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To Be Like Gods

To Be Like Gods
Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization

Drawing on a wealth of evidence from epigraphy, iconography, style, and architectural analysis, Looper offers the first extensive interpretation of the role of dance in ancient Maya society.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies, The Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

January 2009
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296 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 16 color photos, 208 b&w figures, 2 maps, 2 tables |

The Maya of Mexico and Central America have performed ritual dances for more than two millennia. Dance is still an essential component of religious experience today, serving as a medium for communication with the supernatural. During the Late Classic period (AD 600-900), dance assumed additional importance in Maya royal courts through an association with feasting and gift exchange. These performances allowed rulers to forge political alliances and demonstrate their control of trade in luxury goods. The aesthetic values embodied in these performances were closely tied to Maya social structure, expressing notions of gender, rank, and status. Dance was thus not simply entertainment, but was fundamental to ancient Maya notions of social, religious, and political identity.

Using an innovative interdisciplinary approach, Matthew Looper examines several types of data relevant to ancient Maya dance, including hieroglyphic texts, pictorial images in diverse media, and architecture. A series of case studies illustrates the application of various analytical methodologies and offers interpretations of the form, meaning, and social significance of dance performance. Although the nuances of movement in Maya dances are impossible to recover, Looper demonstrates that a wealth of other data survives which allows a detailed consideration of many aspects of performance. To Be Like Gods thus provides the first comprehensive interpretation of the role of dance in ancient Maya society and also serves as a model for comparative research in the archaeology of performance.


2010 Association for Latin American Art Book Award

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Definition and Interpretation of Ancient Maya Dance
    • Definitions of Dance
    • History of Maya Dance Studies
    • Aesthetics and Embodiment
    • Sources and Methods
  • Chapter 1: The Textual Record of Dance
    • Decipherment of Dance Texts
    • The Contexts of T516 "Dance" Expressions
    • Case Study 1: Dos Pilas
    • Case Study 2: Yaxchilán
    • Conclusions
  • Chapter 2: The Iconography of Dance
    • Identifying Dance Iconography
    • Case Study: Dance in the Bonampak Murals
    • Conclusions
  • Chapter 3: Dance Poses and Gestures
    • The Study of Body Positions in Maya Art
    • Dance Poses
    • Problematic Poses
    • From Pose to Gesture: Reconstructing Dance Movement from Figural Images
    • Case Study: Narrative and Avian Dances
    • Conclusions
  • Chapter 4: Dance on Classic Maya Ceramics
    • by Matthew Looper, Dorie Reents-Budet, and Ronald L. Bishop
    • Case Study 1: Dances of the Maize God
    • Case Study 2: The Ik'-Style Corpus of Pictorial Cylinder Vessels
    • Conclusions
  • Chapter 5: The Architectural Settings of Dance
    • Case Study 1: Dance Platforms at Copán and the Yucatán
    • Case Study 2: Temple and Palace Dances in Campeche
    • Conclusions
  • Chapter 6: The Persistence of Maya Dance After European Contact
    • Characteristics of Colonial and Modern Maya Dance
    • Case Study: The Patzkar
    • Conclusions
  • Epilogue: Dance as an Image of Civilization
    • Dance as an Image of Divinity
    • Dance as an Image of Society
    • Dance as an Image of the State
    • Aesthetics as Image and Process
    • Dance in Ancient Maya History
  • Appendix: T516 "Dance" Expressions Ordered by Date
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Matthew G. Looper is a Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at California State University, Chico. His publications include Lightning Warrior: Maya Art and Kingship at Quirigua.


A series of rocket explosions reverberates through the village as two bands play competing rhythms in the main square, amplified by massive loudspeakers. It is 5 a.m. on December 22, 2004, and the annual festival in the highland Maya town of Chichicastenango is underway. Food stalls have been active for hours, adding their pungent smoke to the clouds of blue incense burned by Maya shamans on the shaded church steps. In the cobbled rectangular plaza, teams of twenty-five masked men dressed for the Toritos, or Little Bulls, dance arrange themselves in front of the band pavilions. They begin to dance, alternately in double rows and circles, clutching gourd rattles that they use to signal the musicians. As the sun rises over the church, the plaza is suddenly filled with the glistening light reflected by their multicolored costumes (Plate 15).


Through pantomime movements and a text that takes several hours to recite, the troupes tell the story of the death of bullfighters (see Edmonson 1997: 83-112). The men who participate have sacrificed time and money to complete the training for the dance, which honors the local patron saint. By 9 a.m., the festival reaches a crescendo, marked by the tolling of church bells, the cry of vendors, and music so loud that a vendor's balloons nearly burst when he walks in front of the speakers. And yet the men dance, marking time with vigorous heel or toe stomps, pausing only when the statues of the saints emerge from the church, borne on huge feathered and mirrored litters.


Even though it is of recent origin, the Little Bulls dance evokes a performance tradition nearly two thousand years old. During the Classic period (AD 250-900), the ancient Maya participated in elaborate dances, often organized by god-like kings. Although many aspects of Maya civilization have been studied, performance arts such as dance have received little scholarly attention. An obvious reason for this neglect involves the ephemeral nature of performance, which leaves minimal traces in the archaeological record. In addition, the study of ancient Maya performance has been hindered by the traditional disciplinary boundaries of western academe, which separate the sciences from the humanities, and therefore, archaeology from performance studies.


In an attempt to reintegrate these seemingly disparate areas of inquiry, this book examines ancient Maya dance from an interdisciplinary perspective. While ambitious, this project might seem problematic. Critical is the question of genre itself: how are we justified in using the term dance to refer to a particular type of performance in the ancient Maya context? Second, we need to examine carefully the nature and function of dance and the aesthetics of performance in relation to current conceptions of human agency and political power. Finally, we must consider the evidence and methods that allow us to make inferences concerning the history of dance in Maya culture. In the discussion that follows, I will examine each of these issues in order to provide a framework for the interpretation of dances performed over a thousand years ago in the jungle cities of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras (Fig. I.1).


Definitions of Dance


Terminology is always problematic in a cross-cultural discussion, but essential for establishing the categorical structure through which we attempt to translate concepts. It is therefore important to define exactly what is meant by dance and to appreciate the implications of this definition.


One possible approach to terminology would be to establish a cross-culturally valid definition of dance. Various definitions have been proposed, many of which focus on the formal characteristics of dance. For example, Joann Kealiinohomoku argues that dance is performed by a human body using controlled rhythmical movements in space, is transient, and has a form and style recognized by both performer and observer (1976: 25). Other scholars attempt to add aesthetics to the formula (Hanna 1979: 316; Kaeppler 1971, 1978a: 32). These definitions have been criticized as insufficient, either because they are too narrow or too broad, or because they fail to account for examples of movement systems that correspond to western definitions of dance (Royce 1980: 8). In the end, the search for cross-culturally valid definitions usually degenerates into an exercise in English-language semantics which is of little use in interpreting non-western dance traditions.


Since the 1970s, many scholars have explicitly questioned the validity of dance as a self-contained category suitable for cross-cultural comparison (Lewis 1995; Merriam 1974). As Adrienne Kaeppler (1978a: 47) concludes, "the concept of 'dance' may actually be masking the importance and usefulness of analyzing human movement systems." A similar argument is made by Paul Spencer (1985: 38), who suggests that "dance must be defined in whatever way seems most appropriate to the study of any specific situation or society. Dance is not an entity in itself, but belongs rightfully to the wider analysis of ritual action, and it is in this context that one can approach it analytically and grant it the attention it demands." The definition of dance among the Maya should therefore include cultural context so that our representation is not distorted by ethnocentric bias.


In fact, Mayan languages have terms that correspond quite closely, though not precisely, to the meanings of the English term dance. Although space does not permit a complete semantic analysis, some observations are relevant. In Mayan languages, terms translated as "dance" include cognates of b'iix (Huastec, Yucatec, and Mamean languages), kanhal (Qanjob'alan languages), ahk'oot or ahk'ut (Lowland languages), or xaj (Eastern Mayan languages) (data from Kaufman 2003: 747-748). Reflexes of the Lowland Mayan terms ahk'oot/ahk'ut are documented in Classic-period texts (Grube 1992). These are distinct from terms for "play," "sing," or other actions, including playing various kinds of instruments. The actions they refer to in modern Mayan languages encompass rhythmic, structured human movement, usually in groups. These performances are frequently accompanied by music, sometimes provided by the dancers themselves. As in English, Maya "dancing" tends to emphasize movement of the feet and legs with weight-shift and is highly "framed," distinguished from quotidian activity. It is also categorized according to local conventions of dance, subject to aesthetic norms, and performed within specific contexts.1


We can see that from a formal point of view, "dance" among the Maya seems close to the English language concept. However, a formal similarity does not amount to complete congruence. A systematic consideration of genre within a dance tradition should include four variables: the media of presentation, the nature of the performers, the content of presentation, and the role of the audience (adapted from Beeman 1993: 381). Media elements include the stylized rhythmic movements that are part of the performance and also music and text, either sung or spoken, costumes and props, and spatial settings. "The nature of the performers" refers to the identities and roles of the dancers, including the use of masks or animated objects such as puppets. "Content of presentation" refers to the nature of the choreography and narrative, including a relatively scripted or improvised performance. Finally, the audience may play various roles as participants, witnesses, or critics. As an example of the evaluation of a dance genre according to these criteria, the Balinese Rangda-Barong could be described as "dance theater involving a mixture of human beings and animated objects, performing a mixture of scripted and unscripted text among an audience of participants" (Beeman 1993: 381). This type of analysis is essential for the basic understanding of dance performance as a genre. Among the ancient Maya, dance encompassed several genres of performance that have only recently been recognized.


History of Maya Dance Studies


Interest in ancient Maya dance is closely connected to recent developments within both cultural anthropology and archaeology. Prior to the 1970s, dance was of little interest to scholars in either field (Royce 1980; Youngerman 1998). Dance was considered to be of secondary significance in comparison to cultural and kinship systems, or as Kaeppler (1978a: 32) puts it, "the frosting on the cake." Part of the reason for this may involve the questionable morality of dance in the Christian tradition, and the consequent low status of dancers in Euro-American society (Hanna 1979: 313). On another level, however, the resistance to dance in academia stems from a deeply rooted European and American cultural bias against the body. In the dominant Platonic-Cartesian metaphysics, the self is idealized and identified with the mind: the internal, non-material locus of rational thought. The body is external to the mind and its opposite: a mechanical, material "thing" that is a site of sensation and irrational feeling. The opposing categories suggested by the mind/body dichotomy serve to generate a series of structural oppositions, including, but not limited to, dominant/submissive, male/female, and culture/nature (see Farnell 1999, 2000; Grosz 1994; Lewis 1995). Being perceived as a bodily phenomenon, dance is characterized by this second set of terms and thus lies outside the traditional purview of cultural anthropology.


When dance entered the ethnological discourse in the early twentieth century, it retained these associations, frequently conceived through an evolutionary metaphor. Probably the most influential formulation of this position is articulated by the musicologist Curt Sachs in his Eine Weltgeschichte des Tanzes, first published in 1933. In this comprehensive theory of world dance, he suggests that dance is a remnant of the most primitive state of man. For instance, Sachs (1933: 42) claims that since the Stone Age, no new forms or themes have been incorporated into dance. The impact of this work was far-reaching, encouraging highly romanticized characterizations of dance in the academic literature well into the 1970s (e.g., Lange 1976). Such studies promote the alignment of dance with the primordial, the pre-linguistic, the primitive, and the spiritual, as opposed to the contemporary, western, the linguistic, and the practical/utilitarian (see Youngerman 1974).


But not all anthropologists ascribed to such evolutionary notions about dance. In particular, Franz Boas saw dance as a distinctive aspect of culture and identity (Boas 1888, 1972). In Primitive Art, Boas (1955: 346-347) posits that each culture possesses characteristic movement patterns, styles, dynamics, values, and functions for dance that distinguish it from other cultures. In addition, Boas and his students examined the function of dance in society (e.g., Mead 1928: 110-121). By denying the status of dance as an autonomous "art" form, functionality or instrumentality provided the means whereby dance could be assimilated into mainstream anthropology. An emphasis on social functionality led to the theory that dance developed in response to the social, psychological, or physical environment and served the purpose of controlling and organizing social interactions.


One of the most influential of these early functionalist studies is Alfred Radcliffe-Brown's analysis of Andamanese dancing, published in 1922. This work noted the link between the rhythmic component of the dance and human emotions. Through participation in group performance, the dancer submits to the collective will of the community: the "dance produces a condition in which the unity, harmony, and concord of the community are at a maximum and in which they are intensely felt by every member. It is to produce the condition that is the primary social function of dance" (Radcliffe-Brown 1964: 252). Although Radcliffe-Brown, unlike Boas and his students, had no interest in the cultural meaning of dance, the notion of dance as a centripetal force in society made a strong impression on scholars interested in dance and related performance genres in other fields, including Mesoamerican archaeology.


Although dance was identified in Maya art early in the twentieth century, analysis and commentary were minimal (e.g., Maler 1911: 134-135). Even the discovery in 1946 of the murals of Bonampak, Chiapas, with spectacular panoramas of dance performance (Fig. I.2), did little to promote the study of dance because some scholars were reluctant to identify the scenes as dance (Ruppert, Thompson, and Proskouriakoff 1955: 50; Miller 1986: 80, 92). For years, Maya dance languished as a supplement to other topics such as music or central Mexican performance, known through the voluminous accounts of sixteenth-century missionary friars (Martí 1961, 1978; Sten 1990; Weisz 1986). The vivid descriptions and images of festival dances included in these works, especially by Bernardino de Sahagún (1969), influenced the scholarly view of ancient Mesoamerican dances as a whole (Fig. I.3). Until recently, ancient Mesoamerican dance was understood as almost entirely religious in nature, characterized by collective public performance in ceremonial centers, such as the main ritual precinct of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital.


A landmark study that did much to promote this view of Mesoamerican dance is Dances of Anáhuac, first published in 1964, by Gertrude Kurath and Samuel Martí. Although it examines dance throughout Mesoamerica, including the Maya area, the book's focus is clearly on central Mexican traditions, as indicated by its title (Anáhuac was an ancient designation for the Valley of Mexico). Relying on both textual and visual sources, Kurath and Martí stress the cultic status of dance in these societies, especially in relation to agricultural ritual.


As Maya studies grew in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars began to identify more images of dance in art, often identifying the performances as religious in character. One of the first dance scenes to warrant extensive commentary was found on a vessel excavated at Altar de Sacrificios in 1962 (Fig. 4.17). This image provoked a debate concerning the identity of the performers as historical or supernatural figures (Adams 1963: 91-92; Houston and Stuart 1989; Schele 1988). Another dance identified on painted ceramics at this time was the so-called Sacrificial dance, which was initially interpreted as a mythic scene (Fig. 3.5; Coe 1973; Foncerrada 1970, 1972; Schele and Miller 1986: 52). This emphasis on a religious focus of dance was perpetuated in some later studies, including one by Claude Baudez (1992), who interprets dances depicted at Palenque as fertility rites.


During the 1980s, the intensive decipherment of Maya writing afforded a new understanding of the Classic Maya in general and Maya dance in particular. A major breakthrough occurred in 1992 with Nikolai Grube's translation of the glyph for "dance." This resulted in the identification of several previously unrecognized dances, such as the Flapstaff dance and a God K Scepter dance (Grube 1992: 207-211). This decipherment was important because it confirmed that most of the performers in Maya art whom the inscriptions identify as dancers were rulers. It also suggested that, despite their often static poses, many portraits of standing rulers on stelae depict dance performance. Grube's discovery of the associations of dance with warfare, dynastic events, and royal visits, as well as supernatural contact and sacrifice among the ancient Maya, suggested an expansion of this genre of performance to include sociopolitical functions as well as religious ones.


Despite this important decipherment, there has been little recent advancement in the understanding of ancient Maya dance. Many studies maintain the traditional view of these events as mass rituals, calling them "pageants" (Freidel, Schele, and Parker 1993: 257) or even "spectacles" (Houston 2006). However, no longer are these understood as purely religious events, but as a form of political theater used to maintain royal power and prestige (Schele and Freidel 1990; Schele and Miller 1986). Freidel, Schele, and Parker (1993: 257-292) observe that dances of bloodletting, divination, and supernatural communication were essential to cultivating a heroic persona for the ruler, contributing to the charismatic basis of his power. These performances are believed to have taken place in public spaces specially designed for these displays (Inomata 2006a; Looper 2001; Newsome 2001). Like Radcliffe-Brown's interpretation of Andamanese dance, these studies point to the role of dance as a ritual which embodies community identity and the sociopolitical status quo (see also Leach 1954: 13-14; Tambiah 1985).


This characterization of ancient Maya dance as a mass ritual sponsored by rulers is often supported by comparisons with rituals in the negara of nineteenth-century Bali (Demarest 2004: 206-207; Houston 2006: 139). According to the controversial model presented by Clifford Geertz (1980), the negara was a relatively weak city-state in which religious ritual, rather than military coercion or economic control, assumed importance in maintaining social order. The rituals sponsored by the negara included spectacular displays of wealth, manifestations of divinity, and exhibitions of generosity such as feasting. They took place in a cosmologically orientated court/capital, which provided the model of civilized existence. At the center of this "theater state" was the numinous person of the king. Geertz thus provides a sociopolitical rationale for the staging of mass performances in a complex society.


While it is clear that public performances were essential to the cultivation of a king's divine persona, an interpretation of Classic Maya polities using the model of the negara as conceived by Geertz may be misleading. The roles of the Classic Maya ruler were not only symbolic, as their powers extended into economic and military domains. Hieroglyphic decipherments and archaeological evidence show that Maya warfare was not conceived in terms of small-scale raids for the sole purpose of acquiring sacrificial victims, but involved armies, sometimes mobilized over long distances, which looted and laid siege to cities (Demarest et al. 1997; Inomata 1995, 1997; Martin and Grube 2000; Schele and Freidel 1990: 165-215). Classic Maya rulers may also have had more economic power than has previously been acknowledged, sponsoring markets, collecting tribute, and even promoting the use of currency (see Dahlin and Ardren 2002; Freidel 1981; Freidel, Reese-Taylor, and Mora-Marín 2002; Sharer 1994: 67, 456). In addition, the role of rulers in managing water resources has probably been underestimated (Lucero 2006). This evolving picture of Maya statecraft, however, has not yet been incorporated into theories of Maya performance. An important issue addressed in this book, then, is the relationship between royal dance performances and various aspects of political authority, including the use of military coercion and economic power.


The theater-state model for the ancient Maya raises more general questions concerning the use of dramaturgical metaphors to describe society. This practice is well established in anthropology by theorists such as Victor Turner (1986), who discusses performance as a social or cultural drama that encompasses both performances in daily life and formal rituals. Central to these theories is the sociology of Erving Goffman (1959), which describes social agents as "actors" and their daily behavior as a form of expressive, structured improvisation. While some archaeologists embrace the dramaturgical model of culture, others use the term "theater" more narrowly as a way of distinguishing artistic practice and aesthetic events from other kinds of performances (Julian Thomas, cited in Pearson and Shanks 2001: ix; see also Inomata 2006a, 2006b).


Either usage of theatrical terminology, however, poses problems when applied to the ancient Maya because of the complex connotations of the term theater. In both popular thought and certain schools of anthropology, theater is viewed in opposition to the more religiously oriented ritual (see Bell 1997: 138-169). Another facet of theater is its association with entertainment, in contrast to ritual, which is designed to effect some concrete result (Schechner 1988: 130). Although many theorists of drama would argue against equating theater with entertainment or secularization, the connotations of the term remain problematic in a cross-cultural application and risk imposing ethnocentric frameworks for interpreting performances.


Another key feature that distinguishes ritual from theater, according to some definitions, is the relationship of audience and performer. In ritual, the audience participates actively in the performance, sometimes merging with the performers. In theater, however, the audience maintains an observational stance (Beeman 1993: 383-384; Schechner 1988: 137). According to this model, which is the legacy of Aristotelian dramatic theory, the ontological division between audience and performer enables the actors to assume fictive personae, thereby creating a third, on-stage world. Kristen Hastrup (1998: 37-41) describes this ability of the actor to maintain a double identity on stage as an essential component of drama.


The tripartite universe of audience, actor, and stage posited by the Aristotelian dramaturgical model also highlights symbolic communication as the most important function of performance. According to this model, the on-stage world is a picture, a "symbolic reality" composed of its own discrete semiotic system (Beeman 1993: 379; De Marinis 1993; Fischer-Lichte 1992: 139-140; Pavis 1998: 395). The theatrical environment is taken to be a communicative medium, with the actors producing the sign, the on-stage action as the sign vehicle, and the audience as the recipient and interpreter of the message.


This view parallels communicative and symbolic models suggested for dance performance (Kaeppler 1992), and informs the characterization of Maya performances as providing "objectified notions on which [the participants] could reflect and act" (Inomata 2006a: 819). To portray the main purpose of a dance performance as the communication of meaning, however, reduces the event to the status of an object/text. In effect, this strips performance of its distinctive strategic qualities, especially the social effects set in motion through its production (see also Schieffelin 1998: 198-199; States 1985: 7).


The theories that underlie the representational model of theater are complex and deeply rooted (see Barish 1981; Summers 2003). Germinating in the dialogues of Plato, the anxieties concerning the truth of representation found fertile ground in medieval and Renaissance controversies concerning the role of religious drama in the liturgy. Despite medieval efforts to legitimate didactic theater as the means whereby the unlettered could apprehend the higher truths of God, the similarity of sacred images to divinity itself remained problematic. This was only exacerbated by the development of Empiricism, in which objective observation of nature replaced subjective intuition as a path toward truth. Importantly, Francis Bacon employed theater as the ultimate metaphor of falsehood in order to distinguish the interpretation of nature from the subjective constructs of the mind, inculcated by religion and philosophy. These systems, he wrote, are the "Idols of the Theater; because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion" (quoted in Summers 2003: 9).


As David Summers (2003: 10) observes, Bacon's iconoclasm is an important source for the modern concepts of ideology and state power, which assume such a key role in discussions of theatricality (see Taylor 1994: 14). Now seen from the perspective of science, ideology takes on the qualities of an umbrella category, subsuming religion within it. This attitude forms the foundation for the interpretation of performance as propaganda, in which the actor tries to convince an audience of some truth by presenting it visually, while the audience remains unaware of, or acquiesces to, the falsehood of the claim. Talal Asad (1979: 622) calls this the Wizard of Oz theory of ideology, and criticizes it for its presumption that the anthropologist (like Dorothy) is somehow able to see through the falsehoods of culture, while natives remain caught up in the drama, receiving hearts, brains, and courage in the process.


Another dramaturgically based theory that has been influential for notions of state power in the Maya context is the acutely paranoid and suffocating vision of social interaction promulgated in the writings of Michel Foucault (1977, 1980). This model posits that the body is socially constructed through the influence of pervasive power structures. Echoing Goffman, Foucault indicates that these structures are deployed through visual fields, which motivate self-regulation and discipline by individuals. As Foucault writes, "The judges of normality are everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the 'social worker'-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements" (Foucault 1977: 304). In his vision of a society constituted dialectically by a critical audience and self-conscious subject, Foucault broadly parallels western dramatic theory, which posits, "all the world's a stage."


Although it was never intended for cross-cultural application, Foucault's concept of power has influenced recent formulations of political performance in Maya society, as well as other areas of archaeology (see Brück 2001). For example, some scholars argue that the disciplinary mechanisms essential to the power of the state were articulated through public performances in ceremonial centers where rulers and subjects were brought into a common perceptual field (Inomata 2006b: 188-189; see also Houston 2006: 140-142). Likewise, echoing Foucault's (1980: 142) famous hypothesis that "there are no relations of power without resistances," it has been suggested that these performances were not simply a stage for enforcing elite ideologies, but also arenas for resistance and criticism of authority (Inomata 2006b: 211-212).


Nevertheless, Foucault's notion of power is conceived from a "top-down" perspective and is therefore a simplistic one-dimensional model of power in society. It assumes an intrinsic power in a state that must maintain itself, without considering more diffuse power relationships, or questioning the degree to which different social groups were affected by authority. It is likely that our focus on royal performances has given us an unbalanced view of Maya culture, which is partly perpetuated through dramaturgical models.


Foucault's ideas concerning the nature of power in society are particularly problematic in the context of performance. His authoritarian view of power invokes a characteristically western subjectivity, which demands an authentic system of meaning to define its identity (see Asad 1979; Spivak 1988). Further, the interpretation of performances as sites for the exercise of power reduces these events to sign vehicles. The problem with this model is its equation of power with expression and communicative voice. This ignores local definitions of power, which may not inhere in the rhetoric of communication, but may be linked to more dispersed notions of agency.


There are, in fact, many domains of agency in performance and dance, embodied in both the movements of the performers and the actions of those who attend or assist in the performance (Browning 1995: xxii). Power can also be acquired or deflected by dancers through training and discipline (Dempster 1995). Dance may also provide access to locally defined sources of strength, as through dreams, trance, or ritual purity (see Tedlock 1987). It is true that dance may sometimes function as an aestheticized form of persuasion. For example, war dances and related performances representing ethnic conflict can have a profound effect on a community under pressure of invasion or exploitation (Bricker 1981). However, performance is more than an ideological vehicle. Like other forms of ritual, dance enacts social change through its very instantiation.


I have focused on the philosophical speculations on theatricality not simply to suggest its inadequacy for interpreting ritual performance cross-culturally, but also to provide a reference for alternative models of understanding dance. The dramaturgical model is sound in its recognition that cultural performances are not trivial, but rather engaged politically. However, it fails in its focus on the public image as a medium of political communication. Due to its skewed model of agency, which is attributed to the author/mind/culture/state, the dramaturgical model does not provide an adequate explanation for how theatrical events engender social communities.


Performance theory presents a more useful way of conceptualizing action and meaning in ancient Maya dance. This approach developed within linguistics and anthropology partly to challenge the structuralist tenet that discourse as performance merely "expresses" the essential structure of culture (see Bauman 1975; Hanks 1990; Sherzer 1987; Urban 1991). To this end, in the 1980s and 1990s, many linguistic anthropologists explored the meaning of manual and facial gestures, postures, gaze, and other kinesthetic features as components, rather than mere adornments, of linguistic utterances (Farnell 2004; Kendon 1997). These studies emphasized discourse, or language in performance, as the medium which generates, transmits, and facilitates the acquisition of cultural knowledge.


This critique of the representational role of linguistic discourse merged with the debate over the social functionality of ritual to inspire detailed investigations of the performative aspects of rituals (Bloch 1974, 1975; Schechner 1985, 1988; Tambiah 1979; Turner 1982, 1987). For example, Bruce Kapferer (1979a, 1979b) showed how exorcism rites in Sri Lanka gain effectiveness through a variety of performative strategies, including the manipulation of ritual frames, aesthetic distance, audience/participant focus, attitude, and commitment to the performance reality. A performance works not merely through the communication of symbolic meaning, but by the way in which it makes these symbols part of lived experience (Schieffelin 1985: 709). These studies bring the analysis of ritual into alignment with dance, which is widely recognized as being composed of interacting discursive and nondiscursive components: "Dance is not merely a sum of text and performance . . . but an artistic whole in which performance is not incidental to content, but intrinsic to it" (Carr 1998: 62).


As a result of these investigations into the social context of language and ritual, scholars now often view performance from one of two perspectives. The first is a narrow definition, referring to "symbolic" or "aesthetic" events which are "framed" or set off from ordinary activities, according to local definitions (see Bauman 1989: 265; Diamond 1996: 1). The second views performance in broader terms, as a dynamically embodied signifying act (Farnell and Graham 1998: 411). These practices emerge from what Mauss (1973: 70) calls "techniques of the body," referring to the culturally conditioned ways in which people come to know how to use their bodies to communicate (Farnell 1999: 343). Richard Schechner (1990: Fig. 2.1) shows how dance is situated within a continuum of performance, based on similarly broad definitions. This inclusive definition of performance, which I employ in this book, allows for a consideration of dance unhindered by preconceived notions of context or genre.


This study adopts three major tenets of performance theory to interpret ancient Maya dance. First is a focus on the social effects or "emergent qualities" of these performances in addition to their meaning (see Bauman 1975: 302-305; Schieffelin 1985: 721). Second, the participants in performance are considered as the agents who effect this social transformation. In this context, agency, or self-mobilization, may be defined as "a mutual process of consideration whereby persons consider how the other persons will, can or could act in response to their own act in order to direct themselves to act in such a way that a joint or social act is accomplished" (Varela and Harré 1996: 323). Finally, I consider how physical realities, accessed through the senses, affect the performance and its outcome (Bell 1997: 94). These concepts provide the basis for understanding the active role that dance performance played in ancient Maya society.


Aesthetics and Embodiment


As mentioned earlier, aesthetics is acknowledged as an essential characteristic of dance; however, there is no agreement regarding the aesthetics of non-western visual arts and performance. One school of thought equates aesthetics with the philosophical and evaluative concepts that underlie the western notion of "art." This approach is rooted in formalist discourses that see images as self-sufficient entities, meaning that they exist outside the domains of nature and social relations. In this view, the meaning of the work is embodied in a formal analysis, which examines the elements of design with critical scrutiny. Accordingly, these analyses tend to provide lists of aesthetic criteria according to some person or social group (Fernandez 1966; Thompson 1966; see also Kaeppler 1971). Because it assumes the self-sufficiency of the object, formalist aesthetics has no sustained interest in social context and function, nor in processes of production—the "life history" of objects.


In contrast to this "insider" approach to aesthetics is an analysis rooted in structuralism, which might be termed "structural aesthetics" (D'Azevedo 1958). This methodology identifies specific formal features or tropes, such as couplets, which are manifested among various media, including visual arts, dance, music, and poetry (e.g., Cohen 2000: 3; Panofsky 1995; Tedlock 1986). For example, Kaeppler (1978b) analyzes Tongan dance into several distinct aesthetic components of rhythm, drone, and decoration, which seem to emerge repeatedly through multiple performances as well as in other domains of culture, such as bark cloth painting. This analysis generates a cognitive map of the culture as a whole.


A useful schema for thinking about the phenomenon of recurring aesthetic features is poetics, which concerns the way in which expressive culture identifies form. Poetics is particularly attentive to "figures of speech" or tropes, such as rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, irony, and synecdoche (Bakhtin and Medvedev 1985; Friedrich 1991; Jakobson 1960). Originally intended as a method for studying texts, aesthetic tropes have been readily applied outside of the realm of languages, within the all-consuming scope of semiotics.


In addition to providing ample terminology for naming and analyzing the complex formal elements that compose performances, structural aesthetics is concerned with the analysis of meaning in these tropes. In particular, cultural poetics is dependent upon Geertz's model of culture as a semiotic system: "The concept of culture, I espouse . . . is essentially a semiotic one. Believing as Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of new law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning" (Geertz 1973: 5). This model provided the basis for the consideration of culture as a semiotic field which is given a "textual" form through the creation of material expressions such as the visual arts. Thus, Robert Plant Armstrong (1971) pointed to aesthetic tropes manifested in African art as communicating core cultural patterns (see also Reese-Taylor and Koontz 2001; Tate 1992). Structural aesthetics, therefore, is opposed to formalist aesthetics, positing form as a way of accessing meaning, though this meaning is iconic and self-referential (see Feld 1988). In this regard, it is of interest that structuralist aesthetics usually arrives at the same conclusion as the functionalist model of ritual, suggesting that the overall function of aesthetics is to promote a sense of shared identity and community.


There are theoretical problems with both perspectives on aesthetics. Formalist aesthetics has been criticized for its ethnocentric model of the gaze, rooted in a particular culture of the "exhibition," which demands not only the separation of artist from audience but also the object from modes of production and deployment (see Hirsch 1995). In addition, formalist aesthetics posits a normative emotional content for the gaze, usually described in terms of pleasure (e.g., Smith 2006: 126). From cross-cultural studies, however, it is clear that the emotional responses structured by aesthetic systems range far beyond pleasure, encompassing repulsion, fear, excitement, sadness, and so on (see Tedlock 1992; Thompson 1968). The particular emotional responses to form, and the cultural interpretations of these reactions, cannot be assumed, but rather must be investigated.


Structural aesthetics is also problematic due to the conception of culture as representational, in which art forms are conceived as "texts" that encode cultural meaning (see Tedlock and Tedlock 1985). It presumes both a closed and homogenous field of culture and interpretation, as well as the omniscience of the researcher, who functions as the code-breaker. The degree to which images encode information is debatable and may in fact be secondary to other aesthetic functions. Indeed, Eric Hirsch (1995: 61) argues that cultural objects are not texts in the sense that they possess an essential meaning which can be "read" through formal analysis or otherwise deciphered. Although visual forms may function as writing, such a degree of encoding must not be assumed for all visual systems.


Another theoretical weakness of the structural approach to aesthetics is its inadequate formulation of systems of power in relation to art. In particular, it has been suggested that aesthetic systems are pervaded by power by virtue of the traditional values that they represent. For example, drawing on Foucault's and Geertz's notions of culture as permeated and constituted by power, Kathryn Reese-Taylor and Rex Koontz (2001: 9) suggest that cultural poetics provides the framework within which power relations are constituted. The aesthetic tropes are used as a form of rhetoric to achieve certain goals. This notion echoes Bloch's (1974, 1975) conceptualization of the power supposedly inherent in formalized speech. However, it is not true that ritual language, or ritual itself, is necessarily more heavily patterned or structured than nonritual behavior, and degrees of formalization cannot be equated with power (Asad 1979: 626). This calls into question the supposed political necessity of aesthetics.


It might be argued instead that aesthetics provides the ground for the deployment of agency through discourse. This necessitates a reformulation of the concept of ritual communication to encompass group social action as the medium in which discourse is produced and maintained. Power, then, is not an ethereal entity that ritual performs or instantiates, but a latent potential of aesthetics, its results depending upon how it is discursively applied. The aesthetic system is not inherently authoritative, but is a resource for the discourse of authority among social agents. In the context of sociopolitical competition, the aesthetic system may assume importance as a way of controlling discourse by pre-empting other utterances.


This leads us to an alternative view, advocated by anthropologists working primarily in Oceania, which considers aesthetics as tantamount to a mechanism for social transformation. As Marilyn Strathern (1988: 81) explains: "For the body or mind to be in a position of eliciting an effect from another, to evince power or capability, it must manifest itself in a particular concrete way, which then becomes the elicitory trigger. This can only be done through the appropriate aesthetic." The aesthetic tropes which structure performance can therefore be conceptualized as the emotionally loaded patterns through which social memory is perceived, organized, and manipulated. Because these patterns enlist the intersubjective practices that are integral to social life, their mobilization in performance actualizes symbolic reality in social terms rather than merely as a cognitive argument or proposition.


As an illustration of this transactional model of aesthetics, Hirsch (1995) cites the gab, a ritual performed by the Fuyuge people of highland Papua New Guinea. This elaborate collective performance involves the construction of a large village, the staging of dances, and the exchange of gifts. However, once these constructions are completed, they are left to decompose. According to the Fuyuge, what is important about this ritual is not what the constructions and performances look like as objects, but what evidence the various components of the performance provide of the participants' interrelated social and economic capacities. Thus, like discourse-centered approaches to language, which point to the interdependence of grammar and discourse (Sherzer 1987), this constitutes a balanced aesthetic theory that is defined in relation to both form and context. The analysis of aesthetics from the point of view of elicitation considers visual form in relation to the actions or social effects it enables, as well as the meanings it might convey.


This approach also enables aesthetically powerful objects to be socially efficacious without being held up to evaluative scrutiny (Morphy 1992). Discourse can foster a mystique around images that may be perceived peripherally, or even simply known to exist without being directly apprehended. The power of these images emerges from mental comparisons with objects of a similar class. For instance, this function of aesthetic memory is involved in the painting of images on tomb walls, which may have been seen by few people prior to being sealed. Nevertheless, by virtue of its creation in the context of an elite-sponsored painting workshop and sanctioned by familiar ritual forms, the image is rendered authoritative. It is therefore through integration in a system of production that certain works of art achieve aesthetic effects, and only secondarily through visual contemplation.


This separation of aesthetics from the act of looking or seeing prompts a reconsideration of the importance of aesthetics in relation to ideology. Rather than functioning simply as a semiotic vehicle for the communication of cultural values, the image may serve primarily as a material focus for a social process that represents ideology in action. If aesthetics is taken to be a mode of social functionality, we may posit that the aesthetic act, as an ideal solution to tensions that arise among different social groups, amounts to an attempt to assimilate diverse ideological systems into a shared local understanding of the world (a "world view"; see López Austin 1988). This action enables the merging, though only temporarily and incompletely, of the relevant participants in the event (producer, viewer, subject) into a social community. In such a context, the human body assumes primary significance as both the symbol and the "common ground" for social interaction. Because it involves the interpretation of sensation in relation to social action, particularly in the context of group activity, aesthetics implicitly involves the body.


The discussion of the body in archaeology generally draws upon two distinct theoretical frameworks (Lock 1993; Meskell 1996). Particularly influential is Michel Foucault's general program of a "history of bodies," which discusses the role of the objectification of bodily practices in establishing and maintaining the state. Although Foucault explicitly describes antiquity as a culture of spectacle and modern society as a culture of discipline, his notion of bodily discipline has been influential in speculations about ancient Maya society, as we have already seen.


The other important perspective on the body in archaeology is provided by Pierre Bourdieu (1977), who explored the social implications of the repetition of mundane activity. His thoughts on the relationships of bodily practices to social action contributed greatly to the development of postmodern phenomenology, as has Maurice Merleau-Ponty's (1962) notion of "bodily intentionality," which posits the body as the primary source of knowledge, through its supposed monopoly on direct experience and pre-rational, subjective consciousness. According to this model, being is located not in the ethereal semiotics of the mind, but is explicitly material, embodied in the act of perception. This explains the phenomenological emphasis on intuitive apprehension, vivid description, and interpretation of direct experience (States 1992).


It has been argued, however, that the phenomenological notion of the body, as conceived by Merleau-Ponty, perpetuates its Cartesian split from the mind by considering the body as a locus for tacit knowledge and abstracting embodiment from social relations and processes (Farnell 2000). To regard the body as homogeneous "fact" likewise distorts culture-specific readings of subject formation and embodiment (see Turner 1995). Indeed, it could be argued that the treatment of the body as a discursive, textual, iconographic, metaphorical, or even a knowing entity is an artifact of a specifically western obsession with the body as the objective aspect of the individuated self.


More consistent with a performance-centered approach to culture is the concept of embodiment: the set of meanings, values, tendencies, and orientations toward the body that derive from performance. The use of the term embodiment keeps us mindful of this "basic and ramifying feature of the human condition." It "reminds us of the concrete, the here-and-now presence of people to one another, and the full complement of senses and feelings through which they communicate with one another" (Strathern 1996: 2). Subjects both create and are generated through the bodily interpretations that emerge in performance. It is embodiment, therefore, and not the body, that is essential to the activation of agency in performance.


Aesthetics is a critical component of embodiment, as it involves the complex of tropes that form the basis for the interpretation of experience. These qualities are structured in relation to each other and gain moral force through their deployment in social action. In the realm of archaeology, the aesthetics of embodiment can be studied through the analysis of skeletal remains and burial practices, architecture, hieroglyphic textual sources, and representational art, as demonstrated by recent work in various areas (Hamilakis, Pluciennik, and Tarlow 2002; Houston, Stuart, and Taube 2006; Meskell 1996; Meskell and Joyce 2003; Rautnam 2000; Sweeny and Hodder 2002). An effective study of embodiment must consider not only the aesthetic form and its associated meanings, but also its effects within society.


One of the most important aspects of the aesthetics of embodiment is gender. As part of a feminist and postmodern critique of entrenched notions of gender and sex, Judith Butler (1990, 1993) asserts that gender is determined not by biological factors, but through performances in which persons repeatedly cite gender conventions. Taking this as a starting point, scholars have begun to explore the performative dimensions of gender conventions in archeological contexts (Diamond 1996: 5; Joyce 2000a, 2001; Meskell and Joyce 2003).


If gender is performed rather than biologically determined, as Butler argues, then dance is a representation of idealized gender difference in action. Thus, it would appear that dance could tell us a great deal about Maya gender ideologies. In fact, though it has received limited scholarly attention, the gendered dimension of Maya dance aesthetics is of paramount importance. As we shall see, the available evidence suggests a male gender bias in ancient Maya representations of dance. This is highly significant, as in many societies dance is one of the few types of public performance open to women (H. Thomas 1993: 72). What is the meaning of this bias? In the Euro-American tradition, sustained opposition to dance can be largely explained in terms of a puritanical fear of women, bodies, and the open display of sexuality (Wagner 1997). However, other factors seem to have contributed to the aesthetic of masculinity that dominates ancient Maya dance, including concepts of ritual purity and male domination of the political system.


In conclusion, this book provides an alternative to the current interpretation of ancient Maya dance and performance using dramaturgical metaphors. These metaphors are seen as inadequate because of their close relationship to western epistemologies. In contrast to these ethnocentric concepts, an approach centered on performance emphasizes the relationship between the forms of dance, including their media, themes, performers, and audience, and the social effects that the dances engender. This approach implies a reconsideration of aesthetics, which is viewed as a social act rather than a disembodied discourse on pleasure or an expression of cultural identity. While providing a structure for the interpretation of ancient Maya performance, this book also engages in more general debates regarding the relationships of performance, power, and identity in culture.


Sources and Methods


When examining any dance event or tradition, it is important to consider two kinds of evidence: the dance movements and the context, defined as the situational deployment and social significance of these movements. In the archaeological framework of the ancient Maya, dance movements are largely unrecoverable. For this reason, analysis is limited to considerations of genre, meaning, and social functions of dance performance.


In the case of the ancient Maya, there are potentially six classes of data relevant to the contexts of dance performance. These include physical evidence, spaces for performance, representations, hieroglyphic texts, ethnohistorical sources, and ethnographic sources. Physical evidence encompasses the actual apparatus used in dance, such as costumes and musical instruments. This type of evidence may be examined in relation to the next class of evidence, the spaces for performance. These include not only spaces where dances actually may have taken place, but also places used for dance or musical training as well as storage of dance paraphernalia.


Representations of dance performance are extremely abundant, including figurines, painted pottery, murals, freestanding carved monuments, and architectural sculpture. Texts referring to dance are found in many of the same contexts, both carved and painted; however, these are usually very brief, revealing the particulars of actor, place, and time. Nevertheless, these two types of data provide some of the best evidence for ancient Maya dance.


Ethnohistorical and ethnographic sources constitute a special class of data not directly pertinent to the ancient Maya context. Ethnohistorical sources encompass colonial-era documents written by both native and non-native authors. Examples include Bishop Diego de Landa's sixteenth-century Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (Tozzer 1941), travel accounts, and reports by civic officials. Ethnographic sources include texts written by contemporary anthropologists. Unfortunately, few of these studies include sufficient detail concerning dance, especially considering its cultural significance and diversity. Historical studies of Maya dance are often even more limited, relying largely on textual analysis (e.g., Bode 1961; Chinchilla Aguilar 1963; Mace 1970; Tedlock 2003). These later sources are important, however, for understanding the historical trajectory of Maya dance traditions and may give us clues about the ancient performances.


Due to the diversity of the data relevant to dance, it seems appropriate to examine each type of evidence, indicating both strengths and weaknesses as sources for dance history. Thus, the study begins with the most precise, "one-dimensional" form of data: hieroglyphic texts mentioning dance (Chapter 1). The analysis of imagery is divided into three chapters: Chapter 2 concerns the general iconography and iconology of dance; Chapter 3 discusses the representation of dance pose and gesture, which involves the temporal dimension of art; and Chapter 4 integrates the preceding chapters through a detailed examination of the iconography of dance in ceramic painting. The next chapter, Chapter 5, places images of performance in a three-dimensional context, discussing dance in relation to architecture. Finally, Chapter 6 considers the ethnohistorical and ethnographic sources relating to dance. Naturally, these data sets overlap to some extent. For instance, hieroglyphic texts are a primary way of identifying dance imagery. To take advantage of this situation, each data class is conceived as a starting point for investigation, rather than providing a rationale for exclusion. The book takes advantage of this structure to reveal the relationships among the data sets.


Each type of evidence is illustrated with case studies that provide examples of how diverse methodologies can be used to understand aspects of dance performance. Moreover, these case studies include all of the major bodies of evidence for ancient Maya dance, such as the lintels of Yaxchilán, the Bonampak murals, and Holmul-style pottery. This structure provides both a complete survey of ancient Maya dance in its historical and cultural context, and a model for the comparative study of the archaeology of dance.



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