Origin, history | Origen, historia | Origem, história
Scissors’ dance was created four centuries ago in the South Central Andes of Peru, in a culturallinguistic region known as Chanka (departments of Apurimac, Ayacucho and Huancavelica). It is traced back to an indigenous millenarist resistance movement that emerged in the region shortly after the arrival of the conquistadors (XVI century a.D.). This movement -- known as taki unquy or ‘dance fever’ because its followers expressed their resistance mainly through frenetic dances performed by individuals who claimed were possessed by pre-Hispanic deities -- called for the return of aboriginal beliefs and customs together with all aspects related to Spaniards’ invasion.
The current practice of the Scissors’ dance as a result of combining elements of their aboriginal worldview with Western musical instruments and clothes demonstrates that cultural, symbolic and ideological diversity has persisted in present-day Peru. It therefore attests Andean peoples’
ability to adapt to changing cultural contexts by means of syncretism of foreign and aboriginal elements.
The Scissors’ dancer is called ‘saqra’ in Apurimac, ‘danzaq’ or ‘tusuk’ in Ayacucho, and ‘gala’ in Huancavelica, and all consider themselves as Scissors’ dancers and the dance is perceived by all of them as one and only cultural expression. The dance consists of a symbolic and choreographic duel of step dancing, acrobatic movements and physical abilities displaying a sequence of stages that demand ever-increasing skills and challenges performed to the rhythm of the violin and the harp. These physical trials are not incompatible with existing international human rights instruments, the requirements of mutual respect among peoples, and of sustainable development. The name of the dance derives from a main and distinctive feature of the choreography, consisting in the dancer’s display of two glittering iron rods shaped and polished to resemble loose scissors blades that are grasped with his right hand, while holding a silk scarf with the left. Thus, a key element is for the dancer to constantly strike these rods to the rhythm of the music without missing a beat while performing his acrobatics. The dancers are dressed in a bordered outfit embroidered with golden fringes, multicoloured sequins and small mirrors.
The display of the dance’s main elements, such as the wardrobe, musical instruments and tunes, as well as the actual performance of the dance, all have a ritual character. The dancer is seen as an individual who establishes a direct relation with the wamanis, tutelary spirits of the mountains that give him wisdom as well as the necessary strength and endurance to perform the demanding acrobatic movements that form part of his repertoire. The musical instruments and
the metal rods or ‘scissors’ are also related to protective entities and must be consecrated in special rituals to acquire their full virtues. The ability of the dancer, the quality of the instruments, as well as the expertise of the accompanying musicians, are all taken into consideration to determine the winner.
As a competition dance, two or more teams known as cuadrillas face each other in alternance. Each cuadrilla is formed by a dancer, a violinist and a harpist, and it represents a different village or community. This musical-choreographic competition can take up to 10 hours in total, and is called ‘atipanakuy’ (‘competition’). In time, the ‘cuadrilla’ acquires prestige and acknowledgement for its members’ expertise and becomes a symbol of identity that gives pride to its village of origin.
The Scissors’ dance is performed during the dry months of the year (in the Chanka region, between April and December), and coincides with the main phases of the Andean highlands’ agricultural calendar, such as the harvest, the cleaning of the water irrigation systems, and the sowing of the land. These phases are closely related to the main events of the Catholic calendar, between Good Friday and Christmas. Other important events occur in between, such as Corpus Christi festivity and patron saints’ feasts in the villages of the zone.
From a Catholic viewpoint, however, the Scissors’ dance is associated with the forbidden and the evil. Oral tradition has it that the dancer makes a pact with the devil in order to acquire physical ability and endurance. Many of the performance names of the dancers are related to the underworld. Maybe this is the main reason why dancers dressed in their traditional outfits are not allowed to enter the churches. Nevertheless, Scissors’ dance and its dancers are an essential part of Catholic popular festivities in the Chanka region because the Colonial authorities could not suppress it in its less militant versions and decided to incorporate it into the Catholic rites designed for aboriginal peoples (i.e., a syncretic version of Catholicism).
The dance is taught orally from master to student and the learning process involves, besides the choreographic and acrobatic techniques, a body of spiritual knowledge which includes a veneration and awareness of nature and of the tutelary entities of the Andean vision of the world.
There is even a popular belief that the great dance masters of previous times had the ability of healing sickness and predicting the future.
As a consequence of poverty, political violence, and lack of opportunities, many inhabitants of the Andean area, including dancers and musicians, were forced to migrate to urban areas and adapt to a new social context. In the urban areas, some elements of Scissors’ dance have been modified, in particular the way it is learned, while the rest of the elements have remained mainly unchanged. In general, the dance’s ritual significance and its value as an identity reference for the communities located in the southern area of Peru have remained constant. Thus, Scissors’ dancers, as well as their musicians, have now become bearers and disseminators of Andean culture in urban contexts where this expression is revitalized and acquires new meanings.
In short, the Scissors’ dance is an example of the capability the people in the Chanka region have to adapt their cultural expressions to new religious contexts and social change. Due to its peculiar characteristics, this dance has become an important identity symbol for this region.