Mauricio Plaza: dance with the devils

Photographer Mauricio Plaza shares images of the Dancing Devils of Yare, a Venezuelan Corpus Christi tradition since the sixteenth century

Photograph by Mauricio PlazaPhotograph by Mauricio PlazaPhotograph by Mauricio PlazaThe Dancing Devils tradition is also found in other towns and villages in Venezuela, but Yare is the best known. Photograph by Mauricio PlazaThe tradition of dressing in red dates only to the late 1940s, when Venezuela’s then minister of education donated bales of red. Photograph by Mauricio PlazaThousands of visitors now come to San Francisco de Yare every year to see the Dancing Devils. Photograph by Mauricio Plaza

In many Roman Catholic communities, the feast of Corpus Christi is marked with solemn religious processions and less solemn folk traditions. In San Francisco de Yare — a small town forty miles south of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital — it’s the occasion for a ritual celebration dating back to the sixteenth century: the Dancing Devils of Yare.

Organised by the town’s Sociedades del Santísimo, the ritual incorporates many elements of Afro-Venezuelan culture. The devil masqueraders dress in blood-red garments festooned with rosaries and crosses, carry maracas and whips, and wear elaborate horned papier-mâché masks, painted in bright colours. Ranked in a strict hierarchy, from two-horned diablitos to four-horned capataces, they perform an elaborate choreography in the streets, to the rhythm of poems and traditional songs. Both men and women participate, but by tradition — and to avoid temptation — the sexes are forbidden to dance together.

In the masquerade’s final act, the devils assemble outside the town church with its domed belltower, and stage a mock battle — good versus evil — before surrendering to the Eucharist and submitting to the priest’s blessing. In 2012, the Dancing Devils of Yare were declared part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. In 2013, Corpus Christi falls on 30 May.