Less than a minute after the thunder rumbled, the park was deserted. Gone were the marching band in their colourful suits and the dancers in their shiny, beaded costumes. All that remained were the tubas and bass drums, the empty bottles and cans of beer littering the floor.

For in Puno, this city in Peru's mountain range close to the Bolivian border, locals consider thunder to be the bearer of bad news.

They were not wrong. Shortly after the thunder came the hail - large pellets of ice that fell from the sky.

But festivities could not be postponed for long, and another roar soon brought the park back to life. "Get ready, it's our turn," shouted the president of the Morenada Porteno, a company of dancers huddled together beneath a tree.

The dancers fixed their outfits, collected their masks and sceptres and stepped out into the falling hail for the main event of the Virgin of Candelaria festival: a 5km, three-hour dancing parade.

When the time came to dance for the Virgin of Candelaria - the representation of the Virgin Mary residents of Puno recognise as their patron - neither hail nor cold were good enough excuses to quit.

The Virgin of Candelaria festival is the largest celebration in Peru; the third-largest in South America. A blend of Catholic traditions and local folklore, the festivities feature up to 50,000 dancers and musicians who take over the streets of Puno for two weeks to honour the Virgin Mary with their songs and dance.

A son of Puno

Miguel Contreras, a 32-year-old paediatrician based in Lima, is one of the dancers.

A native of Puno, he danced for the first time seven years ago and immediately fell in love with the festival. He now leads Dancing Heart, a 10-man group within the Morenada Porteno.

He says it has given him a space within which to express his spirituality and an opportunity to get closer to his origins, his family and his culture.

"Walking, crouching or crawling, I will make my way into Puno every year to dance for the Virgin," he says. "If it's her will, I will be there."

The first thing he does after arriving in Puno is visit the San Juan church, where he prays to the Virgin Mary and lights candles.

"It's like when you enter your house. What's the first thing you do? You say hi to your mum," he says. "The festivity and the costumes come second. Only after paying your respects to the Virgin and making sure she's OK can you go on with your business."

New dancers make a vow to the Virgin to dance in the festivity for three straight years [Carlos Tello/Al Jazeera]

It is always a bittersweet moment for Miguel as he wonders why he cannot stay in his hometown. But he knows he cannot.

Like millions of other Peruvians, Miguel left his hometown searching for better financial and professional opportunities in Peru's larger cities.

He remembers the first time he danced at the festival. He had returned to Puno for a vacation from Arequipa, where he was studying at university, and heard that a cousin was preparing to participate. Curious, he went to see her and she asked him if he wanted to dance.

Miguel was sceptical; he did not know any of the moves and did not have a costume. But his cousin would not take no for an answer. The next day, Miguel had a costume.

Like 25 million other Peruvians - roughly 80 percent of the population - Miguel was baptised Catholic. He went to mass on Sundays and understood the importance of saints to the Andean people. 

But when he donned his costume and danced for the first time, something changed.

"The feeling of being physically exhausted but convinced that there's no way you're giving up, it's just spectacular," he says.

Miguel returned the following year, convinced that dancing for the Virgin was something he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Nowadays, he does not mind working extra shifts at the hospital to ensure that he can have days off for the festival. He will even happily work over Christmas to be sure of it.

"I tell the person who makes the shift schedule: 'During the festivity, I will be gone'," he explains. "'Even if you put me on shift, I won't come to work'."

He is sure that it is the Virgin's will that he be there. "It is she who allows me to come," he says. That is why the first thing he does is head to the church to greet her. When that is done it is time to partake in a part of his culture: a traditional Puneno breakfast of lamb's head soup with his father.

No festival without tradition

At the entrance to the San Juan church, a huge crowd has gathered. Bands are playing, people are dancing and a dozen images of the Virgin are being carried. It is as though all of Puno has assembled here.

But, in reality, this is only half of Puno. The other half is inside the church. The Mass of Dawn, the event that starts the second half of the festival, and in which the mestizo, those of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent, dance for the Virgin, is under way.

This is the one Miguel participates in.

From the doorway of the church, the essence of the festival is revealed. Inside, there is solemn religious devotion. Outside, it is joyful revelry.

There are two masses, as it is impossible to fit the 80 dance companies for this section of the festivity in one. The first starts at 5am; the second an hour later. Each company brings its own image of the Virgin, which joins the main one at the church's altar.

The festival comprises traditions that have been forged over decades and even centuries. The Mass of Dawn is just one of them.

The pan flute is a traditional instrument of the Peruvian Andes  [Carlos Tello/Al Jazeera] 

The Virgin of Candelaria first arrived in South America with the Spanish conquistadors, who introduced her to the locals in an effort to replace the indigenous worship of the Pachamama, Mother Earth. But the locals did not abandon their pagan rituals, they merely combined them with the Catholic ones. It is no coincidence that the Punenos refer to the Virgin of Candelaria as their mother, or that they see her as a provider and the guardian of their wellbeing.

Today, the festivity has two distinct components, one indigenous and the other mestizo. During the first, residents of the towns and villages that surround Puno arrive to dance their traditional dances and to participate in a dancing competition. Mestizos get their chance eight days after the indigenous parade.

As the first Mass of Dawn ends, a struggles ensues between those trying to get out of the church and those attempting to get in. They jostle to keep their Virgins safe above the crowd as they squeeze through the doorway.

The dance companies that leave the church, Miguel's among them, are soon dancing, following their statue of the Virgin as it weaves its way in a parade to the headquarters of the Morenada Porteno.

The dancers are exhausted; they have partied all night long. But a reception and meal awaits them: a pork soup called adobo and wheat bread.

Miguel eats and then leaves to get some much-needed rest. The final parade is still ahead and he will need to get some sleep if his dance group is to perform as well as he hopes.

Religion, tradition and family

With just a few hours left before the final parade, seven members of Dancing Heart, Miguel's 10-man group, are practising their steps. The Morenada Porteno had scored 50.17 out of a total of 60 points the day before, in the first leg of the contest, so the group have a chance to capture one of the leading positions if they excel during the parade.

Miguel guides the dancers through their steps, paying particular attention to those who are struggling to get them. Everything must be perfect for the final showdown.

Of the six dancers gathered around Miguel, five are his cousins. A few years after Miguel started dancing, he teamed up with one cousin, Enrique Cabrera, to establish Dancing Heart. They persuaded other relatives to join them.

For Miguel, the festival has always been a way to get closer to his family. It was a cousin who was responsible for his dancing debut, and the following year he danced alongside Enrique and his dad. The year after, his cousin Manuel Cabrera, a 20-year veteran of the festival, left his old company to dance with Miguel and Enrique. Then, a few years later, he got his mum to join the Morenada Porteno.

"I don't come to the festivity because I like the revelry. I come because it allows me to dance alongside my family," says Miguel. "I don't think a lot of people have been able to experience that kind of a pleasure."

Manuel Cabrera, Miguel's cousin, is as passionate about the festival as Miguel. He once quit his job because his manager would not give him days off to attend it. He is also as passionate as Miguel about bringing family together.

"When we were students, I used to gather my cousins during the weekends to play football," he recalls. "Now, we only gather once a year to dance in the festivity."

During the welcoming of the bands, the ensembles are received with parties and fireworks  [Carlos Tello/Al Jazeera] 

Dancing until the end

Two hours into the parade, the rain is still falling and the temperature is below five degrees Celsius. But none of that seems to bother the dancers or the spectators.

If exhaustion appears to be getting the better of someone, the others rally around to cheer them on.

As they eventually reach the finish line, fatigue quickly gives way to excitement and relief. There are group hugs and even tears. After all the rain, the hail, the cold and the exhaustion, it is finally over - and the Virgin has been honoured.

For Miguel, it will soon be time to return to Lima and his normal routine.

But before leaving Puno, he finds out that the Morenada Porteno ranked eighth in the dancing competition, five points behind the champions. They managed to beat the Morenada Orkapata, one of the oldest and most traditional companies in Puno.

Miguel does not seem particularly excited about that. After all, his dancing is for something much more meaningful to him than a competition. He dances to honour the one he calls "mother"; all his efforts are for the Virgin of Candelaria.

When he says that his only expectation is to dance "until he dies", he is not choosing his words lightly. At the Virgin of Candelaria festival, when you dance for your mother , you dance until the very end. No matter what.

Source: Al Jazeera