Every year for many centuries, a battle between evil and good is held over 12,000 feet above sea level in the small city of Oruro in Western Bolivia. Dancers donned in technicolor and elaborate horned masks perform the so-called Dance of the Devils or the Diablada as they try to defeat the Archangel Michael only to fail in the end.
While it might be the most thematically poignant and visually striking set piece of the festival, the Dance of the Devils is only among the many exciting features of the yearly Carnaval de Oruro.
What is the Dance of the Devils?
The Dance of the Devils, also known as the Diablada or the Danza de los Diablos, is a form of Andean folk dance performed in South America’s Altiplano region. This is characterized by the performers who were costumes and masks that serve as a representation of the devil, together with other characters from the mythology and theology of the pre-Columbian era, combined with the Christian and Spanish elements incorporated during the colonial period.
The Origin of the Dance of the Devils
Most scholars have concluded that this unique dance had its origins in the Aymaran ritual of the demon Anchanchu and the Llama llama dance honoring Tiw, an Uru god. Both of these dances can be traced back to pre-Columbian Bolivia.
However, there are several conflicting theories regarding the true origins of the dance. Although the dance had already been performed as early as the 1500s in the Andean region, its name started in 1789 in Oruro, Bolivia where the performers wore costumes that resemble the devil in the parades known as Diabladas.
It was in 1904 in Bolivia when the first-ever organized Diablada group with a defined choreography and music appeared. There are also pieces of evidence pointing to the origin of the dance among the miners in Potosi, Bolivia. Chile and Peru’s regional dances may have their influences on the modern version of the dance as well.
The Carnaval de Oruro
The festival of Carnaval de Oruro has been observed by the Indigenous Uru people since the pre-Columbian era before the Upper Peru area’s local customs were outlawed by the Spanish Empire during the 17th century. However, instead of disappearing, the festival learned to adapt as it incorporated religious dimensions and Christian iconography and became a model of syncretism among cultures.
As a result of the extensive history of Bolivia as a crucial mining area, the festival evolved to become a tribute to the Virgen del Socavón, which is the patron saint who protects and watches over miners. UNESCO recognized the Carnaval in 2001 as a part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and stated that the deteriorating mining activity in the region is among the different factors that threaten the Indigenous communities in the area.
However, the Carnaval itself doesn’t show any signs of threat as over 10,000 musicians and 28,000 dancers participate in the main procession or entrada that repeatedly traverses a route of 2.5 miles for 20 hours.
The Dance of the Devils may have seen cultural transformation and imperial oppression, but it has endured them all and continues to thrive year after year.