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Ancient Maya Dance

Matthew Looper, California State University, Chico, Summer Fellow 2006

The goal of my fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks was to finish a book manuscript on ancient Maya dance for publication by the University of Texas Press. In the course of this project, the archive of Maya ceramics photographs on file in the library here assumed particular importance, providing new insights in relation to several chapters.

This project was conceived as an interdisciplinary study of ancient Maya dance, as well as a theoretical and methodological inquiry on the subject. Most of the direct evidence for ancient Maya dance comes from the Classic period, 250–900 A.D. Primary sources include ancient texts, figural images, and architecture. Indirect evidence from the post-Hispanic era encompasses both ethnohistorical and ethnographic data, though this evidence is fragmentary.

Each chapter of the book analyzes a single type of data to determine what it reveals about ancient Maya dance. In the process, the strengths and weaknesses of each body of evidence were evaluated. In order to provide the reader with concrete examples of how diverse methodologies can be used to understand ancient dance performance, each form of evidence is illustrated by case studies, usually one or two per chapter. Structured in this manner, the book provides both a complete survey of ancient Maya dance in its cultural context, as well as a model for comparative study of the archaeology of dance.

The results of the project point to the fundamental importance of dance in ancient Maya society. Both social and religious dances are documented, though there is considerable functional overlap between the two genres. Although both men and women participated in dance performances, public religious dance was principally a male domain, expressing both status and religious power. The evidence further suggests that, as a mode of supernatural mediation, dance was conducted as a collective experience. Through group performances, persons extended their bodies into religious phenomena (divinities, spirit companions, etc.) which were themselves collectively conceived and inherent in costumes, masks, and even the venues of performance. At the same time, these experiences were interpreted biographically, framed with reference to individual rulers and nobility. In this way, spiritual embodiment became embedded in personal histories, which constituted focus of prestige and power during the Classic period. To say that such performances amounted to mere ideological communication or the experience of communitas, as is the norm for most current studies of Maya performance, would be an oversimplification.