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Spain, Nationalism and The Sardana

By Dawn Lille
ART TIMES May 2006

Instructors from the Union of Sardana Groups of Catalonia dancing the Sardana on the streets of Barcelona. (photo: Dawn Lille)

Catalonia, a geographical area in northeastern Spain just across the border from France, and one of the four largest autonomous regions of Spain, has its own language, Catalan, and a long tradition of folk music and dance.  Of the latter, the Sardana, a circle dance of unknown origins (some have suggested it dates back to the Phoenicians who at one time occupied parts of this land on the shores of the Mediterranean) is the best known.May

Catalan as a language has some words that resemble Spanish, but is more akin to the tongue of the Provencal region of France and the origins of both are, basically, unknown.

Barcelona, the exciting port city that is the heart of Catalonia, is also the center for the Sardana, which is danced in many of the towns and cities of the region, especially during festivals. During much of the fascist regime of Franco (1939-1975) the teaching of Catalan and the publication of literature or official documents in the language was suppressed, due to Franco’s desire to create a highly centralized government. Yet, contrary to what some later reported about the Sardana being banned, it seems to have been the one manifestation of Catalan identity that was allowed. Possibly, this was because it was considered a regional dance that contributed to the depth of Spanish folklore and unity.

Some traditions are rediscovered and/or reinvented at different periods in history and for varying purposes.  I first heard about the Sardana in Barcelona and its appearance in front of the Cathedral every Sunday over 35 years ago, when Franco was still in power. Due to what is often referred to as “Spanish time,” my Iberian hosts never got me to a performance. Hence, this was a determined goal on a recent visit to the city.

An Instructor from the Union of Sardana Groups of Catalonia instructing children in dancing the Sardana on the streets of Barcelona.
(photo: Dawn Lille)

During the past 15 years the sense of Catalan identity has increased. It is the first language taught in schools, signs and many brochures in the region are in Catalan and Spanish, supertitles at the opera are in the former only. The Sardana has, increasingly, become a symbol of Catalan identity and pride in a region that considers itself distinct from the rest of Spain. There has been a campaign for an independent Catalonia for over 100 years. The New York Times reported on March 30th that the lower house of the Spanish Parliament had agreed to give new powers of self government to the region.

Thus it is not surprising that for the past 29 years free lessons in the Sardana have been offered to children from 6 to 14 years of age. This year the series of 14 classes, sponsored by a national chain of department stores, are scheduled every Saturday, March until June, from 10:30 AM to 12:30 PM, in the center of the Plaza Cataluyna in Barcelona. During my visit, the large inner area of the plaza was roped off and fourteen different groups, based on age and experience, each with their own instructor, piled their belongings in the center of their circle, practiced and then danced.

The Sardana is always performed in a circle, which, when it gets too large, breaks down into one or more concentric circles, consisting of males and females. Sometimes these are all male, all female or mixed couples. Arms are held high, hands clasped, for some sections and lowered for others. Everyone follows the leader in regard to movement and timing.

The basic step is small, concise and fairly simple, consisting of an introductory phrase, then a pattern of stepping and crossing, followed by a light, rebounding tap of one foot.  To this tap, called a point, is then added a light bounce achieved by raising and lowering the heel. The bounce can become increasingly higher and a quickening of tempo, plus different variations of steps, taps, tempi and directions produces a mathematically complicated work.

The dance is solemn and elegant. Consisting of ten parts, it is divided into short steps (cortos) and long steps (largos) and moves alternatively left and right. The dancers must finish each musical cycle in relation to the direction in which they are moving and each sequence must end on the correct foot.

Movement begins only after the group has listened to the music so that that all know how many measures it contains and can then follow the leader in ensuring that the steps coincide with it. The accompanying ensemble, the Cobla, is a group of eleven musicians that includes a flaviol (a one-handed flute) that is the lead instrument, a tambor (drum) that sets the rhythm, and reed and brass instruments that include an oboe and a bagpipe. The meter varies between 2/4 and 6/8, the tempo between slow and fast, and, stylistically, the music resembles that of Provence rather than Spain.  It is subtle, however, and the dancer must get the basic beat into his/her own body.

The official four-page flyer announcing and delineating the lessons is very exact in giving the rules regarding attendance and lateness. It also gives a brief description of the ten parts (in Catalan and Spanish) and then the odd and even steps that comprise the variations. They are mathematical in organization and very precise. The order and behavior implied here is carried out in the dancing, where it is not part of accepted etiquette to join a circle in mid-phrase or to separate partners.

In the circles of the younger children in the Plaza the leaders had them listen to the music played on the loudspeaker, then clap the rhythm and, finally, walk it. They also practiced the touch and quick rebound of the foot that was to become so important in later steps and in the body as a whole. The more advanced groups of older children were learning some of the variations.  At the end, the instructors, all members of the Union of Sardana Groups of Catalonia, gave a demonstration. Here could be seen the fast, light footwork and levitating bodies and the complicated variations that could barely be followed by the inexperienced eye. There was a sense of unity, sureness, daring and exploration – all indicative of why the Catalan movement is embracing the Sardana.

There is much other dance in Spain and in Barcelona. There were signs hanging from lampposts in different neighborhoods advertising performances by the Batsheva Dance Company of Israel and Tashigawara from Japan, as well as future events such as Giselle and the great flamenco dancer Sara Baras.  In the old Gothic neighborhood there is a dance center that offers classes in everything from Oriental to African and includes hip hop, modern, ballet and contact improvisation. My teacher for a course in Catalan cooking, Alicia Juanpere, is a former dancer with the classical ballet company and ran her own school for many years.

There was also dancing in the streets: buscars who were breakdancing and one man on a small platform who was tapping while juggling balls. Additionally, the Sardana has been immortalized in many works of art. There is a Sardana monument on Montjuic in Barcelona, a rendering of five dancers in black surrounded by a white glaze on a ceramic “Jarra,” dated 1956, on view in the Picasso Museum and a painting by Dali which features the circling dancers, among numerous other depictions by other artists.

The Sunday set aside to observe the dancers in front of the Cathedral I arrived to find a consumers' fair in progress – and no Sardana. There was a stage on which a wonderful trio of musicians played everything from jazz to pop, the latter accompanied by five “bopping” girls. More fun was the very elderly, frail woman, who danced around the plaza without stop, enticing different young men to join her and causing a circle to form around their Sardana-like movements. Next time I’ll see them in their Sunday performance. But how wonderful, as a dancer, to know that dance can be a political force!

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