For more than 500 years, the heart-stopping clanging of the Danza de Tijeras has echoed throughout the Andean mountains.
Named for the pair of iron rods each dancer wields in his right hand, the scissors dance is traditionally performed by men from Quechua villages in south-central Peru. The ritual is a form of prayer celebrating the Andean divinities tied to nature, like the sun (Inti) and moon (Quilla).
Joined by a violinist and harpist, the dancer forms a cuadrilla, or team, to represent their community in a duel. Two or more cuadrillas compete through a series of acrobatics, step-dancing, aerial jumps, and choreographed moves in synchrony with the musicians–all whilst sounding the oversized scissors.
The competition, which can last up to 10 hours, assesses physical ability, instrument quality, and musician expertise to determine the winner. Because the rhythm and tempo of the music is constantly changing, no two dances are identical.
Perhaps most striking are the dancers elaborate outfits, embellished with golden fringes, multicolored sequins, and small mirrors. The dancers themselves craft the 33-pound costumes and embroider their spirit names and various elements of nature into the fabric. Their large, intricately decorated headdresses shield the upper half of their face from observers, adding a quality of otherworldliness.
Even though the dancers start training as children, it takes years to master the physically demanding choreography. As a rite of passage, the young Quechuas—claiming to be the children of Wamanis, or mountain spirits—receive a name associated with one of the spirits so they can dance under their protection. This physical and spiritual knowledge is passed from master to student in each Quechua community to ensure the livelihood of the extraordinary dance generation after generation. In 2010, the scissors dance was added to the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The origin of the dance is uncertain, however some believe it was created in reaction against colonialism and the repression of indigenous ideals. During the 1500s, the dancers were persecuted by Christians because the dance was believed to be a manifestation of dark magic. The performers were considered supaypa guagua–sons of the devil–who refused to dispel their ancient practices and made a pact with the devil to get such abilities. Though the dance is now accepted and performed at Christian celebrations, dancers are forbidden to enter a church while in costume to this day.