Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Stilt Dance: My surprisingly large role in restoring an ancient Mayan tradition to the heart of Toledo.

As a Peace Corps volunteer I often leave the house without much of a plan other than to come back when it’s dark or I’m hungry. On one fateful day my work partner approached me with the idea of taking a group of 9 youth to a campsite in the middle of the woods to learn how to walk on stilts. “That sounds amazing!” I said without any idea of the deep historical meaning of the Chitick Dance. It wasn’t until days later that I even learned it was an ancient Mayan tradition.

Believe it or not, walking on stilts is an ancient Maya tradition! Lost to Belize for generations, this beautiful art form has been resurrected thanks to the determination of a humble Peace Corps volunteer, a team of instructors from Belize/Guatemala, and a troupe of courageous kids.

The Stilt Dance, known locally as the Chitick Dance, originated in the Mayan creation book called the Popol Vuh. The Popol Vuh is the oldest Maya myth to have been preserved in its entirety. The Stilt Dance was performed by the hero twins of the Popol Vuh called Hunahpu and Xbalanque in a plot to defeat the Lords of the Underworld or Xibalba (the x is pronounced “sh”) The Lords of  Xibalba planned to destroy the twins by tricking them into an oven to burn to their deaths. The twins discovered the plot and surprisingly allowed themselves to be killed. Their bones were ground into dust and thrown into a river where they miraculously regenerated into back into a pair of young boys again.

Unrecognizable by the people of the Underworld; the twins performed a number of miracles and performances, including the stilt dance. When the Lords of Xibalba heard of these miracles they demanded to see such marvels in person.  The hero twins took the offer as a part of their plot to ruin the Underworld. They pretended to be orphans and the Lords were none the wiser. In a climactic performance, Xbalanque cut Hunahpu apart and offered him as a sacrifice, only to have the older brother rise once again from the dead. The Lords demanded that the miracle be performed on them. The twins obliged by killing and offering the Lords as a sacrifice, but predictably did not bring them back from the dead. All of Xibalba was then defeated.

To reenact such a dramatic piece of cultural heritage is a great honor. At Tumul K’in students take pride and ownership of a culture, language, and spirituality that is at risk of being lost to an increasingly globalized world. To bring the Chitick Dance back to Toledo is symbolic of the cultural restoration and preservation that is central to Tumul K’in’s mission.

The students and I raised money to take a bus to Succotz for a 4 day stilt walking and cultural exchange gathering with the Caracol Youth Group from Arenal village. Fascinatingly, Arenal is a small village located exactly half in Belize and half in Guatemala. In four quick days we learned everything from stilt construction to costume design and makeup. What surprised me most was the courage of the youth as they stood on the stilts for the first time. Girls, who are traditionally shy and reluctant, were standing as tall and as proud as the boys.

Arriving back at Tumul K’in, we only had a few short weeks to construct 6 pairs of stilts, design and sew 6 costumes, and choreograph a full dance to present at Maya Day. Miraculously we pulled it all together in time to present a show stopping finale at Maya Day in Blue Creek Village, home of the Stilt Walkers. As I watched the kids perform the story of the Popul Vuh, in full body makeup and costume, on stilts, to a crowd of over a thousand people, my heart beamed with joy. Since that first performance the Tumul K’in Stilt Walkers have gone on to win a first place trophy at The Festival of Arts and are now headed to Belize City for the final round of the competition.

As we walked back to the staging area after a show I asked one of the female performers how she felt. With a radiating smile she declared “PROUD!” with more confidence and poise than I ever thought was possible. To these kids, stilt walking is more than just a fun thing to do once in a while. It’s about reclaiming a piece of their cultural heritage, men and women walking on the same level, confidence, grace, and responsibility. It’s about teamwork and confronting fears.

I’m so honored to be a part of this extraordinary time in history. Organizing fundraisers, staying up late to sew ornate headdresses, and corralling a bunch of hyper teenagers into a choreographed representation of the Popol Vuh are all things I’ve come to accept as a part of my ordinary life in the village. However, I know that I am a part of a piece of Mayan history and it is something I will remember for the rest of my life.

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