A few hundred matachines dancers gathered before 7 a.m. in freezing weather at Mission Concepción on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013 – the feast day of the mission. An image of a woman pregnant with love allures people to hope and leads them into dances of joy. A few million people will gather in Mexico City, Dec. 12, at the shrine with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Many more will be dancing in various places in San Antonio before dawn on Dec. 12 and throughout this season.
Sunday morning Fr. David Garcia, Director of the Spanish Missions, welcomed and blessed the many groups of matachines who came to express their prayer through dance at Concepción. He noted that the dances are a beautiful expression of popular devotion emerging from the faith of the people.
The dancers processed through Mission Concepción Park to the edge of the San Antonio River, that life-giving source called Yanaguana by indigenous ancestors. The matachines returned to the mission area where in the 1740s indigenous nomadic people had learned of Christianity and were allured by its architecture, art, music, and dance, while learning agriculture and ranching from the Spanish Franciscan friars.
Both dance groups who speak of their roots in Mexico and those who refer to their native ancestors in the San Antonio area participated.
Watch some of the vibrant groups contributing to the celebration:
Through the centuries, Spain has had more Christian religious dance and drama than any other country. Since Christianity was brought to San Antonio by Spaniards, the arts have continued and flourished in the city with pastorella plays, posadas processions, matachines and flamenco dancers, and many other creative works. Every Good Friday thousands of people gather for a drama of Jesus carrying his cross through the downtown streets to San Fernando Cathedral.
At the University of the Incarnate Word, an Hispanic serving institution, which serves students from more than 70 countries, an effort is made to affirm the beauty of different cultures through their dance, drama, music, and other arts.
Sister Martha Ann Kirk (co-author), a professor at UIW who holds a doctorate in Theology and the Arts, wrote "Dancing with Creation, Mexican and Native American Dance in Christian Worship and Education" in 1983 which describes matachines dances and other dance and drama of the Hispanic community. The book can now be read on-line in a link from the web page used by students to learn of religious performing arts www.uiw.edu/religiousarts. The page gives glimpses of the religious creativity of various groups in San Antonio and elsewhere.
While some say that the matachin dances are about Spanish conquest, in many ways the dances are strong expressions of liberation. The book of Exodus says that when Mariam, the sister of Moses, wanted to claim and thank God for freedom from slavery, she led dance with tambourine in hand. Oppressed or marginalized people often affirm their cultural identity through dance. Women often lead prayer in dance.
Dance and drama can energize and motivate and can turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. More than 100 people of all ages participated in “Religious Dance and Drama: Incarnating Compassion” at the University of the Incarnate Word in March.
A number of groups who danced at Mission Concepción danced and spoke at UIW. In Texas there are about 200 matachines groups, according to Tony Aguilar, a respected teacher and organizer of matachines groups in the San Antonio area. Some are family based and others are associated with local churches.
"Our Lady of the Angles Matachines," led by Esther Decker, shared dance and brought information from the Mexican American Catholic College led by Dr. Arturo Chavez, which encourages cultural expressions.
Sometimes dancers pin pictures of family or friends on their costumes as a symbol of praying for them in their sickness or thanking God for the lives of those who have gone before.
"The Danza de Pablo Olivares Matachines" was led by Carlos Olivares and his father Pablo Olivares, the drummer. The grandfather Pablo brought the tradition from Monterrey to San Antonio. It has touched countless people.
Tony Aguilar and friends joined them and led all the congregation into the dance. Dancers said they were overcoming evil spirits and sin and honoring Jesus and Mary.
"The Danza Guadalupana de St. Joseph South San," led by Jesus Estrada, had beautiful headdresses showing some of the costume variations used in this dance (see photo above).
The matachines dances may go on for many hours. They may dance in pilgrimages of many miles. Dance and drama can move persons from their heads to their hearts where compassion may grow. Dance and drama lead to compassion for others and for the earth itself.
The Bible speaks of praising God with drums and dancing and also of the “woman clothed with the sun.”
Whether people are following in the biblical tradition, or are merely curious about the image of a woman pregnant with love who allures people to hope and leads them into dances of joy, San Antonio is a great place to enjoy the beauty of hundreds of matachines.
Sister Martha Ann Kirk, Th.D., a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of the Incarnate Word, and Ivan Acevedo, Ph.D. Student in Organizational Leadership at UIW and videographer, are currently working on an oral history of Carla De Sola, one of the foremost sacred dancers in the U.S.