Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Ancient Ulama

Inspired by my reading of The Ball by John Fox, I decided that playing a round of the ancient Aztec game, ulama, would be a great way to start talking about Aztec society and culture. As Fox asserts in his book, ball games not only unify people in cultures all over the world, but their rules and play provide great insight into the cultures that created them.

Note: To read my previous post on John Fox's The Ball, click here.

Though the game has changed significantly over the centuries, ulama is a traditional ballgame that started with the ancient Aztecs and is still played in some regions of Mexico. The original rules are complex and the scoring system is difficult to master, but in our modified game, we played with rules similar to volleyball or tennis. The ulama court is generally a long, thin corridor marked with paint or chalk or, more traditionally, walled in with slanted stone walls.

The object of the game is to volley the ball back and forth, hopefully causing the other team to make an error. In our modified game, points were awarded for causing the other team to miss the ball in bounds. Traditionally, the game is played with a heavy nine-pound natural rubber ball, but we just used a soccer ball.

The real challenge in ulama, however, is hitting the ball. It is illegal in ulama to use one's hands or feet. Because the traditional ball is so heavy and dense, the Aztecs used their hips and upper thigh to hit the ball as it could have caused serious injury to arms and feet.

To prepare for our round of ulama, we read a brief handout in class and watched the minute-long video from ESPN embedded below. I then explained our modified rules, grabbed my whistle and headed out to the playing fields.

It was really difficult to get used to using only hips to hit the ball, but once they got the hang of it, the kids had a blast! Make the rules work for you and your group, grab a soccer ball and immediately grab the kids attention to start learning about Mesoamerican cultures!


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