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Apprentice José Dominguez-Leal (foreground) with Artist Mentor Mario Alberto Ollincoyotl Ramirez (background). Photo courtesy of José Dominguez-Leal.

“In order to remember, we must dismember”: A Conversation with San Marcos-based Danza Azteca Practitioners, Mario Alberto Ollincoyotl Ramirez and José Dominguez-Leal

As part of Texas Folklife’s 2021 Apprenticeship Program, Mario Alberto Ollincoyotl Ramirez is leading José Dominguez-Leal through the conceptual, physical, emotional, and spiritual components of danza Azteca. With Indigenous roots, danza Azteca is a complex, living, evolving cultural tradition that blends ceremonial movement and song, musical instruments and poetry, regalia and body art, protocols and objects all associated with a variety of American Indian communities autochthonous to Texas and north-central Mexico, especially the Otomí-Chichimeca. Danza Azteca is not a dance practice but a form of individual and collective kinesthetic prayer - what Ramirez and Dominguez-Leal describe as an all-encompassing way of life - that venerates ancestors and the environment, fosters and recalibrates community, and reimagines future relationships. Apprenticeship Program Coordinator Pete Breithaupt (PB) spoke with Ramirez (MAR) and Dominguez-Leal (JDL) via Zoom in early May. They were joined by Maria Rocha (MR), Executive Director of the Indigenous Cultures Institute in San Marcos, TX. Read excerpts from the interview below.

PB: Can you both talk about how you first became involved in dance?  What drew you to movement as a means of individual and collective expression?

MAR: Long story short, I had an uncle who passed away one month before I was born, who was a dancer. And according to my grandmother, I looked very much like him. She doesn't call me “Mario”; she calls me “Pepe.” He had his own folklórico company in Mexico and went to school for dance. And so that created a background with my family appreciating dance in general. When I began to dance in middle school, it was very well received. I got into dance when I was in eighth grade by accident. I actually wanted to do athletics class; I wanted to play soccer. They messed up my schedule, and I was in the wrong class; I ended up being in the dance class. What helped was that I had a male dance teacher. His name was Jon Fisher, and he said, “Boys dance, too.” He was just breaking all the stereotypes. And so that really inspired me, and I loved it so much. 

So then, I went to Woodrow Wilson High School, where I went up to the dance teacher, Lisa Moya, during the orientation, and I said, “I want to dance. I want to do this.” She had never had a student do that to her, like, going up to her and telling her that they want to dance. While preparing for a UIL competition, my dance teacher decided to do a dance inspired by the history of colonization. She wanted Aztec dance to represent the Indigenous peoples here. She wanted to put a twist on it where the Aztecs were defeating the Spanish. 

And so from there that's where I met my teacher Evelio Flores because he would come every day after school to teach Aztec dance. I would stay every day after school to learn his portion of the dance, and I loved it. One day, he invited me out to the dance practices that happened throughout the week. I ended up going and they happened to be down the street close to where I lived. And his daughters also happened to be in my high school; they were my friends as well. So that helped me get into the tradition - little by little recognizing and realizing that these traditions have always been in my family as well and that these traditions have been dormant, and I was very much disconnected from that.

I continued dancing through high school. My dance teacher literally threw me on a bus to go audition for UT [the University of Texas at Austin]. I made it into UT, and, yeah, that’s how I started my dance journey. Now I am here, a dance educator, dance artist, dance mover, etc., all the things.

MR: I just wanted to say, Mario, Evelio always starts with “Long story short” and then he tells this magnificent, long story, but he always starts, “Long story short.”

MAR: I am under his wing, so we do have some similarities [laughs].

JDL: Throughout the process of this apprenticeship, I've really been reflecting on my story and my journey, my process and my origins in dance. I've always loved to dance and to move, and it's always been a process that has allowed my spirit to flow and embody this flesh vessel that I'm existing in. I remember seeing home videos of me in diapers, you know, dancing to Selena on TV, like the old big box TVs, and seeing photos of me attending dance competitions and  festivals when I was in middle school and high school. Around that time, I remember really connecting to these memories of driving around with my dad in his truck listening to 99.9 FM, the Valley’s Tejano station, and Jimmy Gonzalez and Grupo Mazz. And so just hearing and feeling connected to those memories, you know, has been part of my connection to music and the arts.

Anyway at 13, I started to dance folklórico, which is a common thread that me and Mario share, as a way to connect and to understand my cultural heritage as a Mexican American. My brother actually started doing it first, and I was in Kung Fu at the time, and I was like, “I want to try that.” So folklórico, which is Mexican folk dance from each state of Mexico, has a history of being institutionalized by the national ballet of Mexico with dance companies like Amalia Hernández, but these are also, as I'm learning, very colonized ways of portraying traditional dance. It’s on a stage; it has a lot of ballet technique.

My folklórico origins - which definitely have this romanticization of Indigeneity - led me to danza, which is this really beautiful tool for decolonization in the cultural arts. For me, it has been a tool that helps me maintain my own resistance towards assimilation and indoctrination. Aztec dance has allowed me to reconnect to my own Indigeneity as a Coahuiltecan from Texas - a “Coahuil-Tejano” is a term that I've found that I really like. And it has been a vital space for me as a Mexican American, Chicano, Tejano-identifying person to feel acceptance and encouragement and admiration to continue to strive to hold onto my Indigenous roots and to be able to share that with others.

Apprentice José Dominguez-Leal at a danza ceremony for his birthday. Photo courtesy of José Dominguez-Leal.
Apprentice José Dominguez-Leal at a danza ceremony for his birthday. Photo courtesy of José Dominguez-Leal.

PB: You both spoke about “reconnection” when describing your initial experiences with danza Azteca. Can you speak further about this theme? I think it is significant the way you juxtaposed folklórico as a form wrought through state mediation / colonialist practices and danza Azteca as a tool of resistance. How does your idea of reconnection play into this juxtaposition?

JDL: Danza is an art form and a ceremonial practice. There are protocols and ceremonies that go into it. There’s the actual dancers themselves. There are the histories and the legacies of danza, which I've been learning a lot about. And then there's also that here-and-now, the community aspect - the building of kinship among people in the community. So I think for me, the reconnection aspects in this process have been, first, understanding and acknowledging myself as a colonized person. Growing up, for example, watching Cartoon Network and Disney channel and other ‘programming’ produced by media companies whose profits come from how successful they are able to retain adolescent viewership. That kind of does something to the psyche - it's called ‘programming’ for a reason.  And, you know, going through seventh grade history and learning about the state-sanctioned version of Texas history. Even getting through college without even really understanding a lot of who I was. So I think we're all in this life on this journey to better understand who we are and our role in this world. 

Danza creates a space for critical self-examination - on a personal level, on a spiritual level, physical and emotional. It's helped me understand in a spiritual aspect like “What am I doing when I do this?” The source of my creativity and of my life force is not anything in the physical. But it's connection to the Earth, connection to the Water, and really taking a look at those relationships: Mother Earth, the Water, who's all knowing and all understanding, and then also the other people that I'm in relation with, you know, in dance, the community and beyond. 

MAR: So the saying that I have with José right now is “In order to remember, we must dismember.” A lot of the time, we literally have to remember what it means to identify, what it means to be in relationship with others. And that is part of the reconnection - to remember who we are. And I think that's a big thing of what we know as “Indigeneity.” The reconnection of Indigeneity, basically like José said, it's a way of being, it's not an identity per se. I think because of where we are right now it's important to acknowledge that the original caretakers and inhabitants are the Indigenous peoples of these lands.

But everyone to some extent is Indigenous. If you breathe air, not in a “Kumbaya” way, but in an accountable way that I am responsible for Mother Earth and the Water that we drink and the histories and legacies that we all follow. That is a part of the reconnection and remembering that we all must do, depending on where you are in your environment.

My favorite thing that the Garzas [of the Miakan-Garza Band] have always talked about is that there is no Indigenous word for “Indigenous.” So what does that mean when we're using English and we're identifying as Indigenous? Because at the end of the day, I'm just the people, right? At the end of the day, if I truly want to translate what my language is speaking or saying, I'm just going to say, I'm the people. And so that's a big part of reconnection. that I want to just leave it at that because I can go on forever about it.

PB: Your idea of “dismembering to remember” is powerful, Mario. Throughout your apprenticeship, José, have there been any particular legacies of danza that you have dismembered and, thus, caused you to reflect differently on your own practices or identities?

JDL: Yeah, actually, and it kind of blends in with different aspects too, but one of the really surprising things or kinds of processes that I have to re-examine or continue thinking about it, because this is a continual process for me, is the way that we, in our communities, organize in a circular way. A lot of times we're taught from the outside through the education system there's a certain hierarchy and then just kind of growing up in my own political understanding of myself and what the systems that are at play in the world that we live in.

I keep coming back to the idea of the circle, reexamining the circle as its own system in opposition to hierarchical structures. And even within the circle, there are levels. We revere and honor and respect our elders and those who have been in the traditions longer because they are the keepers of the wisdom and the knowledge, and, you know, there's a respect there. I think I'm still in my process of kind of stepping in and being a part of the circle while also understanding the differences between what hierarchy is and what circle is. That's one thing that has come up for me a lot through this process.

Click Image Above to Watch Video. Artist Mentor Mario Alberto Ollincoyotl Ramirez (playing the drum) and Apprentice José Dominguez-Leal (dancing in the red jaguar headdress regalia) performing with their group Danza Ollinyollotl at the 2020 Sacred Springs Powwow in San Marcos, TX.

PB: What about the significance of the circle in danza Azteca performance practice? The dancers often stand in a circle. Also, I’ve noticed that unlike some other forms of American Indian dance-drumming practices where singers circle around the drum, in your practice, the drum is part of the circle’s perimeter.  Why is it important that the drum is included in the circle alongside the dancers?

JDL: From my understanding the circle is a sacred structure. It's a form of community. You have the people next to you, and you have a visual of everyone. And so I think that’s really important to understand the community aspect of the role of the circle in danza.  And a lot of times, at least in the way that we've done danza, the drum - the huehuetl also known as “Grandfather” -  is part of the circle. It can be in the center depending on different forms of practice, but the way we’ve done it, and the way I’ve been practicing is that the drum is an ancestor. It is made from the trunk of a tree who is an ancient relative of ours, and they are in the circle with us. 

Beyond that, each person in the circle is also not just there as themselves, but as the container, the vessel for everyone that they are connected to as well. So it's not just community in a circular sense. Each person has, you know, two parents, four grandparents, and then like all of that with them as well. And not even just in the generational aspect of things, but in the people that they are close with, that they are in relation to that they represent. They bring that with them to danza as well. And it's beautiful to have us all there as ourselves but also representing everyone behind us, our grandparents, our ancestors. And then understanding time as a non-linear process - it's our future as well, you know, the people that we're going to know in the future.

Apprentice José Dominguez-Leal painting the huehuetl, the “Grandfather” drum used in danza Azteca. Photo Courtesy of Mario Alberto Ollincoyotl Ramirez.
Apprentice José Dominguez-Leal painting the huehuetl, the “Grandfather” drum used in danza Azteca. Photo Courtesy of Mario Alberto Ollincoyotl Ramirez.

PB: The way you describe the levels of community in danza makes me think of a Nahuatl word that I have been learning about: “Kalpulli.” What is your definition of this term, and what does it mean for your danza Azteca practice?

JDL: Yeah, from what I've learned from Mario and my danza community, Kalpulli is the home structure. I think one of the root words in Kalpulli is “Calli .” If that’s correct, Calli is “the structure” or “the home” in Nahuatl. So it is kind of like where the circle begins. In a more practical sense, the Kalpulli is led by the leaders of the Kalpulli, which is typically a family.

MAR: The system was created to bring together communities and a sense of, like José said, family. Usually, it's led by a family because families are often a lot more structured or a lot more grounded, and there's stability. But a lot of the time, it's a group of people who are stable enough to be able to hold the community together.  

Kalpulli is also the way we have been traditionally using to kind of validate our Indigeneity.  Because a lot of the time we don't have tribal affiliation, or we don't have blood quantum; we don't have tribal cards. And so the Kalpulli system is the way we are able to represent our peoples, our communities. Like, for example, I'm from Kalpulli Tonalpilli, which is a community that stems from El Paso. A lot of my communities stem from all over the place. Personally, my families are from Guachichil Chichimeca, which stem from San Luis Potosi. 

It's terrible that I even have to validate my Indigeneity - like I don't have to validate it to anybody. But that's another thing, Kalpulli has helped us reconnect with our other Indigenous relatives who are in other systems of validating their Indigeneity.

MR: I just have to say, since you asked, this whole idea of tribes and chiefs and all of that is a colonized structure that was imposed on us. We lived as the people. We had people living around us, and we didn't call that a tribe. It was some families that got together and were contributing to survival, and everyone had their own different rules of conduct, every group of families.

And so the Kalpulli is a more legitimate, authentic way of the gathering of people together for purpose. So we feel like our Kalpulli-s are closer to the original way, the original instructions that were given to us, and tribes is this construct that's tearing us apart actually because it's government run, government sanctioned, government approved. So that's another aspect of Kalpulli that’s so sacred.

Apprentice José Dominguez-Leal (far right) with danza circle members in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of José Dominguez-Leal.
Apprentice José Dominguez-Leal (far right) with danza circle members in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of José Dominguez-Leal.

PB: What about the individualistic aspects of Danza performance, for example, when a dancer comes into the middle of the circle to solo or when individual dancers incorporate slight variations or interpretive flair in their realizations of the shared steps? I am curious about how individual expression is balanced within collective movement.

JDL: Yeah, when you were saying that, I kept thinking that’s what we've come to understand - that individual flair, that individual life, that individual energy - as someone's medicine, the medicine that they bring to the circle, what they share with others. And so, in our practices, we go around the circle and each person can offer what they want to offer the danza circle or the space. That flair is part of their offering, right, as what they hold within them and all that they represent, as their medicine. I think through danza I’ve stepped into accepting and understanding the medicine that I carry and the medicine that I give while also appreciating the medicine of others and, you know, the energy of their spirits in the circle as well. Because growing up and as a queer person, there are a lot of uncertainties - of being accepted by the world and being accepted by your community. And that can lead to a lot of closures in different ways but knowing that in the circle that that's my time to give my offering and that what I have to offer is valid and meaningful and significant and beautiful. And that's what I want to give, you know? And so that's, I guess, what you're talking about in that individual flair: it’s the medicine that each of us carry everywhere we go.

And then in terms of doing them all synchronously or the same dance at the same time, I think that speaks to the strength of the collective prayer. If we understand danza to be a kinesthetic prayer, doing the movements together - returning those vibrational energies to the Earth, all in sync to the Grandfather drum, which is carrying us along - that magnifies the intention of the prayer, the energy behind it, and the effect it has on whatever we're doing whether it's an action, a protest, a ceremony, or if it’s for a cause.

Artist Mentor Mario Alberto Ollincoyotl Ramirez dancing at the Latino Cultural Center in Dallas,TX. Photo Courtesy of Francisca Munoz Ramirez.
Artist Mentor Mario Alberto Ollincoyotl Ramirez dancing at the Latino Cultural Center in Dallas,TX. Photo Courtesy of Francisca Munoz Ramirez.

PB: Mario, as you mentioned, you learned danza from Evelio Flores, a well-recognized danza practitioner, community leader, and a former artist mentor in Texas Folklife’s 2017 Apprenticeship Program. I want to hear about your experience, now as a mentor, leading your own danza group and, specifically, teaching José one-on-one. What has this apprenticeship meant to you?

MAR: I think as a teacher, personally, it's an apprenticeship and initiation for me as well. I'm now learning what my teachers had to do at one point. And, for lack of better words, it's like, you all of a sudden have a kid so now you're a parent. Or, you know, your kid had a kid and now you're a grandparent and that brings a different sense of responsibility. And so for me, it's been very much about remembering what that responsibility is and how to take care of everybody. Because it's much more than just teaching dance, like you teach dance and you're done - it's not that at all. It can be a lot, and I feel like, a lot of the time, it’s really overlooked. But, yes, it's very good. It's a beautiful experience because you get to connect with everyone. There's a lot of love and a lot of rewards to see. It’s very rewarding to see everybody growing in their own way. Because you definitely have to facilitate a space where you're not imposing anything, and you're not forcing anyone to do anything, but, at the same time, you're giving them the space to learn within a certain kind of structure and allow them to learn within the foundation that you're setting.

Specifically, one-on-one with José, there have been good times. There have been times where I've been angry. There have been times where I'm just like, “Don't do that.” Because there are a lot of ‘new age’ things going on in the world, there has to be a certain kind of a rooting or foundation to know about what it means to be within a legacy. It's not just dance, and it's not just a group of friends coming together to do dance. It's a lot more - like what it truly means to be accountable to people that maybe you don't even want to be in the space with. It's all community, but within the community, there's also conflict; it's not a community without some head bumping.

And that's to say that there's beauty in that, too, because we learn how to really navigate that well and learn - within our circular ways and manners on what we currently know as restorative and transformative justices - what it looks like to heal within our community. And so that's my responsibility as a teacher; I'm the container for that. In a sense, I'm the nucleus of this whole structure that is going on. It's very much about how my spiritual-personal wellbeing is going to reflect on everybody else. If I'm cranky and don't want to be there, that's going to ripple out to everything and everyone. It's a reminder for me to constantly be working on myself to be able to feed others as well inspire - liberating myself to liberate others within that space. 

PB: Thank you, Mario, José, and Maria, for this insightful conversation!

Documenting the living heritage of Texas involves the accurate representation of people's thoughts and views, knowledge and practices. Opinions expressed in interviews with tradition bearers do not necessarily reflect the sentiments or positions of Texas Folklife and its director, staff, contractors, and volunteers.

Credits for header image: Apprentice José Dominguez-Leal (foreground) with Artist Mentor Mario Alberto Ollincoyotl Ramirez (background). Photo courtesy of José Dominguez-Leal.