This Saturday [Sept. 30], the 20th International Festival in Harrisonburg will again include Aztec dancing as part of the celebration of the city’s cultural and language diversity. The dancers are led by a Harrisonburg couple who are working to keep alive the Aztec traditions in their Mexican roots, as WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.
If you’ve seen the Aztec dancing in past years at the International Festival, you know it’s a real treat.
[Sounds of dancing]
The group is led by Miguel Muniz. His passion for Aztec dance has spawned a number of groups across the country, from Philadelphia to New York City to Marshall, Texas, but it started in Mexico City, when he was 11. It was 1991, and that July there was to be a total solar eclipse. He saw a big group getting ready.
MIGUEL MUNIZ: I was fascinated: their costumes, the feathers, the drums. I started learning the dance, a little bit of philosophy, history, language.
He later officially joined the group, and then in 2000 came to New York City to work, where his aunt connected him with a church interested in learning cultural dance. It happened to be the church that Anaid Cordova attended. Her parents had come to New York from the same area of Mexico as Miguel’s maternal family is from.
ANAID CORDOVA: I don’t know that I want to speak for all first generation kids, but I felt connected, but at the same time, it’s hard, right? You’re living here, and yet you’re not necessarily fully American, so meeting Miguel and learning about traditions and different ways to be proud of who you are and to be able to participate in that culture and to express it more fully was very empowering.
Miguel didn’t know it when he started, but he wasn’t the first in his own family to do Aztec dance.
MIGUEL: Many years later, I learned that my great grandmother Manuela Rodriguez, she was a dancer, a traditional dancer.
ANAID: She was an indigenous woman, and so that was not, at that time, I don’t think, something necessarily to be very proud of. Nobody else continued with it, and nobody really talked about it.
MIGUEL: In our family it was only her and now me.
Now, Anaid and Miguel have their own family. They have lived in Harrisonburg since 2004, and attend a Mennonite church. In many ways, Anaid said, they’re pretty normal: seventeen-year-old Lizet is in her second year as co-drum major at Harrisonburg High School. Leilani, 13, is a runner and does track, is also in band, and works backstage for school musicals. Twelve-year-old Emiliano loves soccer. Their youngest, four-year-old Miguelangel, just wants a snack.
MIGUELANGEL: I want a popsicle.
But Anaid and Miguel hope also to raise their kids with a love for their Aztec culture. At their ceremonies and dances they require them to participate at least a little, and Anaid said that most of the time, the kids are glad they did it. Emiliano agrees:
EMILIANO: It’s really cool. It’s something unique you can say about yourself, that not most people can say.
Lizet said that the Aztec dancing has helped shape her as a drum major:
LIZET: Dancing — it’s a way for us to channel all of our emotions and kind of be in touch with the earth and nature. Being a drum major and conducting it helps me feel connected to the music and be connected to all of the musicians who are on the field.
[Sounds of the Harrisonburg High School marching band conducted by Lizet]
That idea of connection through dance is key.
MIGUEL: For many of us Aztec dancers, this is kind of like our religion, but I don’t like to use “religion.” It’s more the way we connect with Mother Earth, the sun, the stars. All our dances are close to nature. We don’t have an image of God. We call that idea Moyokoyani, which means, “That that has no beginning or ending.” Everything is connected, everything is one creation. So when we dance, we pray with our feet.
What people see at the International Festival is really just a taste of the dancing and ceremonies that can last for hours.
MIGUEL: Sometimes we keep going into nine, 10 hours. And that’s for dance. We have another ceremony that we call Velacion, which starts when the sun sets and ends when the sun rise, and then you start with the dance.
Even if the performance timeslots at the International Festival are short, it is a place that Miguel and Anaid can show — to an appreciative community — a deeply meaningful part of their past — and present.
MIGUEL: We bring our identity as Mexicans, native Mexicans, and our dignity. I feel like the International Festival is a place anybody can go with their dignity.
This weekend Aztec dancers from at least Pennsylvania and New York will join Miguel and likely more of the family in opening the International Festival, at noon Saturday; later they’ll have their own, private ceremony.