Actors in the Maya Deer Dance
Many masked dances in the Maya culture have pre-Columbian roots and were incorporated into the Catholic celebration calendar after Spanish contact and conquest. Dances historically performed by the Maya cultures in southern Belize are no exception. The Cortez, Deer, Devil, and Monkey dances, performed by the Mopan and Kekchi, all have a Catholic facade covering a Maya history. Although many stories and acts have been altered to comply with Catholic tradition, these cultural celebrations remain rooted in ancient legends. The Catholic belief system that attributes certain powers to saints was similar to the pre-contact Maya religious universe that delegated certain powers to individual deities. Therefore, masked dances survived and even thrived in a post-contact, Catholic Maya cultural landscape.
Of the Maya traditions that survived the cultural conquest, the masked dance remains one of the most important because it commemorates patron saint's feast days or other religious holidays. Masked dances are significant community events because they involve large numbers of people, demand a great deal of preparation time, and help redistribute local funds through payment for food preparation and musicians. Thus, it serves to enhance solidarity, and material and economic exchange in a community.
Until recently, masked dances maintained great social importance among Mopan and Kekchi Maya. In the past two decades, the tradition of performing masked dances has lost village-wide support or been abandoned completely. One significant factor that has contributed to the decline of this cultural institution is evangelical missionaries from the United States. - Cultural Survival
Photograph by Tony Rath
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