9 Traditional Folk Dances of Guatemala
Traditional folk dances are highly important to Guatemalan culture. They are a celebration of the Guatemalan indigenous tribes and their mixture with the Spanish and African cultures that made their way to the territory during the conquest.
If you’re eager to learn more about Guatemalan ethnicities and their traditional dances, join me as I unravel them ahead.
The Ethnicities of Guatemala
Guatemala is divided politically into 8 regions, 22 departments, and 340 municipalities. This vast territory is home to many different ethnicities.
Here are the most popular ethnicities of Guatemala:
- Mestizo (or ladino) is a person of European and indigenous descent.
- Creole (criollo) is someone of European descent who was born in Guatemala.
- Maya, of which there are 22 different tribes—the most popular are Kaqchikeles and Quichés.
- Garífuna is a person of African descent and who was born in Guatemala.
- Xinca, who make up for an indigenous tribe apart from the Maya.
FUN FACT! Many municipalities in Guatemala combine the Spanish and indigenous cultures by using a saint’s name combined with an indigenous name. Some examples are San Antonio Xenacoj, Santa María Nebaj, and San Gaspar Ixchil.
1. Dance of the Deer
- Departments: Guatemala, Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, Chimaltenango, Sacatepéquez, San Marcos, Sololá, Huehuetenango, and Quiché
- Origin: Prehispanic
Dance of the Deer (El baile del venado) is one of the most famous traditional folk dances of Guatemala—people dance it in at least 9 departments.
Guatemalans dance the Dance of the Deer on different dates and with different details as well. Each municipality celebrates with this dance on their respective patronal feast.
The dance of the deer has 26 dancers, who start the process of rehearsing 1 or 2 months before presenting the dance. They spend this time purifying their body and their spirit.
El baile del venado represents the story of the ancient hunting ritual the Maya performed. They meant to hunt down deer to eat, but in the process they must fight against other animals who want to eat deer too. A lion and a tiger represent these animals. In the process there are also monkeys involved, which add a fun tone to the representation. Dancers dance to the notes that the marimba (a wooden xylophone) player produces.
The traditional dance ends well with everybody being invited to eat some meat.
PRO TIP! Some countries divide themselves into states, regions, or provinces. Guatemala, however, divides itself politically into 22 departments.
2. Dance of the Flying Stick
- Departments: Quiché and Baja Verapaz
- Origin: prehispanic
The Dance of the Flying Stick (El baile del palo volador or simply El palo volador) is a very special dance that only people from Quiché (quichelenses) and Baja Verapaz (baja verapaceños) celebrate. More specifically in 4 municipalities on their respective patronal feasts.
- Cubulco, Baja Verapaz (July 25th)
- Granados, Baja Verapaz (May 3rd)
- Joyabaj, Quiché (August 15th)
- Chichicastenango, Quiché (December 21st)
This dance is based on the Popol Vuh (an ancient Mayan book which explains the origin of life in the Mayan perspective), and tells the story of two twin brothers who wanted to assassinate their other brothers but failed and became monkeys.
Men dressed as monkeys dance to the sound of the marimba as they start climbing up “the stick” (el palo), which is about 100 feet tall (30 m). Up there, they swing from ropes as they spin around the stick. As the ropes extend, they safely and gracefully reach the ground.
PRO TIP! Each of Guatemala’s 22 departments has its own patronal feasts depending on the municipality’s saint.
3. The Dance of Moors and Christians
- Departments: Guatemala, Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, Chiquimula, Chimaltenango, Sacatepéquez, San Marcos, Sololá, and Suchitepéquez
- Origin: hispanic
The dance of Moors and Christians is another widely popular dance in Guatemala, which Guatemalans dance in 9 departments.
When Spaniards came to Guatemala they used this dance in order to convert the indigenous tribes into Christians. This represented the 800 year-long battle of the Spaniards against the Moors in their territory.
The dancers who represent the Spaniards wear masks with beards and white faces, whereas the dancers who represent the moors wear masks with darker tones. All of them dance to the marimba which dictates the rhythm of the dance and they carry some maracas which they sound as they dance.
4. Dance of the Rabinal Achí
- Departments: Baja Verapaz
- Origin: Hispanic
The dance of the Rabinal Achí (La danza del Rabinal Achí) is the only Guatemalan dance that remains intact and was born before the Spanish colonization. People dance it in the municipality of San Pablo Rabinal. They celebrate it in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz every January 25th.
The dance, however, is not presented in Spanish but in Achí (an indigenous language that locals speak in Guatemala) and it tells the story of two princes. The Quiché prince and the Rabinal prince.
The Quiché prince attacks and captures an important member of the Rabinal tribe, but the Rabinal prince spots him and defends his people. The Rabinal people sentence the Quiché prince to a trial, and he has the option to spare his own life—but his pride makes him choose death instead, along with three last wishes:
- Drinking the Rabinaleb beverage.
- Dancing with the Rabinal princess
- Getting 260 days to say goodbye to his land.
The Quiché prince finally fulfills his sentence and the Rabinal people execute him.
This dance also involves 9 ceremonies before and after playing it to ask for the permission of their ancestors to execute the dance well as well as to thank them for letting them interpret the dance. The dance has 21 different characters!
5. Dance of the Monkeys
- Department: Alta Verapaz and Totonicapán
- Origin: Prehispanic
Dance of the Monkeys (Danza de los micos) has its origin in the municipality of San Antonio Senahu, in Alta Verapaz, in the northern region of Guatemala. This municipality has its patronal feast on June 13th, which is when they perform this dance. This is a similar traditional folk dance to el palo volador because the brave locals perform it in a kind of tight rope.
They place one 100 feet tall (30 m) stick and connect it with the Cathedral in the town’s square. From there people perform erratic, acrobatic, monkey-like stunts. This dance revives the creation of the monkey—a highly important animal in the Maya culture, based on the Popol Vuh. As many other Guatemalan traditional folk dances, marimba accompanies the dance with its own set piece named Ah Xul.
6. Dance of the Conquest
- Departments: Baja Verapaz, Guatemala, Escuintla, Sacatepéquez, Retalhuleu, San Marcos, Sololá, Suchitepéquez and Quiché
- Origin: hispanic
Dominican frailes invented the Dance of the Conquest (La danza de la conquista) in Guatemala in order to convert the indigenous into Christianity by leading them to think that the conquest of Guatemala was thanks to a more powerful deity (God in a Catholic point of view) than theirs.
This dance tells, possibly, the most famous Guatemalan legend ever. The legend of the Quiché prince, Tecún Umán, and how Pedro de Alvarado led the Spaniards to defeat the Quiché empire. The legend says that the Quetzal (Guatemala’s national bird) has a red chest, because he stood in the Quiché warrior’s chest, covered in blood, in his dying breath.
Many Guatemalan municipalities celebrate and perform this dance on their own patronal feasts dancing to the beat of a marimba, Spanish drums and hornpipes.
7. Dance of the Cowboys
- Departments: Guatemala, Baja Verapaz, Chimaltenango, San Marcos, Sololá and Quiché
- Origin: hispanic
The Dance of the Cowboys (literally el baile de los vaqueros but locals know it more popularly as el baile del torito which translates literally to “dance of the little bull”) is a Guatemalan traditional folk dance focused on comedy and mischief.
This traditional folk dance is inspired by a warden who doesn’t let cowboys tame a bull because the animal is too furious. The cowboys coerce the warden to do it himself and he unfortunately dies because of it.
This traditional folk dance, as many others, is danced on each municipality’s patronal feast. This, however, is a long dance. They dance for 10 hours straight, for ten days, and cannot take off their masks, since they believe this brings bad luck. The dance consists of people trying to grab the bull (a person with a bull’s mask) who is trying to scare the crowd, and release him to repeat the ritual. There are 38 characters.
- Departments: Guatemala, Alta Verapaz, San Marcos, Sololá, and Quiché
- Origin: hispanic
The word convite comes from the verb “to share” (convidar o compartir). This dance is a direct inheritance from the Spanish parades in carnivals. Convites have evolved over time.
Guatemalans started to celebrate convites in each municipality’s patronal feast, and they used to be a religious celebration exclusively in which they venerated the municipality’s saint. People used to wear different animal’s masks as costumes.
Nowadays, however, convites have changed drastically and people use contemporary music and dress up as famous TV characters.
- Department: Izabal
- Origin: hispanic
The Yancunú dance (yancunú or baile de los mascaros) is a garífuna dance which garifunas dance in Izabal. They dance it on November 26th in order to celebrate the garífuna settlement day, and receive Honduran and Belizean garifunas too.
During the dance, musicians play to the rhythm of the dancers (yes! you read that right), who wear snail shells on their knees and they shake around when they dance. The legend says that garífunas heard that British troops were coming back to Guatemala to mistreat them, so the men decided to dress as women in order to calm the British troops. Once calm they would attack and repel the invasion, dancing once more because of the victory obtained.
Garifunas also dance the Yancunú in order to say goodbye to their deceased ones.
Learn more about Guatemala: 10 Ways to Celebrate Guatemala’s Independence Day Like a Local!
Prepare to Visit Guatemala in Spanish
Guatemala is without a doubt a place full of culture and beauty (you can take my word for it—I’ve lived here practically my entire life), and despite having 24 indigenous languages, the country’s official language is Spanish, which is why you can ease your travels by learning some Spanish!
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