La Chilena and the Dancing Bull

by Lindajoy Fenley

April 9, 2011

Most tourists in Mexico never go south of Acapulco, but that’s the beginning of the Costa Chica, a little-traveled region I had long dreamt of exploring. Last December, I finally went, spending two weeks searching for musical traditions unique to the region along the Pacific Coast of Guerrero and Oaxaca states.

At the end of my first-ever sojourn into the region, I regretted not seeing the flirtatious chilena dance more than once. I had been too shy to take out my camera the first day of my trip when I had happened upon a small roadside celebration where women danced the chilena. I thought I’d see the dance again, but hadn’t. As I left the region, I stopped in Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero, to see a pre-Christmas parade of music and dance each year that attracts musicians and dancers from throughout the state.

After spending a long morning watching dancers with elaborately carved masks and colorful costumes move down the city streets, I was ready to head back to Mexico City, when I finally heard a band playing chilena music. I turned and saw a woman in a beaded blouse and a simple blue skirt in the middle of the street. She was an expert chilena dancer, and already had the full attention of others as she danced gracefully, smiling at her partner and following him with her eyes. She adeptly flipped a red bandana, even though it usually is the male partner who manipulates a colorful cloth to signal his partner which way to circle.

The chilena is a coquettish dance that Mexico’s southern coast reportedly inherited from Chilean and Peruvian sailors who stopped in Acapulco on their way to the California goldfields in the 19th century. It took root south of that Pacific port, and today, is danced throughout the Costa Chica, a region extending some 160 miles southeast and inland to the town of Tixtla. Chilena music usually features picturesque verses, but when I watched the woman in Chilpancingo, a brass band provided instrumental music.

The street dancing was part of an annual parade called the Paseo del Pendón, a harbinger of the San Mateo Fair celebrating Christmas and the New Year. Each year the parade attracts tens of thousands of spectators and hundreds of traditional dancers from throughout Guerrero to Chilpancingo, the centrally located state capital. As I watched couples dancing the chilena, tlacololeroswearing comical masks briefly interrupted the scene, and a colorful Toro de Petate – an image made of a wooden frame covered with a petate, or palm frond rug, and decorated with curly, colorful ribbons – awaited my attention. The Toro, a make-believe bull from the town of Ometepec, is so heavy that the dancer who carries it lasts only a few minutes before friends hold it up so he can escape.

I continued to enjoy watching the dancers when the Toro began to twirl and I lost sight of the chilena dancer. The colorful bull then had my full attention, until suddenly a man wearing a black mask snapped his whip at it several times before holding up an axe in a sign of strength and victory. I turned away momentarily and when I looked back, he was dancing with the lovely lady in the blue skirt.

The Paseo del Pendón, lubricated with a free flow of mezcal liquor, apparently creates strange bedfellows.

Lindajoy Fenley founded Dos Tradiciones, a Mexican non-profit that promotes the traditional music of that nation.

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