Young tourists turned to their parents for an explanation about why anyone would be interested in doing something so dangerous. Dozens whipped out cameras and recorders to document the spectacle,briefly disregarding the near 100-degree temperature.
The performers let go of the decorated platform at the top of the tree trunk and swung around it 13 times until they landed safely on the ground,drawing applause from the anxious audience.
Members of the Téenek community from Mexico performed the high-flying traditional ceremony,called Palo Volantín,Thursday as part of the first day of the 2010 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
There are two parts of the ceremony,director Benigno Robles Reyes said through a translator. The first is known as the Dance of the Hawk and is performed only by men. Traditionally,men of all ages are included in the dance,but only adults performed Thursday.
The second part is the Dance of the Women,which usually involves many more than the four women who performed at the festival. The women are responsible for preparing a special meal for the ceremony,which is placed at the base of the tree trunk during evening performances.
According to the festival's website,the Téenek people are from an indigenous region of San Luis Potosí,located in central Mexico,also known as Huesteca for their culture and language. “Téenek” literally translates to “those who live in the field.”
The purpose of the dance itself,also called Danza del Bixom, is to ask for good crops from the Lord of Corn. Male fliers wrap their waists with rope connected to the top of the tree trunk. The fliers swing around the tree trunk,while female dancers are on the ground await their descent. Normally,the tree trunks are more than 65 feet tall.
Many visitors were impressed with the ritual,which has roots in the Mayan culture.
“I thought it was gorgeous. It's such an adorning ceremony,” spectator Lisa Falk said.
Falk is the director of education for the Arizona State Museum and has Smithsonian connections as a museum affiliate and a volunteer for previous Folklife Festivals.
The traditional Mexican ceremony is one of many events featured at the 44th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival,celebrating Mexican and Asian Pacific American cultures. Becky Haberacker,a Smithsonian spokeswoman,said about a million people visit the festival every year. She said she expects the Palo Volantín ceremony to be a favorite feature for many. It will be performed at noon and 4 p.m. each day of the festival,which runs through Monday,and continues July 1 through 5.