A Dance For the Ages

Grabbing onto one another's canes, the dancers play crack the whip. The origins of the open-air floor show, performed on Saturdays, are unclear.
Grabbing onto one another's canes, the dancers play crack the whip. The origins of the open-air floor show, performed on Saturdays, are unclear. (By Jerry V. Haines)
By Jerry V. Haines
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 24, 2008

The old men came out on Saturday. Gray-haired and weathered, they sagged under the weight of their serapes and wide hats. They smiled -- ghastly, toothless slashes -- and leaned on their canes for support. And then they danced -- elderly Mexican men, oddly channeling the Gene Kelly "Gotta Dance" imperative.

They've been dancing like this in Patzcuaro for at least half a millennium. They are the Viejitos (sometimes modified to "Viejecitos" ) -- "little old men" -- and their masked, costumed dance is a little bit history, a little bit floor show. Which is appropriate, since this corner of Michoacan is a little bit open-air museum and a little bit tourist stop.

In one version of the story, the dance of the Viejitos was originally the dance of the dissed. According to this account, the stiff, lurching, rhythmically challenged dance originated as a way for the indigenous population to make fun of their elderly Spanish overlords. This explanation seems supported by the dancers' pink masks, the color of a fair skin that has encountered tropical sun for the first time.

Au contraire, say other sources (though they say it in Spanish): It is a celebration of old age and reflects traditional veneration of the elderly. They contend that the dance was performed in the region even before the European conquest.

Today's Patzcuaro is a tidy place, popular with visitors from other parts of Mexico who come to experience history and enjoy small-town pace. The local Tarascan cooking is hearty and comforting. The shopping can be rewarding, particularly for someone into copper ware, enamels or fanciful decorations formed from reeds. There's a cavernous basilica on the hill, whose grounds, on the Sunday I was there, teemed with artisans and food vendors hoping that churchgoers would be charitable.

In nearby Lake Patzcuaro is Isla Janitzio, a tall, conical island made even taller by the triumphal, 125-foot statue of national hero Jos¿ Mar¿a Morelos at its peak. As we neared the island, fishermen wielded winglike nets from their small boats -- art nouveau come to life. It's called "butterfly fishing," because of the nets' shape.

The stairways leading to the statue were lined by dozens of vendors selling bread, religious articles and optical illusion paintings (it's a withered crone; no, it's a voluptuous young woman, etc.). Fry cooks scooped minnow-size fish out of bubbling oil, a popular snack for the upward bound.

You can climb up inside Morelos (like old times at New York's Statue of Liberty). The statue's interior walls are taken up by reverent murals of the hero's life, his doomed fight for Mexican independence from Spain in the early 19th century, and his execution. We climbed past them via a vertigo-inducing spiral staircase, through his arm and into his brandished fist, and peeked out at the lake and surrounding countryside.

Back on the plaza at the statue's base, we heard tortured music and a raucous clacking sound. Three little old men, wearing bright campesino serapes with straw hats, gray wigs and ghastly grinning masks, were doing the dance routine we would see several times that Saturday. They lurched around, their hard sandals loudly slapping against the pavement with every step. They sometimes danced together, but then they'd go into solo mode, each taking a turn, showing off their stuff, perhaps trying to best each other. Grabbing onto one another's canes, they'd form a chain and play crack the whip. Frequently the last (usually the smallest) in the chain would get spun off.

We found another group back in Patzcuaro's main square, accompanied by live music -- in this case two fiddles, a guitar and a standup bass. (The lively music always seemed slightly off-key, the fiddlers earnestly sawing at their strings.) The dancing shares many characteristics with tap dancing: the sheer noise power, of course, but also the attitude. Even through the masks I could sense that brashness, that pleased sense of "Wow! I never knew my feet could do this!" amazement.

For old men, they showed abundant stamina, given the demands of their dance. But we caught some of them during a break, with their masks off. The "little old men" were young men and teenagers -- indeed, one "little old man" was a little young woman. The smallest of them (i.e., the ones spun off in crack the whip) looked to be elementary school age.

We had a late lunch at one of the cafes ringing the square, and when we returned there were two groups of dancers on the plaza. We watched a while, then left to check our e-mail. On our return, there were three groups of them, energetically dancing in the cool evening air. The plaza had turned into the Happy Hoofers Home. They paused occasionally to pass the hat among the onlookers.

I began to think perhaps if we repeatedly left the square, more dancers might materialize, but, alas, that theory didn't play out. We did have one more Viejitos encounter, though, that night at dinner. A floor show of Little Old Men and their clacking dance added audible spice to our Sopa Tarasco in the Hotel Los Escudos dining room. We ordered more dishes to maintain the title to our ringside table, and ended up full and happy, with our ears ringing.

I have yet to nail down the true story of the dance's origins, but one thing seems clear: If you keep dancing, you never die.

Jerry V. Haines is a frequent contributor to Travel.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company