Dancing with the Virgin: Body and Faith in the Fiesta of Tortugas, New Mexico
Book Overview and Chapter Summaries

Deidre Sklar went to Tortugas, New Mexico, where an annual three-day fiesta honors the Virgin of Guadalupe, in order to seek answers to her questions about community, performance, and the embodiment of belief. How do we know what we know? Where do we belong, and how do we fit in? Sklar's own background and learned values form the conscious, constantly challenged raw material for the undertaking, and the intimate language of the body and sensation is her medium. Her ten-year study and movement analysis of the sacred dances and the "backstage" work involved in the festival take her deep into the life of the community, as dancer, participant-observer, and self-interrogating woman merge in a vividly narrated experience of "communal sacred time."


First Steps (Preface) poses the large questions of faith, community, and identity, introducing the author's strategy of looking not to texts but to the annual performance of the Tortugas fiesta in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where answers are enacted and embodied. Ethnography, movement analysis, and narratives of cross-cultural encounter provide the tools for addressing the felt, bodily dimensions of spiritual knowledge.

Chap 1: Trip gives the history of Tortugas village, its fiesta, and its sponsoring organization, the Corporaçion Indigena de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. These are woven with an account of the author’s journey down the Rio Grande from Santa Fe through the southern New Mexico landscape to Tortugas village in Las Cruces.

Chap 2: From the Capilla to the Casa del Pueblo narrates the first night of the fiesta (December 10th), its sundown procession and the all-night velorio (wake) in the casa del pueblo. There, prayers and matachine dances are offered to the virgin. A sensory description of the virgin’s altar and a recounting of her originating narrative introduce the matachine dancers, los danzantes.

Chap 3: Dancing with the Virgin offers an in-depth evocation and analysis of
la danza (the matachine dance), including its history, dance characters (monarca, malinche, abuelo), movements, and the dance leader’s interpretation of “dancing with the virgin. The second section of the chapter moves to the casa de la comida (community kitchen) to introduce the preparatory backstage work of the fiesta. Reflections on the nature of “sacred work,” balancing voluntary labor with social obligation, and differences between the author’s and the people’s experience of community, are interspersed throughout.

Chap 4: Choreography of the Kitchen depicts the layout and gendered spatial arrangement of the kitchens, the jokes, stories, and conversation that accompany work, and the women’s art of passing on cultural knowledge to resist assimilation. The danzantes arrive for a midnight meal, and the narrative turns to the discipline and strictness that enable their contemplative engagement with the virgin.

Chap 5: Pilgrimage begins at dawn on the second day (December 11th) with the climb of pilgrimage up Tortugas Mountain, addressing experiences of both communitas and alienation engendered by the mass event. The mountain top panorama prompts a discussion of Pueblo and Catholic spatial cosmologies. The chapter then shifts back to the village for the afternoon ritual of preparing albondigas (meatballs) in the casa de la comida, and, as evening begins, the firelit return of the climbers, their Pueblo chanting and march.

Chap 6: Granddaughter of Mama Luz presents one family of Pueblo Indian ancestry and compares their Pueblo indio beliefs, practices, and interpretations of history to those of their more Catholic indio neighbors. The comparison invites reflection on the ambiguities of descent and identity in Tortugas.

Chap 7: Ensayo Real evokes the Tigua Pueblo, or indio, dance through its final ensayo (practice) on the second night. Description of the introductory ceremonial whipping provides occasion for discussion of the relation between submission and spiritual power in the fiesta. The indio dance is brought to life through a verbal rendering of its music, steps, choreography and, especially, style compared with northern Pueblo corn dances. Woven with description are meditations on what it is to be “indio” in Tortugas, on bodily ways of learning and on the author’s experience of dancing.

Chap 8: The 12th follows events on the final day (December 12th): the morning High Mass, including the investiture of new majordomos, dancing in the plazas surrounding the church, the feast for three hundred in the casa de la comida, and the climactic late afternoon procession in which the virgin is passed from this to next year’s majordomos. Here, the sensorial and symbolic associations that have built throughout the book are worked into a collage of words that evince the experience of presence, belief, and community.

Chap 9: The Movement Does Not Stop steps back from the experience-near perspective of the previous chapters to re-view, re-consider, and draw conclusions in wider contexts. Spiritual experience is considered as a “doing,” rather than a text, and as a transFormation enacted upon oneself through the details of performance. Commentary covers similarities and differences between aesthetic and spiritual knowledge, the relation between language and bodily experience; the fiesta’s transFormative process compared to writing’s transFormative process, and future possibilities for a body and movement based research methodology.