Pre-Hispanic acrobatics: ancient circus practices

05/04/2021

The circus tradition as we know it today arrived approximately 200 years ago from England, however, some of the acts that are practiced in many of the shows around the world, have their origin in pre-Hispanic times, in rituals such as the xocuahpatollin, the matlanchines, and the Papantla flyers.

The xocuahpatollin, currently known as antipodismo, is a practice that consists of juggling with the soles of the feet, while the so-called matlanchines, acrobats who defied the laws of nature, were some of the ancient customs persecuted and punished by the Spaniards as they were considered pagan and diabolical.

This ritual manifestation of juggling with the feet, whose image can be appreciated in the Florentine Sahagún-Troncoso Codex, is considered the great Mexican contribution to the circus tradition of the world. The ritual of the Papantla flyers, called teocuahpatlanque, with its variants in different regions of the country, also stands out as another of the pre-Hispanic legacies.

In spite of Spanish censorship, these pre-Hispanic practices reached European and Asian lands thanks to the fact that Cortés took them as treasures to Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII. Due to the above, with the passage of time, these acrobats were incorporated into various groups that were dedicated to performing various circus acts, originating from other parts of the world.

Among the evidence of acrobatics in pre-Hispanic times, we can observe the statuette called The Acrobat, belonging to the Olmec culture, from the Middle Preclassic period (800 B.C.), and the hand balancers, which appear drawn on the murals of Bonampak, in the state of Chiapas.

The acrobatic arts come hand in hand with the evolution of human beings; all the mother cultures such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and the ancient Mexicans developed this type of tricks, from the primary need of men and women to contort their bodies, play objects with dexterity and build human pyramids.

It is the art of marveling, astonishing and surprising; the more anguish the acts provoke, the greater the results of the spectacle; it is the struggle of the human being with himself, to demonstrate that he can transcend the supposed limits of his natural condition.

The modern circus in Mexico

The current conception of the circus with circular rings under a big top is two centuries old in Mexico this year. It was in 1808 when the Englishman Philip Lailson, considered the father of this discipline in the country, arrived with his show called the Royal Riding Circus, mostly made up of Italian, French, English, and Spanish acrobats, specialized in acrobatics, balance, strength, and legerdemain.

In 1841, the Circo Olímpico of José Soledad Aycardo, the first Mexican circus impresario, was born, who combined equestrian acts, puppeteers, acrobats and clown versifiers in his big top. Throughout the 19th century, countless circuses from all over the world visited Mexico to offer multiple performances of their repertoire.

The Rivers, Runnels & Franklin, from the United States; the Schumann Company, from Denmark; the Carl Hagenbeck, from Germany; and the Pubillones, from Cuba, were only some of the circuses that visited the country with a great number of acts and, above all, with different proposals each one of them.

The Atayde family is the one with the longest circus tradition in Mexico. It was founded in 1879 and toured most of the country; however, sometime later, they went on tour for more than 20 years to Central and South America, which allowed them to gain fame and return to the country as the most important reference in the continent.

The circus tradition should be seen as an artistic discipline that brings together different expressions such as music, theater, and dance.

The first school of circus arts emerged in the year 500 in the old continent, and despite the ancient acrobatic tradition, it was not until September 1, 2008, when the first degree in Mexico focused on these disciplines was founded.

Today there are close to 500 circuses in Mexico, all of them of family creation that have been inherited generation after generation. However, including outsiders in the circus arts is one of the objectives that specialists have defined as essential; to break with the genealogical tradition and include those interested.

The current challenge for circuses is to innovate in their shows; to incorporate new tricks that surprise, amaze and astonish the public, in order to prevent them from disappearing. Although almost everything has been seen, they must bet on imagination, creativity and continue to create magical and fascinating worlds.

By Mexicanist