Quechua Danza de Tijeras (Scissor Dance)
  • Hopi dance
  • Quechua dance

The high Andean mountains of south-central Peru are the traditional setting for the Quechua Danza de Tijeras, or Scissor Dance, an artistic and semi-religious performance that, on one level, expresses the human need to challenge and overcome physical limitations. Its origins uncertain, the dance evolved in the present-day departments of Huancavelica, Ayacucho, Apurimac, and Arequipa. The performers are called tusuq, tusoq, or dansaq (dancers).

During the colonial period, mestizos (Christianized Peruvians of both Spanish and indigenous descent) considered the Scissor Dance to be a manifestation of dark magic. Because the dance involves demanding, acrobatic movements, mestizos assumed that the dancers had entered a pact with the devil, and they called the dancers supaypa guaguan (sons of the devil). Even today, scissor dancers are forbidden from entering churches while wearing their regalia. The dancers, however, claim themselves to be children of Wamani, the mountain spirit. During the rite of passage for young Quechua scissor dancers, an older dancer called a layga or layqa (old shaman) bestows a name on each initiate. The name is associated with “their” Wamani. At least once a year, in special offering to the Wamani, the scissor dancers reinvigorate or rejuvenate themselves. Some dancers are respected healers in their communities.

Scissor dancers perform in cuadrillas, or teams, which compete with one another. The competitions, which are called atipanakuy or hatipanakuy, can last many hours. A cuadrilla comprises at least four people: two dancers, a harpist, and a violinist. A team may include more than two dancers, but it is always composed of pairs. While dancing, each performer—wearing an outfit embroidered with golden fringe, multicolored sequins, and small mirrors—must strike together a pair of iron blades in time to the music. The ritualized dance highlights the performers’ acrobatic skills. Though all Scissor Dance performances involve demanding and impressive gymnastics, step dancing, and aerial jumps, no two are identical, and a particular performance is never repeated. Dancers continually vary their steps and movements while following the rhythm and tempo of the music. The dancers’ skill, energy, and strength are credited to the power of the Wamani. Their physical abilities and the quality of the accompanying music determine the competition winners—which are mutually agreed upon by the cuadrillas.

Sometimes, the scissor dancers, who are most often men between the ages of fifteen and thirty, perform with a group of young women dancers, called guaylias or guayligias. In this case, the male dancers are called machu, and they guide the women dancers in their journey. Machu use sonaja (rattles) rather than the iron-bladed “scissors.”

During the 1500s and 1600s, Catholic priests banned ancient agricultural rituals and persecuted scissor dancers because they refused to abandon their ancient ideas. In the Catholic world view of good/bad and angel/devil, the scissor dancers were identified with devil. But since the Spanish could not entirely eradicate indigenous Andean beliefs, they integrated the scissor dance into colonial society under the condition that the dancers participate in the Catholic ritual calendar, mainly the feast days of patron saints. In this way, Christian rites in Andean communities were fused with traditional indigenous practices.

The Scissor Dance is now associated with the infant Jesus and is usually performed at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, during New Year, and at Epiphany (January 6). This coincides with the indigenous celebration of the summer solstice and the grand Inka festival of Inti (the Sun). In addition to being performed at patron-saint festivals, and during holidays, the dance is a feature of traditional festivals tied to indigenous Andean farming practices such as watering, planting, harvesting, and llama shearing. Today the Scissor Dance is a vibrant, ritualized presentation that may be performed in both sacred and secular spaces, but always under the protection of Wamani, the mountain spirit.

—Fernando Flores-Zúñiga, with Cécile R. Ganteaume

Fernando Flores-Zúñiga is a member of the Instituto Riva Aguero de la Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Peru. A scholar specializing in agrarian reform and archival research, he has also worked as an editor and publisher and served as an academic advisor to the Congress of the Republic of Peru.

Scissor dancers throughout Peru’s south-central highlands wear brightly colored outfits. Their baggy trousers and fitted jackets are richly decorated with metallic embroidery, gold and silver fringe, and colored sequins and beads. Their large hats are often edged with tassels and feathers, and sometimes with ribbons. All scissor dancers have special names, which are often embroidered on their outfits. Lastapara, embroidered on the hat and apron of this outfit, means “snowfall” in Quechua. Wearing a glove on their left hand, scissor dancers wield in their right hand polished iron rods, which represent scissors. As they perform demanding acrobatic leaps, the dancers strike the rods against each other, following the rhythm set by the accompanying violins and harps.

2010. Worn by Walter Veille. Huancavelica, Peru. Cotton and synthetic fabric and trim, metallic fringe and thread, sequins, feathers, dye, plastic jewel. EP0954. Photograph by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI.

  • Scissor dancers

    Scissor dancers, Villa Maria, Lima, Peru, 2007. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo, courtesy of Corbis Images

  • Performer from the Yawar Chicchi Scissor Dance group

    Quechua performer from the Yawar Chicchi Scissor Dance group, National Museum of the American Indian, 2009. Courtesy of photographer Jeff Malet

  • Performer from the Yawar Chicchi Scissor Dance group

    Quechua performer from the Yawar Chicchi Scissor Dance group, National Museum of the American Indian, 2009. Courtesy of photographer Jeff Malet

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