Performed in the central and southern highlands of Peru, the Scissors Dance is a traditional event that tests the physical and spiritual strength of the participants. Westerner visitors might regard “La Danza de las Tijeras” as a physical test where two men have to prove their dexterity and resistance to pain, but to the people of the Andes, this dance is a sacred ritual. The dancers, called danzaq, perform difficult stunts and leaps, called atipanakuy, accompanied by the music of a violin, a harp and the sound of the scissors they each hold in their hands. So much about not playing with scissors!
In a reaction against Christianity 500 years ago prophets in the Andes foretold the end of the world for Europeans and those Andean people who adopted it as their faith. The followers of this movement, known as Taki Unquy (the dancing sickness) were harried and annihilated by the colonial authorities. Even so, as late as the 1580s, parts of the ritual were still practised – most importantly the furious dancing, as if the dancer were possessed by an angry spirit.
It is difficult to tell whether the scissors dancers of today are descendants of those secret dancers. Their modern costumes contain many Spanish elements and the metal bars they carry in their hands inevitably evoke the sound of the castanets. Nevertheless, the ideology surrounding the exhausting competition between the dancers has all the characteristics of a ancient ritual. It should first be remembered that when the Andean religion was suppressed and its temples destroyed, this aboriginal religion was practised in people’s homes and finally, when these too were invaded, the gods took refuge in the bodies of their believers.
This is, in the end, the most authentic seat of religious belief and is impossible to detect, and movement – that is the dance – is the purest form of religious offering. The origin of the danzaq and their Scissors Dance is shrouded in mystery, but some anthropologists believe they appeared in 1524, during the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. The pre-Hispanic gods, were said to possess the bodies of indigenous young men, allowing them to perform a wild dance signalling the return of the Old Gods. As we all know, that didn’t happen, but the tradition of the Scissors Dance was kept alive by the Andean people.
It’s almost impossible to believe someone can accomplish these kind of acrobatic moves, while handling a pair of scissors made out of two individual sheets of metal, 25cm each – but the danzaq do much more. To show spiritual superiority, they go through a series of challenges. The dancers display an extraordinary ability to withstand pain and a desire to beat their opponent. They pierce their skin with knives, pins, sickles or cactuses. Sometimes they lie on a bed of broken glass as a spectator stands on their chest. They also swallow swords, walk on fire, and perform magic tricks. The most impressive feat to Peruvian audiences is when the dancers eat live frogs, snakes, or rats.
I find the endurance abilities of human bodies to be amazing, and the agonies that these dancers endure in pursuit of their prize is almost beyond belief. What was once an extremely serious religious offering in dance has been highly styalized for the tourist trade, yet these guys still make you wince, with their piercings and acrobatics. The incredible scissor dancers of Peru are a sight never to be forgotten once experienced.