Danza in the United States developed into its current form during the period of the 1960s to the 1980s. Contemporary Danza movements such as Danza Azteca and Danza Mexica serve as a “collective voice of self-representation and self-determination.” Dr. Luna writes that, for those who come together to practice this pre-Hispanic dance form, “It is part of the restoration process to rebuild and recover what was lost due to the invasion over 500 years ago” (Luna, 83). In a 2020 interview, Agustin alluded to this continuity and restoration. listenHe explained that, “when I started to learn about my roots…I am not living in the past. I am living in the present, but I use the past for my legs. I feel strong. I step firm.” Agustin said, “When you take your roots, you feel more complete. You are not just 40 years old; you are 1000 years old of tradition.”

“When you take your roots, you feel more complete. You are not just 40 years old; you are 1000 years old of tradition.”Agustin Diaz

As part of the 2020 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Agustin taught apprentice Rosa Garcia, a highly skilled dancer, drummer, and singer. Rosa began practicing Danza in 2012, when a friend of her family and her initial instructor, Refugio Pantoja, invited her to join the group Danza Mexica Quetzalcoatl. Both Agustin and Rosa now dance with Grupo de Danza Mexica Atlachinolli, which focuses on pre-Hispanic, indigenous heritage. Atlachinolli is a symbol of water and fire in the language of the Aztecs/Mexica (Náhuatl). Agustin interpreted the meaning, explaining that, “When the two elements are together–the water and fire–and make the fifth element, the vapor. Then the Mexica history, they say, when the Mexicas another time see that symbol, the water and fires together, that means a big change is coming.” This symbolism influenced why they chose the name for the group.listen “When we made this group, we decide don’t mix with the religion. So big changes.” Rosa chimed in, “That’s what it meant at the beginning. Atlachinolli: big changes. That’s what it meant for us. That’s why the group was named Atlachinolli.”

With Agustin, Rosa has deepened her understanding of the music, dance, and significance of the ceremony. Rosa shared, “in the end, it’s not only about dance! There’s a big part about the dance, but there is also knowledge that helps you in your life. The things that you learn are not only the ways of doing the ceremonies, but it helps you learn about yourself too.” Rosa and Agustin were recently featured on WMC Action News 5’s “Bluff City Life.” 

Field Notes, February 2020–

The Calpulli Atlachinolli practices at a community center in northeast Memphis every Wednesday night. Rosa and Agustin’s home is a short drive from the community center. As soon as you enter their front door, you are greeted by a large altar to the right of the door. Dozens of artifacts–from which spiritual and historic significance emanate–cover the bright red tablecloth. The shells, feathers, pottery, textiles, and stones on display all carry ritual significance for the danza. The dance itself is a “prayer in movement” and circle that forms “represents both the ‘gran universo,’ the vastest part of the cosmic existence known to humans, and the most basic element of our being at the same time” (Luna 96). The four sacred elements (fire, water, air, and earth) that compose the body and the earth correspond to the four cardinal directions and are honored in the dance ceremony. listenRosa held up the copal and explained, “One important part of our ceremony is popoxcomitl which is almost the same thing as smudging. The popoxcomitl is always made of clay and the most important element in the ceremony is the fire; that is something that you have to have. Along with the water and the earth and the wind. So all four elements have to be present. So when we light the popoxcomitl we use copal. The copal is very similar to incense. But…it comes from the tree, the copal tree. It’s very aromatic…It’s the resin of the tree. When you put it on top of the coal, it starts giving off a white smoke. And so the smoke symbolizes purification. It represents the prayers going up into the cosmos, everybody’s prayers.”

Rosa is the sahumadora, or “woman smoke carrier,” who is responsible for maintaining constant copal smoke and ensuring the harmony of the circle. “The ceremonies are always done in a circle,” Rosa explained. “So while the ceremony is going on, as the sahumadora, or smudging lady, you have to be walking around. Always making sure that everybody is integrated. You’re just smudging everybody the whole time, so you have to make sure that everything is done the right way. It’s a big responsibility. But the copal is one of the most important things in these ceremonies.” Agustin added that it is used to “clean the energy of the place, the energy of the people…All the dance and songs for us is…prayers. All our prayers, go up with the smoke of the copal.”

Agustin and Rosa also use a special drum in every rehearsal and ceremony. Made of solid wood, the drum was made by a woodcarver in Mexico City. The drum is carved intricately and features a jaguar on one side and an eagle on the other. Rosa explained the significance of the eagle jaguar warrior, or cuauhtlocelotl, in Aztec mythology. Their drum received its name after a special drum-naming ceremony. A red sash is tied around the head of the drum. The dancers also wear red sashes. The ixcuahumecatl or ixcatlmecatl is the red sash worn around the forehead, and faja or tonalmecatl refers to the red sash tied around the dancer’s waist. It is “used for the spiritual protection of one’s thoughts/prayers of the mind and to protect the area of the bellybutton” (Luna 98).

Agustin and Rosa loaded up their car with all of the elements needed for the rehearsal and arrived at the community center about five minutes later. Several of the members of their group were already there waiting and a few trickled in over the next few minutes. The group is made up of men and women, teenagers and adults. Everyone wore comfortable clothes and shoes in preparation for an athletic rehearsal. The red sashes were still worn by all and appeared to be the only ceremonial regalia present during the rehearsal. The rehearsal lasted about two hours. Agustin would teach a dance step and then the group would practice to his chanting drum. As with any dance, the danza is difficult to describe in words. There is jumping on one foot, there are moves where one foot steps behind the other, and there are times when the dancers lift their arms and spin in a circle. All of the movements are enacted rhythmically and in unison. At the end of the rehearsal, the group sat in a circle on the floor, song lyrics printed on paper were passed out, and the group sang together in Náhuatl. Even though this rehearsal did not have every element of the full ceremony, one can still feel the offering emanating from the dancers.This dance has been transcribed throughout history, with many interpretations and meanings depending on who is dancing. One thing is clear, however. This dance is a ritual which creates meaning for the participants. It allows them to be closer to their identity, their heritage, and to each other. 

Folklife staff visited Rosa and Agustin in February 2020. View a virtual gallery of more of photographs from that day.


Further Reading: 

  • Figueroa, Rafael. “Grupo de Danza Mexica Atlachinolli: Living roots of traditional dances.” La Prensa Latina Media. September 14, 2018.
  • Garner, Sandra. “Aztec Dance, Transnational Movements: Conquest of a Different Sort.” The Journal of American Folklore 122, no. 486 (2009): 414-37.
  • Luna, Jennie Marie. 2012. “Danza Mexica: Indigenous Identity, Spirituality, Activism, and Performance.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California Davis.
  • Nielsen, Kristina “The Role of Interpretation in Determining Continuity in Danza Azteca History. Ethnomusicology Review. 2014.
  • Poveda, Pablo. “Danza De Concheros En Austin, Texas: Entrevista Con Andrés Segura Granados.” Latin American Music Review / Revista De Música Latinoamericana 2, no. 2 (1981): 280-99.
  • Rostas, Susana. “‘Mexicanidad’ The Resurgence of the Indian in Popular Mexican Nationalism.” Cambridge Anthropology 23, no. 1 (2002): 20-38
  • Vento, Arnoldo Carlos. “Aztec Conchero Dance Tradition: Historic, Religious and Cultural Significance.” Wicazo Sa Review 10, no. 1 (1994): 59-64.