Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela's dancing devils

A lone dancer in the streets of Naiguata on 30 May 2013

As the church bell tolls at midday in Naiguata, a town on Venezuela's Caribbean coast, the sound of drums resonates through the streets and hundreds of residents in devil costumes pour into the main square.

For hours, they wait under the sun for their turn to pay penance. They kneel down and proceed on their knees towards the town's church while praying for a miracle to be granted.

Once every devil has paid penance, the drums become louder and the dancing begins.

Dancers move around chaotically, stomping their feet and whirling around to confront other participants.

It is a centuries-old tradition known as "Dancing Devils", symbolising the triumph of good over evil, in which the "devils" bow their heads to show their submission to religion.

There is a Carnival-like atmosphere, with a mixture of pagan symbols, such as animal-shaped masks, and religiosity, as most participants wear crosses and have the images of saints painted on their clothes.

The residents of Naiguata are marking Corpus Christi - Latin for 'the body of Christ' - which Catholics celebrate to proclaim the transformation of bread and wine into the actual body of Christ during Mass.

As is often the case in South America, the celebrations in Naiguata are rooted in a mixture of old world and new world traditions.

According to some theories, the Dancing Devils originated in the fifth century in Spain, when the Catholic Church used the dance to convert pagans to Christianity.

In Venezuela, it was used to draw African slaves into the religious celebrations. Descendants of those slaves now represent a majority of the population in Naiguata and many other towns on Venezuela's Caribbean coast.

Across Venezuela, there are 11 "cofradias", or religious groups, following the Dancing Devils tradition.

Their celebrations vary slightly. In Yare, all the dancers wear red, the colour traditionally associated with the devil.

But in Naiguata, the outfits are multi-coloured, with dancers wearing crosses and images of saints to "ward off evil spirits".

As Naiguata is on the coast, the masks often represent sea creatures, while cofradias in towns inland often base their masks on mythological characters.

Traditionally, only men used to be part of the cofradias, but in Naiguata women are now allowed to join in the procession.

Preparations start long before Corpus Christi. The cofradia is divided into groups, with each group deciding on a theme for its masks.

The size of the masks depends on the length of time that particular group has taken part in the festivities. The older the group, the bigger the masks, and the higher the group's ranking in the "devil hierarchy".

On Corpus Christi, the celebrations start early, with fireworks at dawn.

Participants perform some last touch-ups to their masks and don gloves, to protect their hands during the penitential procession on their hands and knees to the church.

After paying penance in front of the church, the dancing starts to the sounds of drums and bells attached to the dancers' hips or shoes.

The celebrations culminate with an evening mass at which the devils surrender to the forces of good.

Participants said this year was particularly special as it marked the first time since the festivity was recognised as intangible cultural heritage of humanity by Unesco, the United Nations cultural organisation.

"Unesco took us very seriously. Now we are known worldwide. We are enjoying this for the first time this year," says Pablo Izaguirre, the Diablo Mayor, or Elder Devil.

At the age of 75, he is at the top of the devil hierarchy, having first joined in the celebrations in 1954.

Like Mr Izaguirre, many join the Dancing Devils at a young age.

The dancers traditionally pray to the "Santisimo", the Blessed Sacrament, for one of their wishes to be granted. In return, they make a promise, usually to continue participating in the ritual penance.

One dancer said he joined at the age of 13 because his grandfather was ill and he wished for his speedy recovery.

Victor Iriarte, 23, first participated five years ago, but will not reveal his wish. But he says one thing is clear. He has no intention of stopping,

"If El Santisimo grants you a prayer, then you keep dancing for him, to ward off the devil."