- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

ANDAMARCA, Peru — Schoolteachers who warn children not to run with scissors might want to stay away from this small Andean town’s annual water festival.

Here, they dance with scissors.

In a country rich in traditional folk dances, scissors dancing is one of the stranger examples — a mix of pre-Columbian spiritualism and gross-out spectacle that evolved from the conflict between Christianity and Indian ways.

Mario Huamani, 30, started dancing with antique scissors when he was 5, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. At 15, he made the dancers’ customary pact with a local wamani — a mountain god, or Satan, depending on one’s beliefs.

“That’s why I can’t enter the church anymore,” he said, nodding at the simple, colonial stone structure that dominates the plaza of Andamarca, a town of 3,500 people that is walled in by Inca agricultural terraces still used today.

Mr. Huamani and the five other dancers at this September’s festival, which marked the new planting season, arrived in multilayered outfits with flowing ribbons, gold tassels and small mirrors. Matching hats that look like upturned lampshades and canvas sneakers with brightly colored laces complete the costumes.

The performance is as elaborate as the dress is eclectic.

Promenading through unpaved streets, two rival groups of dancers — scissors clanging away — moved in long, quick strides broken by pirouettes and heel-clicking kicks.

Following along, pairs of violinists and harpists — the latter’s instruments strapped upside down on their chests — play huayno melodies.

In the swirling delirium, the dancers take on the spirits of their wamanis, a transformation that anthropologists date to the 1500s and the emergence of the “taqui onqoy” — “sick dance” in the Quechua language.

After decades of Roman Catholic priests destroying Andean shrines, the wild, trancelike taqui onqoy arose as a last attempt to expel the Christian god and European culture.

Although taqui onqoy quickly faded, modern scissors dancers continue as intermediaries between Andean deities and townspeople.

It is unclear why the dancers’ dull scissors, which are 10 to 11 inches long and weigh about 2 pounds, became the instrument of choice. With their hinges long gone, the tools are more ceremonial than practical.

Anthropologist Lucy Nunez has found drawings from the 1700s of dancers with hatchets accompanied by violinists and harpists. Scissors don’t appear in artworks until a century later.

“The trials are the best part,” Rodolfo Basilio said after staking out a prime viewing spot on Andamarca’s plaza with a new wooden bench. “That’s when you get to see who is the most valiant, the most macho.”

The grisly aspects appeal to 5-year-old Zaidi Antezana: “My favorite part is when they eat frogs.”

Indian women in skirts, cardigans and dusty felt fedoras move through the growing crowd with aluminum teapots full of cloudy purple chicha, a fermented corn drink they serve in small glasses.

The sweet smell of alcohol soon fills the air as onlookers and dancers alike drink themselves out of sobriety.

Hector Rojas, 26, tunes his harp, aluminum picks taped to his thumbs and first two fingers.

“You have to believe in wamani,” he said. “If you don’t have faith, bad things happen.”

As the music begins, dancers alternate with increasingly difficult moves. One walks on tiptoes with a harpist on his shoulders. Another spins up into a pivoting headstand.

Then come the frogs — swallowed live by dancer Juan Quispe, 20.

Upping the ante, Mr. Huamani is tied to a wooden cross. Assistants crush a wreath of cactus into his head and hoist him into the twilight.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Quispe removes his shirt and pulls an inch of skin out from the right side of his rib cage. Slowly, he pushes a blade through the fold, runs another blade through his left side and ties live chickens to each knife. The crowd roars as he whirls away.

The festival ends at the church, where the crowd pulls tight a rope running down from the bell tower. Dancers lower themselves with acrobatics as fiddlers and harpists play in the tower.

Mr. Quispe descends last, taking bites out of a small boa, slowly killing the reptile, and the crowd disperses.

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