Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 14, 2013
Matthew G. Looper To Be Like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009. 280 pp.; 16 color ills.; 202 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780292709881)

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western readerships closely identified the ancient Maya with dance and bodily performance. The theme of dance is implicit in the sinuous orientalism of Frédéric de Waldeck’s renderings of Palenque relief sculpture published in 1866 (e.g., “The Beau Relief”: see Frédéric de Waldeck and Brasseur de Bourbourg, Palenqué et autres ruines de l’ancienne civilisation du Mexique, Paris: Bertrand, 1866, plate 42). The animated pose of a maize god statue from Copán Temple 22 prompted English colonial administrator and explorer A. P. Maudslay to call the figure “the singing girl” in his documentary volume of 1889 (Alfred P. Maudslay, Biologia Centrali-Americana: Archaeology, London: Dulau, 1889–1902, vol. I, pl. 17a and b). Survey texts would refer to this compelling sculpture as “the singing girl” through the early twentieth century (e.g., Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, The North-Americans of Yesterday: A Comparative Study of North-American Indian Life and the Customs and the Products and on the Theory of the Ethnic Unity of the Race, New York: Putnam/Knickerbocker, 1900, 19). In 1933, the noted collector and scholar of Native American art H. B. Hartley choreographed The Singing Girl of Copan: A Ballet in the Maya Mode. Hartley published an article on the composition in the New York stage press, while students at Vassar College staged a production of the ballet that same year (H. B. Alexander, “The Singing Girl of Copan: A Ballet in the Maya Mode,” Theater Arts Monthly 17 (1933): 594–98). “The Singing Girl of Copan is one of the most beautiful productions which this reviewer has ever seen,” wrote a undergraduate author in the Vassar Miscellany News: “Every motion of the Singing Girl is a dance, with the moving chorus in the background, arms, legs, and the weaving serpentine pattern of their movements back and forth across the stage” (Vassar Miscellany News 28, no. 34 [March 7, 1934]).

This rich history of reception makes Matthew G. Looper’s insights on Maya dance all the more valuable. With To Be Like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization, he offers a comprehensive assessment of this important discursive and iconographic trope in Maya art. The study confidently synthesizes existing scholarship on ancient Maya dance, while bringing much new insight to the problem. The result is a study of considerable interpretive reach and analytic perception.

To Be Like Gods reaffirms dance as a principal form of ancient Maya cultural expression: in the measured, choreographed movement of the body the Maya partnered the social and the sacral as cultural practice. Looper reveals that ancient Maya dance warrants recognition in its own right as a somatic idiom of remarkable intelligence, beauty, and sophistication. More than this, he shows that Maya dance operated as an instrumentalized discourse of social and gender identity, religion, and dynastic politics.

Looper’s study ranges across artistic media—spatial, painted, carved, modeled—to give Maya visual expression careful, sustained consideration. He furnishes revealing examinations of individual programs of dance imagery: these include well-known cycles at Yaxchilán, Bonampak, and Copán, as well as less recognized programs at Itzimte, Xkalumkín, Xcorralché, and other sites of Campeche and the northern Maya region. Looper also addresses the great processional reliefs of the Lower Temple of the Jaguars at Chichén Itzá, a discussion that substantially enriches a classic analysis of the same program co-authored by Linda Schele and Peter Mathews (Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs, New York: Scribner, 1998, 197–256). Looper is careful to differentiate the Maya imagery of dance through time as well as across space: his discussion of artworks from the early first-millennium AD nicely sets up his more extended analyses of works produced later in time. Looper’s consideration of dance imagery on painted Maya ceramics—a chapter co-authored with Ronald L. Bishop and Dorie Reents-Budet—offers a welcome summary assessment of this captivating visual material.

Looper provides a comprehensive résumé of Maya dance iconography. His study identifies the norms and occasions of individual Maya dances, as well as their mythological associations. Looper also considers the ways that other acts of bodily athleticism—warfare and the ballgame, in particular—were incorporated into the performative discourse and visual imagery of Maya dance. Looper is able to recognize apparently static figural scenes as images of dance (e.g., Tikal Temple 4 Lintel 3, or Dos Pilas Stelas 11, 14, and 15), and to bring historically misidentified figural compositions under the rubric of dance iconography (e.g., the “rampant” jaguars of Copán Structure 10L–24). More consequentially still, Looper’s discussion also embraces the urban infrastructure of dance: the “dance platform,” long an empty building-typology in Maya archaeology, is here restored to inquiry as an integral component of Maya ceremonialism and urban design.

Looper’s study of dance in Maya art and writing contributes to a significant body of scholarship on the topic. In a notice of 1966, archaeologist Michael Coe and art historian Elizabeth Benson drew attention to what seemed a posture of dance in a carved panel acquired by Dumbarton Oaks (Michael Coe and Elizabeth Benson, Three Maya Relief Panels at Dumbarton Oaks: Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 2, Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1966). About a decade later the dissertations of Mathews (staff- and scepter-dances in the carved lintels of Yaxchilán) and Mary Ellen Miller (Flapstaff dancers in the paintings of the east, south, and west walls of Room 3 of Bonampak Structure 1) established dance as a principal iconographic trope of Maya dynastic art (Peter Mathews, “The Sculpture of Yaxchilan,” PhD diss., Department of Anthropology, Yale University, 1988; Mary Ellen Miller, “The Murals of Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico,” PhD diss., Department of History of Art, Yale University, 1981). In an important paper of 1980, Schele showed that the carved panel in Palenque Temple XIV depicts a dead ruler dancing across a pool of water—“the Xibalba Shuffle,” she called it; the panel’s inscription ties this dance to a mythological event that had transpired 946,000 years before (Linda Schele, “The Xibalba Shuffle: A Dance after Death,” in Maya Iconography, eds., Elizabeth P. Benson and Gillett G. Griffin, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, 294–317). By the early 1990s, the epigraphy of Maya dance had emerged more clearly: the epigrapher Nikolai Grube’s 1992 article on hieroglyphic expressions allied with scenes of dance remains one of the most rigorously argued epigraphic readings in the literature of the Maya hieroglyphic decipherment (Nikolai Grube, “Classic Maya Dance: Evidence from Hieroglyphs and Iconography,” Ancient Mesoamerica 3 (1992): 201–218).

The kernel of To Be Like Gods is found on page 124, where Looper offers a series of line drawings that illustrate the dancers found on plates produced in the northern Petén region of Guatemala. Looper’s line renderings recall those published by Tatiana Proskouriakoff in her landmark work of 1950, A Study of Classic Maya Sculpture—the unstated reference is clear to any specialist in Maya art (Tatiana Proskouriakoff, A Study of Classic Maya Sculpture, Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1950). Proskouriakoff’s renderings marshaled Maya figural types into chronological sequence, applying models of diachronic formal evolution borrowed from the fin-de-siècle Vienna School. In her reckoning, the human figures in Maya art do not express in and of themselves; they are the telltale traits of archaeological chronology. As for the human figure in Maya art more generally, its presence on carved monuments was the banner indicator of the Mayas’ ripeness as high civilization. Those graceful Maya figures were the sign of a “Classic” art—and little else beyond the archaeologically useful particulars of chronological sequence. Looper takes the problem of Maya figuration far beyond universalized archaeological diagnostics. In Looper’s study the eloquent rendering of the human figure encodes culturally particular discourses of embodiment, expression, and representation.

All of us in Maya art history work in the shadow of Schele, the iconoclastic, brilliant art historian who died too early in 1998. One of Schele’s prize students, Looper possesses his teacher’s scholarly qualities: the ability to recognize and pursue what is most humanly vital in archaeological source material; equal facility with Maya written and visual expression; painstaking attention to visual documentation; an ethos of scholarly collaboration. One of Looper’s great strengths is his sure-handed negotiation of the complexities entailed in reading cultural practice in and through the visual record. Does art come from art—one work begetting another in a visual tradition? Or does art come from social life—the artwork as social document and transcription of ulterior historical “context.” In archaeological fields such as Pre-Columbian Studies, this defining art-historial problematic often goes unappreciated or wholly unaddressed. Very often the result is a simplified motif-hunt—a species of Victorian iconography—in which visual expression is made to stand in as illustration of the epigraphic record. Throughout To Be Like Gods, Looper’s analysis lends careful attention to conventions of Maya visual representation as they overlap with—rather than transcribe, as would written language—traditions of Maya cultural practice. The result is a robust artifactual particularism, as well as a judicious assessment of ancient Maya performative topoi.

Looper concludes his study with a consideration of dance in the ritual practice of Maya communities since the European contact. These passages bring valuable attention to the performance of Patzkar (or Aj Tz’ul) allied with the August festival of the Assumption of the Virgin in San Andrés Sajbajá, Rabinal, and other predominantly K’iche’ Maya towns of highland Guatemala. He points to remarkable similarities in themes of gendered impersonation, human sexual coupling, and fertility that link these performances today with the visual imagery on seventh- and eighth-century visual works. Here Looper implicitly argues for a long Maya tradition of invention, rather than the invented tradition that so much post-colonial theory would recognize in these performances.

Looper’s analysis addresses Maya dance as a subcategory of Maya dynastic ritual. In reading monumental and commemorative imagery, he concentrates his attention on the climactic highpoints of ritual performance. How might the logic of dance have shaped life backstage: so much seventh- and eighth-century Maya figural composition is characterized by mannered poses and stylized gestures. These representations suggest that Maya bodies enacted norms of routinized bodily discipline. Looper carefully distinguishes the bodily postures of dance from contemporary figural codes of gesture. He shows us when are we looking at a scene of dance and when we are not. All the same, Looper’s discussion may bracket off Maya traditions of dance too firmly from the quotidian formalism of Maya bodily habitus. In other words, the Mayas’ culture of movement might be inhabited more thoroughly in these pages. Specialists in the history of dance might wish for closer analysis of ancient Maya choreography and bodily kinetics. Anthropologists of speech and gesture might ask for a more sustained engagement with the theoretical literature of performativity.

The publication of To Be Like Gods accompanies a general shift in archaeological theory from the post-war utilitarianism of Anglo-American social science to a more Durkheimian emphasis on the moral and symbolic imperatives of collective behavior. Maya Studies’ evolution away from an archaeology of social complexity toward an archaeology of community has afforded new critical perspectives on the material, though sometimes at the cost of analytic specificity. Notions such as moral valuation, prestige, authority, rivalry, and the court (as social unit) do seem to catch the essence of ancient Mayas’ dynastic culture; even so, such generalities represent a coarsening of interpretive discourse, and they herald an analytic reversion to familiar monumental media—tombs, temples, writing-systems, and other exalted constructs of Enlightenment-era natural history. The monumental arts preoccupy Looper’s analysis as well, though his study’s emphasis on historiographically non-canonical cultural practice means that To Be Like Gods is in no way old art history. Here, the meaning is in the dance.

Adam Herring
Emily Rich Summers Endowed Professor in Art History, Southern Methodist University