‘I have a great responsibility’: Connecting with ancestors through Aztec dance

Susana De Leon, a member of the Ketzal Coatlicue dance group
Susana De Leon, a member of the KetzalCoatlicue dance group, talks to other members of the group before the start of the Super Bowl protest march.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News | 2018

Susana De Leon never forgot her mother’s stories.

As a little girl growing up in central Mexico, her mom knew what it was like to suppress her Indigenous roots. She was shamed many times for wearing traditional dresses and having long hair. A family member even took a razor blade to her braids so she could look less Native, cutting her forehead in the process.

What her mother had shed, De Leon has reclaimed: The culture. The dress. The dance.

A woman wearing a headdress and traditional clothing.
Susana De Leon is a general in the tradition of danza Chichimeca, also know as Aztec dancing. She's the current leader of the Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue and helped found the Minneapolis group 20 years ago
Courtesy of Susana De Leon

De Leon, an immigration attorney in Minneapolis, is also a leader of Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue, a traditional Aztec dance group that has entertained audiences and helped build a sense of community in Minnesota over the past 20 years.

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In 2018, she was named a “general” — a distinction that she says was harder to earn than her law degree. The title holds special significance in the dance tradition.

“That means I have great responsibility to preserve the teachings of our ancestors,” said DeLeon, 55.

Generals are responsible for carrying forward a tradition that is hundreds of years old. Dances are ceremonies that serve to honor and connect with ancestors.

Members of the traditional Aztec dance group Kalpulli Ketzal Coatlicue.
Members of the traditional Aztec dance group Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue lead a march protesting federal immigration policies through downtown Minneapolis.
Lacey Young | MPR News 2018

The movements of the dance, already dynamic, can feel even more vibrant with the addition of a dancer’s regalia. Headdresses can be adorned with big, colorful plumage. Anklets provide the rhythm of the dance, and intricately beaded dresses and chest pieces show a dancer’s artistry and skill.

The weight of a dress can be up to 30 pounds, in which case, a dancer might choose a lighter pair of ayoyotes — leather anklets adorned with seed pods or stainless steel bells — to maintain physical balance, but also spiritual balance.

In ceremony, everything has a purpose, including what the dancer wears, what color it is, what symbols are present, what words are spoken, what instrument is used, and what direction the dancer faces, according to De Leon.

Shells strung together sit on a table with a close up of hands and cloth
The mother of a dancer makes ayoyotes for her daughter on Aug. 29 in Minneapolis. Ayoyotes are worn around the ankles and help establish the rhythm of the dance.
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News

At a recent practice at Lake Nokomis, she stands facing east, at the center of a circle of dancers, and draws onlookers in by beating a drum.

“It’s a primordial sound,” she said. “It’s the sound that is contained in our bodies, through our pulse, through our heart.”

The instrument — it’s called a huehuetl — is a hollowed-out tree trunk with animal skin stretched over the top. It represents the ancestors and elders of the community. It doesn’t just keep the beat; it holds the physical and spiritual center of the ceremony.

A decorated percussion instrument sits in the grass.
The Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue's huēhuētl, a percussion instrument, is decorated with their logo, a Quetzal bird that holds two intertwined feathered serpents in its claws. It is reminiscent of the sign that led the Mexica to settle in Tenochtitlan, an eagle holding a serpent in its claws, atop a cactus. The Mexica are an indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico.
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News

De Leon started to explore Aztec or Chichimeca dancing as a way to reconnect with lost roots. When she was 19, she immigrated to the United States and later attended the University of Minnesota, majoring in Chicano Studies.

Susana De Leon
Susana De Leon
Peter Cox | MPR News 2015

Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue is a big community. There are about 70 families, totaling 400 people, who cycle in and out of the group. In a normal year, the troupe would be donning regalia and taking the stage at the Minneapolis Monarch Festival this weekend. But like so many events during the pandemic, the festival and performance have gone virtual.

Aztec dance groups exist all throughout North America. There are groups in Houston, Albuquerque, San Jose, and of course, Mexico City. 

Being in a community is an important aspect of the kalpulli. Aztec dancing started after Spanish conquistadors invaded the Aztec Empire at Tenochtitlan in 1521. The focus on ancestors is also a way for Latinos to reconnect with the knowledge that was broken by colonization.

De Leon said she understands the importance of bringing people together.

“For the community to have a space where you can come and either connect with the identity that you already have, or an identity that you know, you are part of or an identity that you might have in your past but you're not connected to,” De Leon says, “It's a tremendous blessing and a tremendous healing, [and] I would say radical work that the community has access to.”