Dancing for Mary

It’s almost time for one of the biggest Marian feasts on the calendar, and in parts of Texas that will bring people into the streets for a colorful celebration:

Wearing an emblem of the Virgin Mary on the front of their elaborate costumes and a guardian angel on the back, young dancers kick, march, stomp and swing their arms along with the beat of a tip-tapping drum.

“Each step is like praying the rosary,” said Manuel Sanchez, leader of a 40-person group of matachines, or devotional dancers, from St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Aldine.

Their dancing is a centuries-old tradition among Mexican-Americans to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose Dec. 12 feast day celebrations fall in the midst of the Advent season, when Catholics are preparing to celebrate Christ’s divine birth.

After practicing year-round, St. Leo’s matachines will join dozens of others for a big procession downtown on Saturday during the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s celebration of the patron saint of the Americas.

The matachines wear signature-style, giant headpieces and traditional, Aztec-style dress, and they entertain thousands of Houstonians each year with their synchronized moves and almost hypnotic rhythm, but the real purpose of the dancing is spiritual. The matachines are faithful Catholics first and dancers second.

“The Virgin will choose her dancers. My steps are not hard, and if the Virgin wants you to be a dancer she will give you the ability,” said Sanchez, who requires the young Catholics – ages 6 to 18 – to write a letter each year about their calling to this ministry and to research different apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

Latino Catholics across the U.S. maintain a strong Marian devotion, and nearly all say they pray to her during difficult times and believe she watches over them, according to research by the Pew Hispanic Center.

The matachines see themselves as warriors and defenders of the Virgin Mary though their dancing, and they share testimonies of her intercession in their lives.

Read the rest.

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6 responses to “Dancing for Mary”

  1. This is a really nice article. Sometimes it’s hard to understand the Catholicness of pageantry and festival customs of another culture. (Sometimes it’s hard to understand our own, or our lack thereof!) So it’s nice to have a little door opened.

    There’s apparently a certain amount of branching historical relationship between matachin dances and Morris dances, mostly because both were inspired by Spanish “Moorish dances”, sword dances, and other forms of dance play. Obviously a lot of things of native ethnic interest got smooshed into it by local dancers, in both cases; and in both cases, there’s a lot of people seeing supposed ancient pagan roots for a custom largely carried on by enthusiastic churchgoers. But really, anything that looks like a play and has European background is usually something Catholic, underneath it all.

  2. Those dudes, and the very nature of their practice, are as pagan as any druid in any grove or any priest who ever danced up the sun at Stonehenge! I get a kick out of European-descended Catholics who think they’ve converted aboriginal cultures and co-opted them 100% into Christianity, when it’s clear the reverse is true. They were, and very often are, people of pagan spirit who have co-opted Catholicism into their pantheon like the latest software upgrade for an operating system.

    I think that’s hillarious, and as a pagan myself, I don’t think it detracts from the authenticity of their worship at all, although I’m sure it gives more than a few bishops night terrors to ponder. I’m sort of in awe of guys like these dancers. They’re more pagan than I could ever hope to be, and yet probably more passionate Catholics than most of the suit-wearing white folk who sit quietly through Mass every Sunday.

  3. I was born in Mexico City on a December 2. I grew up watching the Indian Dancers at the original Guadalupe Basilica, as each year we went there at lest two or three times. We always avoided December 12 though, because the crowds are incredible.

    The Catholic faith rejects nothing that is good and true. Matachines dancing is a much better alternative to the old Aztec custom of confronting warrior vs. warrior in a match to death as an alternative to being sacrificed on the “Templo Mayor”. Pagan Aztec culture was barbarous, cruel and deathly. Their lord Huitzilopochtli was a blood thirsty demon that demanded blood. The blood was so thick inside the temple that it created a coat inches thick of rotting blood and stench. Just like in Rome, paganism meant death, subjugation and abject superstition.

    Guadalupe came at time that the Aztecs had been defeated by the Spaniards, their culture in disarray, their ranks decimated by plague, their gods dead, their hope gone. She brought the light of hope back the demoralized Indians and brought them to Christianity. I think the only ones not sleeping in their beds because of these people are not Catholic bishops, but modern day secularists and others who can’t figure out why these dark people believe so much!

  4. As a Hispanic male i laugh when i read things like “Those dudes, and the very nature of their practice, are as pagan as any druid in any grove.”

    Of courese if it is said by a white male it must be true, right?

  5. What a great way to show their Catholic faith and beliefs—and devotion to Mary. Beautiful costumes.

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