[Photos by Amado Treviño unless otherwise noted]
PAPANTLA DE OLARTE, Mexico
The lilting melody of a wooden flute drifts over roofs and treetops. It follows the beat of a tiny drum, flowing across verdant jungle and open sea.
As the music unfolds, four men fly. They hang upside-down on ropes attached to a 30-meter pole, gently spinning groundward as a fifth man plays his song from a small platform at the top.
In this “Dance of the Flyers,” the flying men—or voladores—represent the elements earth, air, fire and water, circling the sun in a prayer for happiness and fertility.
It is a ritual of the Totonac people, one of Mexico’s myriad indigenous groups, that by some estimates dates as far back as 600 BC. The dancers wear red costumes adorned with sequins, ribbons and mirrors, arranged in elaborate floral designs that express love for the natural world.
“It’s a communication between the infinite and the elements which generate life, with the earth,” says Adolfo San Martín, a veteran volador. “That’s what you’re doing with the flute: You talk with the gods of those elements, with the cosmos, to bring blessings down to earth so humanity can last forever.”
From Peter Pan to Superman, flying carpets to jet packs, the concept of liberation through flight has been mythologized in many cultures. In this little town in Veracruz state on the east coast of Mexico, the voladores seek to become supernatural beings, transcending their physical environment to enter a spiritual realm.
“My friends think I’m crazy. They say they wouldn’t do it for a million pesos,” says Juan Carlos García Reyes, 23. He followed his father, grandfather and great-grandfather in becoming a caporal—the musician who leads the voladores in their ceremony. “People don’t understand that it’s a sacred thing and we have to do it. We feel like we touch the sky when we fly.”