The women defying tradition—by flying

In eastern Mexico, a few courageous women are breaking barriers to join a sacred—and breathtaking—Indigenous ritual.
Flying medium_UK
By Jordan Salama
photographs by Valeria Luongo
Published 17 Oct 2022, 10:52 BST

The first time Jacinta Teresa prepared to launch herself from the towering pole, 34 years ago, it felt as though the entire world was shifting beneath her feet. At more than 150 feet above ground, the wind whipped hard and fast against her face.

“The trees were moving with me, the church too,” Teresa, now 50, says of the experience. As the pole swayed, she thought she might slip. “I felt like I didn’t have enough hands to keep me holding on.”

Voladores prepare to fly in the main square of Cuetzalan del Progreso, Mexico.
Voladores prepare to fly in the main square of Cuetzalan del Progreso, Mexico.
Photograph by Valeria Luongo

Teresa had been put up to the task by her uncle, himself a volador (a flyer) who’d spent the past year or so encouraging her to join the danza de los voladores (Dance of the Flyers) an Indigenous ritual in which four people throw themselves off of a high pole with ropes attached to their legs and waists, arms outstretched like birds, spinning around it until they reach the ground. Teresa was, at first, wary of the acrobatic feat. But she slowly grew more interested over time, until she decided to try it for herself. If indeed she jumped Teresa would join a small but growing group of women taking part in the centuries-old tradition, which had once been practiced only by men.

The voladoras, as these women have become known, live in Cuetzalan—a small mountain town—and the surrounding communities set among the rugged hills of the Sierra Norte, in eastern Mexico. Most come from families of flyers and learn from their older relatives, the kind of ancestral passing-down that is common to the many Indigenous traditions born in this region. Some fly alongside their male peers; others have created all-women troupes.

Irene García, a voladora, met her partner on top of the flying pole; one of her ...
Irene García, a voladora, met her partner on top of the flying pole; one of her daughters, 12-year-old Nikté, also joined the dance when she was six.
Photograph by Valeria Luongo
Candy Palomo Hernández, a voladora from the town of San Antonio Rayón in the state of ...
Candy Palomo Hernández, a voladora from the town of San Antonio Rayón in the state of Puebla, Mexico, is a member of the group Cohupapatanini.
Photograph by Valeria Luongo

For a long time, the voladoras received a great deal of pushback, most often from men close to the practice. “There are prejudices,” says Teresa, who considers herself to be among the first generation of female flyers. “People won’t always say aloud that they’re against it, but they just give you this look, as if to say, ‘well, this is a dance for men, not women.’”

Such objections are most often rooted in more conservative gender stereotypes widespread in rural areas of Mexico and elsewhere across Latin America—the notion, for example, that women should make domestic duties their priority. Other opposition centres around more misogynistic conceptions of sex: flyers of any gender must be abstinent for at least a week before participating in the ritual, and some opponents have expressed concern that the very presence of women might “tempt” their male counterparts.

Twelve-year-old Yohualli Nikté Díaz and her father Arturo Díaz pose in their eagle costumes.
Twelve-year-old Yohualli Nikté Díaz and her father Arturo Díaz pose in their eagle costumes.
Photograph by Valeria Luongo
Yohualli Nikté Díaz practices with aerial silks at home in Cuetzalan del Progreso, Mexico.
Yohualli Nikté Díaz practices with aerial silks at home in Cuetzalan del Progreso, Mexico.
Photograph by Valeria Luongo
Yohualli Nikté Díaz poses with her eagle costume at home.
Yohualli Nikté Díaz poses with her eagle costume at home.
Photograph by Valeria Luongo

“Some people still believe that women contaminate the dance when they menstruate,” adds Irene García, a 33-year-old flyer who met her now-husband atop a flying pole and is currently encouraging their 12-year-old daughter, Nikté, to continue in their footsteps. With each passing generation, things become a bit easier, she adds, crediting the women who came before her. “They left the door a bit more open for us.”

Anthropologists who have extensively interviewed the women flyers and documented their experiences acknowledge that their emergence in the age-old tradition is not indicative of larger social trends in the region. “The mujeres voladoras of Cuetzalan don’t represent the fights of women for gender equality,” writes Eugenia Rodríguez Blanco, a social and cultural anthropologist at the Universidad Miguel Hernández in Elche, Spain.

Flowers left in front of the flying pole after a religious celebration in Zoactepan, a neighborhood ...
Flowers left in front of the flying pole after a religious celebration in Zoactepan, a neighborhood in the municipality of Xochitlán de Vicente Suárez, Puebla, Mexico.
Photograph by Valeria Luongo
Julisa Varela, a 39-year-old voladora, and her mother Veronica Vázquez pose in front of their home ...
Julisa Varela, a 39-year-old voladora, and her mother Veronica Vázquez pose in front of their home in Zoactepan, Mexico.
Photograph by Valeria Luongo

In recent years, however, more men in Cuetzalan have become supportive of including women in the dance. In this way, it is the symbolic significance of the voladoras that is more striking: by successfully occupying previously inaccessible spaces, Rodríguez Blanco continues, the women flyers have exposed the needlessness of excluding women in those spaces—and within the ritual itself, they have laid paths for others to follow.

The origin of Dance of the Flyers

In many ways, Cuetzalan feels like a town pulled from the past. Older residents inch their way up near-vertical streets of slippery stones, while black crows return to their nightly roosts in the tall palms along the plaza, and an old clock tower quietly marks the slow passage of time with a few dull rings of its bell. Most of the people who live in the municipality of Cuetzalan identify as members of the Indigenous Nahua and Totonac communities, Aztec in origin. The region surrounding the town is widely considered to be the birthplace of several of the most sacred pre-Hispanic traditions still in practice today.

Jacinta Teresa's hat includes a detail of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.
Jacinta Teresa's hat includes a detail of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.
Photograph by Valeria Luongo
The white veil and feathers on the hats worn by voladoras represent purity, while the colorful ...
The white veil and feathers on the hats worn by voladoras represent purity, while the colorful streamers represent the colors of the rainbow.
Photograph by Valeria Luongo

The most spectacular among them is the all-important Dance of the Flyers. “This is a ritual that came out of droughts, to ask for good harvests, to ask for rain,” says Teresa. The four flyers, wearing handmade red-and-white sequined uniforms and feathered hats, represent the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. A fifth member of the group—the leading caporal, who stands atop the pole and plays a wooden flute and drum—represents the sun. They perform an act of beauty and grace for the gods, in the hope that the gods might return the favour.

The significance of the ritual is perhaps best marked by the sheer height of the towering kowpataninih—the Nahuatl name for the tree trunk, used for the ritual flying dance, that presides over the centre of the main town square. Each year, around September, a new trunk is brought in from the forest and placed there, in an annual ceremony that involves the sacrifice of a turkey. Once secured, the flying pole stands tall, nearly matching the height of the cupola of the Iglesia San Francisco, Cuetzalan’s main church.

Julissa Varela Vázquez and María Azucena Vázquez climb the flying pole on a foggy day.
Julissa Varela Vázquez and María Azucena Vázquez climb the flying pole on a foggy day.
Photograph by Valeria Luongo

“If we concentrate enough up there, the five of us have chemistry,” Teresa explains. “We’re going to make it rain in a place where it hasn’t in a long time.”

Community ties

Only a handful of voladoras are active at any given time in Cuetzalan, remaining a small but mighty group. As the ritual has gained wider prominence—now commonly performed at festivals across Mexico and around the world—they have become highly sought-after as trailblazers of the tradition. Some are excited by the chance to travel to new places—as close as the nearby Mexican states of Jalisco and Michoacán, and as far as the island of Madagascar off the southeastern coast of Africa. Others are grateful for the opportunities it affords them in a rural region otherwise rife with economic hardship. “This dance has given me so much,” says Teresa. “It’s given me so many new experiences, new opportunities for knowledge and learning, and above all, the chance to see the world.”

Jacinta Teresa shows a photo of herself as a voladora at 19. She began participating in ...
Jacinta Teresa shows a photo of herself as a voladora at 19. She began participating in the Dance of the Flyers as a 16-year-old, in 1988.
Photograph by Valeria Luongo

The voladoras’ fearlessness extends as much to the social aspect of breaking gender barriers as it does to the real physical risks of throwing oneself from a hundred-metre pole in the sky. “When it was time to jump, I felt profoundly afraid,” says Nikté Díaz García, the 12-year-old currently learning the tradition from her parents. “You feel as though you’re about to fall into an abyss. But at the same time, you know that you’re tied to something.”

This was, precisely, how Teresa had felt so many years earlier, atop the flying pole. Her uncle was with her that morning—far above Cuetzalan’s near-vertical streets of stones, overlooking the church cupola and roosting crows in the swaying palms, and gazing down at the clock tower whose tolling bells had marked the passing of the days for so many generations before. “Tranquila,” her uncle said, his voice steady and calm. “Everything is moving normally now.”

Teresa took a deep breath. Then, with her arms outstretched, she leapt in flight.

Valeria Luongo is a documentary photographer, filmmaker, and anthropologist from Rome, Italy. Over the years, she has worked on different visual projects alongside the local communities of Cuetzalan del Progreso, Mexico. Her work about rituals, communities, and gender issues has been published in the Guardian, the BBC, and National Geographic. Follow her on Instagram.

Jordan Salama is a writer and the history reporting resident for National Geographic. His first book, Every Day the River Changes, was published in 2021. Follow him on Instagram.

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