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Dance of the Flyers: Death-defying pole acrobatics in Mexico

Harmeet Kaur, CNNUpdated 11th April 2017
(CNN) — Five individuals climb to the top of a pole more than 100 feet tall.
One man, known as the caporal, stands in the middle on a small, wooden platform playing the flute and drum. There is nothing to support him. There are no safety nets to catch him. One misstep and he falls to his death.
The other four participants are positioned around him. Suspended by ropes, they launch themselves from the top of the pole, twisting like acrobats. Like birds soaring through the air, they spiral majestically 13 times as they descend to the bottom of the pole.
They are the "voladores," and this is their dance.
The Danza de los Voladores, or the Dance of the Flyers, is a tradition dating back centuries. Once practiced by the indigenous peoples of Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador as a way to connect with their gods, the tradition was partially lost after the Spanish conquest.
Photographer Kike Arnal
Today, the dance is usually associated with the Totonac people in the Mexican city of Papantla, where people from all over the world come to watch the impressive ceremony being performed. But deep in the villages in Puebla, Mexico, the Nahua people are also keeping the tradition alive.
Kike Arnal, a photographer based in Oakland, California, started following the Nahua voladores in 2010. He visited about 20 villages in the Sierra Norte region, documenting the significance the dance still holds in these communities.
"What I tried to do with my photography was rescue what was still done in an old-fashioned way, more connection with their past," Arnal said.

A blend of beliefs

The Nahua people still preserve some of the ritual's origins, but they have adapted it to fit their Catholic beliefs. While the traditional garments worn by the voladores represented symbols important to their gods, modern costumes have done away with pagan symbolism forbidden by the Spanish conquerors. And although women were traditionally not allowed to participate in the ceremony, in Puebla they often serve as voladores and even the caporal.
Instead of commemorating various gods, the Nahua perform the dance only on holidays commemorating a particular town's patron saint. The dance begins in the town church, with the voladores submitting offerings to their saint.
"The motivation is more about faith, dedication, connection with their religious beliefs," Arnal said.

How they pull it off

Preparation for the dance is a massive undertaking for the entire community. Dozens of volunteers pitch in to cut down a tree and stand it up to be used as a pole for the ceremony. Arnal depicts these efforts in many of his photographs.
One photo shows a man measuring a tree with his arms, gauging whether it can be used for the pole. Another shows volunteers upset after they discovered a tree they cut down was cracked and therefore unusable for the dance. One shows a man climbing the tree to harvest it, an important part of the tradition.
"The acrobatics of the dance is absolutely mind-blowing and beautiful, but what amazes me the most is the dance is only a portion of the whole process," Arnal said. "They take this enormous effort to bring this tree up and they prepare it with these ropes. After days of work, they do the dance. All the effort they take, just to dance one day."
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