Hannah Barber is the Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections and Archives Management for summer 2018. Hannah is a current student at Syracuse University’s School of Visual and Performing Arts pursuing her Masters in Museum Studies. Hannah’s passion for museums and collections stem from her belief that museums can provide education that is inclusive and accessible for everyone and that collections are educational resources available to all.
You may take a look at this peculiar specimen and wonder when, where, and why was it made and how is it used? This mysterious mask resides in the Mexican Cultural Collection at Boston Children’s Museum (BCM). This “tiger” mask most likely represents a jaguar or ocelot, since tigers are not native to Mexico. The tiger mask is used in the Tiger Dance, a traditional dance originating from ancient Mexico. The story originates from the Oaxaca/Guerrero area of Mexico and this particular mask dates back to the first half of the 20th century.
The dance is based on the story of Don Manuel Peña and Don José Cortés, two of the region’s richest cattle ranchers. Their livestock was being stolen by a magic tiger, so Don Manuel hires a couple and their dog to hunt the tiger. They look for the tiger until the dog finally tracks it down and the hunt begins. Doña Catalina, the woman who was hired, shows José Ovejon, her husband, where the tiger is hiding. José Ovejon shoots at the tiger as the dog barks at it from the bottom of the tree. Twelve dancers accompany the hunters and dance around the tiger’s hiding place. Since the tiger is magical, the bullets that José fires can’t harm it. Doña Catalina gives her husband some garlic to break the spell that his gun is under. The spell is broken and in the end, the hunt is successful and the tiger is killed.
The Tiger Dance is performed by 14 people who dance in two rows, the tiger, and the dog. The 12 dancing men wear white cotton trousers under brightly colored knickerbockers decorated with lace from the waist to the knee, hunters’ shirts, and two cotton squares, one sits on their head and the other is held in their hand. They also wear caps decorated with sequins. Doña Catalina wears a skirt with lace edging, an embroidered blouse with tassels around her shoulders and waist, a shawl, and a hat. The tiger wears a yellow suit with brown spots and a wooden tiger mask with mirror eyes. The hunter wears leather pants, a suede waistcoat, and hat. Throughout the theatrical performance, the dancers who play the tiger and the dog do some incredible moves verging on acrobatic. To see a unique version of this dance performed locally in Mexico, check out this video!
There are a few different versions of this dance originating from different groups within Mexico but most are performed for El Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, Mexico’s largest festival that occurs at the end of October and into November every year. The tiger mask is usually made of carved wood, hair, whiskers, and yes, real animal teeth for the mouth. Modern masks are not always made out of the same material but often look as wild and ferocious as this one. This is just one example of El Día de los Muertos masks that the museum takes care of. I’m still looking to see what else I can uncover while going through the collection and hope to find some more objects related to the Tiger Dance. Come explore what else BCM has in its collection too!
“Dances from the Oaxacan Coast.” OaxacaNews. https://www.tomzap.com/dance.html.
Lewis, Elizabeth. “Mexican Art & Culture.” Capstone Classroom. (2005). https://books.google.com/books?id=2F4WpTXN5msC.
Tiger Dance/Danza del Tigre. 2016, Shalom Producciones. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrQfcQ3LxjU