Cinco de Mayo is one of those holidays that many people eagerly celebrate without understanding what it’s about or why they’re celebrating! As we re-visit the history of how it came to be, we’ll also have a look at some of the colorful, artistic aspects that make it so appealing to people everywhere and make us so loco for Cinco!
Many people assume that the fifth of May is a celebration of Mexican Independence Day, however Mexico’s independence from Spain had already been won 50 years prior in 1810, and has been commemorated every 16th of September since. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican Army’s 1862 unlikely triumph over the French at the Battle of Puebla during the (six year long) Franco-Mexican War. Although the poorly trained and sparsely armed Mexican soldiers were outnumbered by France’s soldiers by a staggering 3 to 1, to everyone’s surprise, they still managed to defeat them. However, it took another six years and a little support from the U.S. for Mexico to be able to force the withdrawal of France from their land and reign victorious in the war. The Battle of Puebla was inspirational to both Mexican and American citizens, and became a symbol of perseverance triumphing over insurmountable odds; hence the beginning of fervent celebration honoring this day.
Sometimes referred to as “Mexican St. Patrick’s Day,” for some, the holiday becomes an excuse to party with excessive drinking, eating Mexican food, and dancing the night away! The irony is that it is a much bigger holiday and more widely celebrated in the U.S. than it is in Mexico, where it’s primarily celebrated in the state of Puebla (where the battle took place), with fireworks, family gatherings and feasts. In Mexico it is not a federal holiday, so banks, stores and other such businesses remain open. With so much revelry throughout the U.S. over the holiday it has adopted as its own, let’s take a look at some of the traditional dances you’ll likely see, or find yourself doing, during a Cinco de Mayo party, parade or event!
We’ve all seen Mariachi musicians play on television or at our favorite Mexican restaurant, yet so few know about the dances that accompany the music. Mexico has many traditional dances, mostly folk dances, which center around topics of historical and cultural significance, such as religion, harvesting food and courting rituals. Many of these dances also show the influence that the Spanish, Indigenous, Cuban and other cultures, played in Mexico’s art and history.
Just to name a few:
The Jarabe Tapatio – One of the most beloved dances of its kind, and arguably synonymous with popular Mexican culture; The dance originated in Guadalajara, Jalisco, and became world renowned when iconic Russian ballerina Ana Pavlova used it in one of her routines in 1919. The name derives in part from the Arabic word Xarabe, meaning syrup and the Spanish word Tapatio (referring to people of that region). Like many dances of this type, Jarabe Tapatio is a courting dance, in which the man tries to romance a woman into courtship. The woman initially resists, only to later give in by the end of the dance. Interestingly it was banned by authorities as being defiant of Spanish rule and its perceived sexual overtness. Ironically, the controversy caused it to grow in popularity! It is danced to Mariachi music with male dancers wearing large wide brimmed sombreros and cowboy suits, and women wearing long colorful skirts, blouses and shawls. This is a fun dance for adults and children alike!
Zapateado – Essentially Mexico’s version of tap dancing, and a literal translation of the name, which means “hitting with a shoe”. Male and female dancers wear special-soled shoes with hard heels that can be very loud. Zapateado is commonly danced in parades, festivals and shows, and is something that spectators can easily try to mimic.
Tejano – Also known as Tex-Mex, is a mix of folk and popular music that hails from Mexican-American populations in South and Central Texas. Around since the 19th century, the music and dance surged in popularity in the 80′s and 90′s thanks to artists like Selena.
There are a number of other folk dances which are performed during Mexican Independence Day on September 16th, El de la Candelaria, El dia de los Muertos and other festivals, such as :
Son Jarocho / Veracruz Dance
A courtship dance where one partner tries to tie a ribbon into a bow (symbolizing the pairs union), while foot stomping melodically to the Son Jarocho music. Originating from Veracruz, a major trading port, the blend of African, indigenous, Cuban and Spanish cultures is evident in many Mexican dances, particularly this one. From the Spanish flamenco infused steps to the Cuban “Guayaberas” worn by the men and colorful dresses and headpieces for the women.
This ritualistic dance is symbolic of ancient Mexico, depicting Aztec symbols and designs painted on the face, and elaborate headdresses.
The word Concheros refers to the musical instrument used in the dance which is a conch type shell (conchero) of the armadillo.
The dancers stand in two concentric circles with the older people inside and the youth on the outside of the circle. Two circles move simultaneously, with the inner circle slowing and the outer circle exploding with big leaps and energetic movements.
El Baile de Los Viejitos
Literally translated to (Dance of Old Men), this is a humorous dance meant to mock the ruling Spanish elite. Starting off with men hobbling about on their canes, coughing and falling down, it later escalates to a vigorous dance of men stopping their feet and canes while wearing pink flesh colored masks and long white hair. It is a dance of the Purepecha people occupying the lake region of Michoacán.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xplZJXXdU38
Danza de los Voladores
Translated to Dance of the Flyers, this ancient Mesoamerican dance ritual begins with a man sitting on a platform on top of a pole playing a flute while the other dancers fasten a rope around the waist and fall backwards to descend to the ground. The dance was intended to appease the angry gods who once brought drought to the land.
Matachines – Men form arches with their machetes for women to dance under and send sparks flying as they bang their machetes together in this dangerous and daring dance.The list goes on, as there are many more traditional dances involving a colorful array of costumes, props, fancy footwork and of course rich history.
Cinco de Mayo events can be found in major cities all over, with the largest in the world held in Los Angeles! With parades, live music, dancing, food and more, Cinco de Mayo festivities are fun for the whole family. Enjoy the sights, sounds and flavors of Cinco de Mayo and the Mexican-American culture that abounds everywhere in color, culture and dance!