Mayan culture has been around for thousands of years and is still alive and well today. Traditions such as elaborately costumed dances with carved, wooden masks are still performed at festivals and special events. One of these, the Dance of the Deer, is unique to Belize.
The “soundtrack” to the Dance of the Deer is a played on a 3-person marimba. They play more than two dozen distinct melodies. The dance portrays how the marimba called all the animals from the woods and mountains. Dancers with deer masks and clad in brilliantly colored costumes come forward as the marimba plays. Other dancers portray monkeys and jaguars.
As the story progresses, the Spaniards appear. Their costumes are typically adorned with lots of mirrors, which some say reflects the resistance of the Mayan people to the invading forces. Towards the finale of the dance, the performers act out how the Spaniards shot all the deer, which doesn’t end well for the Spaniards. The story holds the message of respecting animals and nature and about how nature may retaliate.
All of the dancers wear the traditional, carved masks. These masks are believed to have great power and they are not handled lightly. Only certain people are allowed to touch the masks. The costumes, too, are handled reverently.
While today the dance is about the Spanish Conquistadors’ disrespect for nature, many believe that the dance dates much further back. The characters of the Spaniards may have been substituted for a generalized “bad person” who would harm nature and kill animals indiscriminately.
This dance has been revived in many areas to highlight and preserve the Mayan culture. Children learn important aspects of their heritage through these ritualized dances. The Dance of the Deer is often performed as part of multi-day celebrations that include feasting and other activities. If you’re lucky enough to visit Belize during a cultural celebration, be sure to check out the dances and be immersed in the rich Mayan culture.