Yaxunah | Yucatan
Walking and Dancing on Stilts
There is a long history of stilt-walking in the Maya world.
We don’t know exactly how or on what occasions the Ancient Maya employed stilt-walking. But we can get clues from the illustrations shown here that the art of using stilts is a very ancient one in the Maya world.
We also know that the art of stilt-walking was still being practiced in Yucatán when the Spanish came in the 1540s. Around 1566 Frey Diego de Landa, about the first Catholic priest to come to the Peninsula, wrote about what he saw there. He states, “…to appease Yaxcoc-ahmut…(they) were having dances on tall stilts, with offerings of heads of turkeys, bread and drinks made of maize” (Quoted from: Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, by Diego de Landa, tr. William Gates,  sacred-texts.com).
We know that Yaxcocahmut is a bird of omen and probably a manifestation of or related to the Principal Bird Deity, of which the water bird perched on the Foliated Cross in the temple by the same name at Palenque is a variant. Landa says that based on ancient calendrical cycles the Maya of that time believed propitiating Yaxcocahmut prevented evil things from happening in certain otherwise good years.
Stilt-walking isn’t just an ancient art among the Maya in Yucatán.
(Left) The way stilts were made in the recent past among some indigenous populations of North America (e.g. The Hopi, Zuni, Shoshoni and Wichita were known to have used stilts). In the 60s and 70s teenagers in the village of Yaxunah, Yucatán made some just like these. The object of using the stilts was to learn to run races with them. Whoever could cross a line first would win a cold drink.
(Right) Maestro Peyrak Herrera using this old style of hand held stilts.
Maestro Herrera was invited to come to Yaxunah in 2012 to revive this skill among a new generation of children and teens in the village.
Ok means walk and Che means tree in Yucatec Mayan. This is the name kids in the community chose when they formed their own troupe of stilt-walkers. They have become ever more proficient in theatre and dance, all while “gaining new heights” on their stilts.