Five hundred years ago, in a reaction against the Christian religion, prophets in the Andes foretold the end of the world for Europeans and those Andean people who had adopted Christianity. The followers of this movement, known as Taqui ongoy (the dancing sickness) were harried and annihilated by the colonial authorities. Even so, as late as the 1580s, some twenty years later, part of the ritual was still practiced - the furious dancing, as if possessed by an angry spirit.
It is difficult to tell whether the scissors dancers of today are descendants of those secret dancers. Their modern costumes contain many Spanish elements and the metal bars they carry in their hands inevitably evoke the sound of the castanets. Nevertheless, the ideology surrounding the exhausting competition between the dancers has all the characteristics of a modern ritual.
It should first be remembered that when the Andean religion was suppressed and its temples destroyed this aboriginal religion was practiced in people's homes and finally, when these too were invaded the Gods took refuge in the bodies of their believers. This is, in the end, the most authentic seat of religious belief and is impossible to detect, and movement - that is the dance - is the purest form of religious offering.
Vestiges of the old clandestine times are present even today no dancer in his ceremonial costume is allowed to enter a church, they were - and are - suspected of having entered into a pact with the devil. Indeed, the accompanying violin and harp are believed to sound better if they are allowed to "sleep" beforehand by the side of a spring or stream, and the same can be said of the two halves of the "scissors", which are "man and wife", married at a ceremony that also takes place close to a source of clear water.
The competition between the dancers is carefully prepared and includes an offering to the Earth Mother Pacha Mama and veneration of a prominent local hill or Apu. When the ceremony is done the competition takes the form of physical feats that are difficult to imagine: spectacular leaps, crossing a rope stretched between two trees, piercing the tongue with thorns or balancing the harp on the head, among many, many others.
The competing villages and their respective dancers inevitably declare their favourites to be the winners and this is always part of a bigger festival such as the feast day of the patron saint, the ceremonial cleaning of the irrigation ditches or other important occasion.
Each of the dancers' movements has its own name and they are notoriously difficult. One of the most difficult is perhaps that which fascinated the writer Jose Maria Arguedas: the figure of death. In this, the dancer gradually reduces his frenzied movements to complete stillness, as if to indicate the end of his life. This is the clearest indication of the dance's metaphor: the transition from life to death. But the dance does not stop there; each family of dancers has a successor waiting his turn. When the old dancer feels his strength ebbing he gives way to the younger man following him. And on the top of the hill the mountain gods will continue to receive their due homage.