The festival season was heating up in Chichicastenango, the predominant Mayan market town in the state of Quiche, Guatemala and tonight´s advertised event was the Convite Femenino, or Women´s Gathering, where the town´s women dance to Marimba music as promised by my longtime trading partner, Roberto.
Since I enjoyed live Marimba music and there was no chance that I would be hoodwinked into participating, I accepted Roberto´s offer to see what a more local festival was all about. I had seen Chichi´s other more colorful dances that feature eerie masks and resplendent costumes during the crowded major holidays, but this December 8th gathering was attended by few tourists, and about half of this mountain town of 5000.
I’ve never witnessed the conservative Mayan Guatemalan women dance together in the 10 years I’ve been visiting this country. Past dances I’ve observed were performed by men and of a religious nature, included lots of drinking and fireworks and seemed to omit women of the community whose traditional role in this society was to produce and raise children. A “Convite Femenino” sounded refreshingly different, something and I wished that my wife could be enjoying with me on this trip but alas, too much was happening at home and she could not join me on this trip.
“We can watch the dancers from here,” said Roberto, directing us to a viewpoint at the top of the steps of Santo Tomas, the 500 hundred year old church that sits directly on the town square. Some of Roberto’s friends crowded on the steps with us, so I positioned myself at the back because I was taller than most and could still see. But Roberto’s wife and teenage daughter were not to be found.
“They don’t like this kind of thing,” sniggered Roberto, giving me reason to wonder how much of that decision was his or his wife’s. A shame, I thought, because this seemed like one of the few “liberating” events available to the local women. I smiled thinking how my lovely wife is often reluctant to participate in similar events and usually only after much deliberation and wheedling on my part.
Sure enough, the Marimba band was first-rate, positioned under an eaves on the town square which opened into a dance space surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd. Two teenage boys sat on the roof above the band blowing bubbles as an added special effect to the delight of dozens of young children who chased the bubbles. The dancers, dressed in everyday casuals like blue jeans, were a random selection of women from the crowd. There appeared to be no organization to the dancing, yet the women were enjoying themselves doing the dosey-do and other innocuous dance steps one might find at a high school sock-hop. I envisioned my reluctant wife joining in and actually enjoying herself at this let-your-hair-down kind of event, one that might be found in the small Midwestern town of her birth.
After two innocent dances, a long red tape was stretched across the entire 50 foot wide dance area. Knowingly, the women stepped aside as the tape was ignited. Cohetes! Firecrackers! Children shrieked and ran around in excitement as the cohetes popped off in all different directions. The dancers cowered under the porch with the Marimba band at the brief mayhem triggered by the booming ribbon of cohetes. The male dominated spectators, of which I was a part, chuckled at the noisy spectacle. When the firecrackers stopped, the band ensued and women emerged from the cloud of smoke that had enveloped the dance square, falling into a ring-around-the-rosey dance step as if nothing had happened. I’ll have to rethink recommending that my wife join this dance, I thought, since she despises firecrackers to the point of prohibiting them from our household.
Roberto said, ¨Here comes the Torito.¨
The women opened their chain of hands to allow a person to step into the dance circle who wore a box that covered their entire body except their legs. The box contained a superstructure of poles like scaffolding from a construction site and handles for the person to steady the top heavy load. A crude bull´s head festooned the box, the only resemblance of a ¨torito,¨ or bull.
Then three people entered the circle and lit fuses on the torito. The fuses traced the superstructure, setting off fireworks tied to the poles including sparklers, spinning wheels, fountains and more firecrackers. The torito, who could hardly see, danced to the music along with the women, spinning and bumbling about the circle of dancers who would scatter to avoid the showers of sparks. Children screeched and ran between the legs of the women and dared to get close to the torito. A couple of swaying drunks, dancing to their own rhythm, were oblivious to the spinning torito until almost being knocked over or ignited by a cascade of sparks; then would scamper away smothering their singed hair. Just when the torito’s pyrotechnics looked spent, the fuse would set off another round of colorful sparklers and fountains much to the delight of the crowd. The Marimba band and their singers somehow fended off the choking smoke. It was amusing watching the women dancers dodge the spinning and sparking torito. The music played on. Finally the torito burnt out and the women resumed their festive dancing.
Just when I thought the festivities were coming to a close, a second, larger and more wobbly torito entered the dance circle. After being lit, it was obvious that the torito was armed with more potent pyrotechnics and the women smartly relinquished the dance area to the torito, oblivious drunks and the most daring teenagers. The torito spun wildly around the dance area, sending showers of sparks into the crowd who would temporarily surge backwards in avoidance. Next, a fusillade of roman candles shot off the spinning torito, sending flaming balls in all directions. One errant fireball hit some trees and plunged into the crowd. A larger fireball was spun off sideways and ironically hit a firetruck parked nearby. The torito’s bigger fountains of sparks and hazardous fireballs seemed to increase the crowd’s excitement. I knew that my wife would feel little consolation that this event was staffed by several bomberos, or firemen. Some safety measure!
A third and even larger torito entered the dance area. After the firemen helped strap the torito person into his semi protective box, I felt a tinge of apprehension even though I was stationed as far from the spectacle as possible while still being able to see. The torito spun more wildly launching sparks and fireballs that were even more perilous yet the crowd relished the smoke and chaos. One large fireball shot sideways and hit a women dancer squarely in the chest as people dove for cover. When there were no apparent injury, the crowd erupted in laughter. Horrified, I said a quick prayer of forgiveness on the steps of the Church Santo Tomas for ever wishing that my wife should participate in this event!
While the torito´s fuses continued to burn, several young men brought out large metal mortars and began firing commercial grade fireworks from the same area where the women dancers had been gaily dancing a short while ago. In my country, most commercial fireworks displays require a buffer zone of a quarter mile or more. This crowd was standing but a few feet away. Grenade-sized bombs launched up to 500 5feet into the air ending with deafening explosions. Things were blowing up left and right as excited young men added more types of fireworks to the unruly event. One cluster of roman candles got knocked over sending a whizzing fireball towards my perch on the steps, grazing Roberto´s head. He laughed it off.
I crouched lower behind the short statured Guatemalans in front of me as the mesmerizing pyrotechnics, spinning torito and energy of the event peaked into a frenzied and colorful fireworks finale to close for comfort. Finally the torito’s long fuse burnt out. Incredibly there had been no injuries. The marimba music plunked on through the smoke and haze, luring the women dancers back to the dance area. I took that as my cue to take leave of my friends even though Roberto thought there might be another torito.
“I get the idea,” I mentioned to Roberto as I headed back to my hotel.
I won’t be recommending the Convite Femenio to my wife on our next trip.
Copyrighted by Josh Gerak