February 2017

Cultural touchstones have been defined by Samuel Whitesell as phenomena—whether objects, stories, music, or dance—linking generations within a society. The constant movement of people in modern society makes the discovery and maintaining of cultural “roots” especially challenging and rewarding.

For founders Julia Rivera and Alicia Leos, Danza Azteca Coatlicue has become a cultural touchstone to Nashville’s Hispanic community, bringing together the rhythms, color, and pageantry of ritual dance as a way to preserve and share a unique heritage.

“This is especially important for our children. Many of them were born here, and I want them to understand where they came from,” says Leos. “This is how cultures come together.”

Created six years ago, the dance troupe has thrilled audiences across the community, including the annual Celebrate Nashville in Centennial Park, and was recently presented the Outstanding Art & Culture Ambassador Award by the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The ancient dances honor Coatlicue (pronounced Qual-di-que), the Aztec Earth Goddess, always depicted with a skirt distinguished by the flowing, rhythmic movement of snakes.

“We have a dance dedicated to her,” says Rivera, “but other dances honor other gods and goddesses.”

Knowledge of the ancient ritual dances passed among the peoples of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, managing to survive for performance in the modern world. In addition to the beauty of female performers, one of the distinguishing features of Aztec dance is the prominent role of men. Warriors perform, attired in stunning headdress, colorful costumes, and dance footwear with layers of bells helping them to articulate a range of rhythmic sounds from delicate pulsating to intimidating.

“The specialized steps of every dance require commitment and discipline,” says Rivera. Dancers meet in the garage of her home, working to learn the history, meaning, and steps of the dance, while simultaneously learning to work together to relay the story of the dance to audiences. The result is a dance spectacle that is embraced and enjoyed at performances throughout the city—from Centennial Park and the Frist Center for the Arts to the historic Ryman Auditorium.

“We want to show everyone our culture, to learn about it and love it as we do,” says Rivera. In the process, Danza Azteca Coatlicue embraces its role as a cultural touchstone.

Photographs by Julia Rivera


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