We’re kicking off our guide with what is easily the most internationally well-known and arguably the most patriotic of all of Mexico’s traditional dances—the Jarabe Tapatío. Typically, and weirdly, referred to as the Mexican Hat Dance in English, Mexico’s national dance is intricately linked with national pride. One aspect that possibly aids the enduring popularity of this courtship dance (aside from Anna Pavlova’s en pointe version) are the distinctly Mexican outfits; the male dancer wears a charro suit and the female dancer a china poblana dress.
La Conquista is a traditional Mexican dance that, unsurprisingly, narrates the story of the Spanish conquest. Masked dancers play all of the key historical players, from Hernán Cortés and La Malinche to Moctezuma, before depicting the death of the latter at the hands of the former. It’s particularly popular in the western states of Michoacán and Jalisco, and although it’s not an indigenous dance, the tragic story it depicts is more than important in terms of Mexican history.
Popular in the state of Michoacán is the Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Little Old Men). Technically, this dance was created and popularized in the 20th century, but its roots and rhythm are rooted firmly in traditional folk dance. This dance is notable for the wooden shoes worn by the dancers, which certainly make each step they take that much more impactful. Traditional instruments and indigenous clothing are also featured in the Danza de los Viejitos, which often finds itself compared to a similar dance known as Huehuenches or Huehues.
Another one of Mexico’s ritualistic dances is the Danza del Venado (Deer Dance), which depicts the story of a deer hunt and is typically performed around springtime. Originating in the Yaqui regions of Sonora and Sinaloa, renditions of this practically unchanged and unaltered dance are now performed across the country and even in parts of the U.S. The great thing about the Danza del Venado is that it’s instantly identifiable; the dancers wear real or imitation antlers on their heads with red ribbon accents.
Another iconic dance is Los Voladores de Papantla, which is considered by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. Prepare to be terrified, because the event begins with all five participants scaling a 30-meter high pole, from which four of them then proceed to drop; one lucky member remains at the top playing a flute and drum. Attached only by a rope, they gently twirl, spin and descend to the ground, as their presumably very dizzy compatriot at the top continues to play his instruments.
Featuring dancers dressed in indigenous get ups, such as headdresses and body paint, Concheros is predominantly an indigenous dance. Although there’s some European influence in the form of armadillo shell lutes, the other instruments that accompany it, like drums and flutes, are more authentic. You might hear Concheros referred to as Apaches, Indios or Chichimecas too, but don’t get confused as they’re all the same.
A dance that is key to understanding Mexico’s often sidelined African heritage is the Guerrero/Oaxaca-based Danza de los Diablos. Originally developed during the colonial period in which the Spanish brought African slaves to the coasts of Mexico, Danza de los Diablos features characteristics particularly unique to the region. All of the participants wear masks and dress more or less the same, with the exception of the dancer interpreting the role of the Diablo Mayor, who has more elegant attire.
This dance is particularly popular and is performed all over the north of the country, particularly in Zacatecas. Matlachines is especially known for the colorful outfits the dancers wear, including chicken feather headdresses usually dyed to match the colors of the Mexican flag and, like the Danza de los Viejitos, wood-soled shoes that help emphasize the sound of each step. Although Tlaxcala sometimes lays claim to Matlachines, it’s generally accepted that the dance originated in Aguascalientes.
One of the few entirely non-indigenous dances included on this guide to traditional Mexican dance is the so called Moros y Cristianos dance. First introduced by monks, the dance of the Moros y Cristianos (or Moors and Christians) is now typically included as part of a larger festival that includes other elements such as mock battles. All participants, whether they are playing Moors or Christians, wear capes and masks depicting their allegiances.
Now considered a symbol of the state of Morelos, even though it was originally practiced during Carnival celebrations in the south of Mexico City, the State of Mexico and the aforementioned Morelos, this dance pokes fun at the Spanish. The dancers disguise themselves (the word chinelos is alleged to have come from the Nahuatl for ‘disguised’) and take on the roles of the Spanish, imitating their elaborate dress, as well as their fair coloring.