What they are doing in this village in the Peruvian Andes breaches a seemingly inviolable law. From childhood, the message is drummed into us. It might as well be the Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not play with scissors.”
In the village square, two men are alternately vying for the adulation of a rowdy crowd. They are doing more than playing with scissors. They are jumping with them. They are cartwheeling with them. Each is attempting to outdo the other in sheer recklessness, all to the accompaniment of live music. How can this possibly be allowed in a public place in broad daylight?
Regular readers of this column know better than to automatically cast aspersions on Peru’s health and safety standards. As we have seen before, there is a loophole by which the mollycoddling tendencies of national governments can be circumvented. When people dressed in gaudy ethnic costumes risk life and limb in the name of tradition, chances are they do so under the largess of UNESCO.
Danza de las tijeras — the Peruvian scissors dance — is protected by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage. Peru’s scissors-wielding dancers have international license to cavort, and there’s not a thing zealous party poopers can do to stop them.
In truth, most of the disapproval is likely to come from outsiders concerned at the worrying example scissors dancing will set for impressionable children. For the indigenous Quechua people of highland Peru, this competitive ritual — as much a sport as a dance — is central to their identity.
A little background knowledge only serves to compound the unease of interlopers. There is an unnerving intensity to the demeanor of each dancer as he takes his turn in the dusty arena. Dead-eyed and with steely determination, he executes his intricate moves like a man possessed, all the while cutting the air with the scissors he wields in one hand.
Possession is the word for it. According to local folklore, when the dancers don their ornate costumes, they enter a temporary pact with the devil. They are not permitted to go into a church while in full regalia. The pact ends only when they slough their garb.
Five hundred years ago, the scissors dance was one means by which the Andean people expressed their opposition to the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries. By temporarily surrendering their bodies to non-Christian spiritual entities, they claimed they gained access to superhuman powers.
As well as dancing against one another (in competitions that would last for an entire day), the dancers also demonstrated their powers by lying on beds of broken glass and piercing their flesh with knives and nails.
All those centuries ago, the Spanish ultimately prevailed, and Christianity took hold across the Andes. Ironically, scissors-dancing contests became integral to the local celebrations of Easter and Christmas, retaining all the elements of daredevil one-upmanship.
The world shrank, and obscure cultural rituals are effortlessly transmitted from remote Andean villages by the medium of YouTube. In distant bedrooms, precocious children are able to access the footage and thereby acquire an argument in favor of playing with scissors. What’s more, it comes with the UNESCO seal of approval.
Fortunately, another cultural tradition is on the side of parents. Throughout human history, from the villages of the High Andes to the homes of suburban America, rebellious children have been quelled with one unchallengeable decree. In a single sentence, cultural arguments are demolished, and UNESCO declarations are rendered meaningless.
Four inviolable words: “Not in this house.”
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