Sardana dancer's and cobla band outside Barcelona's cathedral. Photo by Lee Woolcock
There is democracy and grace imbued in each step of Catalunya's traditional dance.
Forty years ago when General Franco was still in power, a young sardana dancer and her circle of fellow sardanistes (as fans of the Catalan folk dance are called) defied the dictatorship and played cat and mouse with the police.
“We would dance the sardana in the Plaça de Sant Jaume,” said Montserrat Muñoz Llobet. “When the police came we would run away and duck into a bar. Then, when the coast was clear, we would go back and start dancing again.”
Franco banned the Catalan language and outlawed important local traditions such as the sardana, long considered a symbol of national pride and identity. Just by dancing it in one of Barcelona’s main squares, Montserrat risked being beaten up by heavy-handed police officers. Or worse.
Montserrat, a professional dance teacher, first learnt the sardana forty three years ago. It started off as a hobby but she soon discovered that she had a real passion for the dance and wanted to take it seriously. As someone deeply involved in Catalan culture, she decided to focus on this patriotic dance rather than on flamenco, or another dance style. Today, she is responsible for overseeing teaching the sardana to hundreds of children who attend her free classes in Plaça Catalunya each spring at the Escola de Sardanes d’El Corte Inglés. The year 2012 marked their 35th anniversary and during the past three and a half decades over 20,000 children have been taught to dance the sardana. Parents of the children are welcome on the last day of class for a portes obertes, to join in and follow what the children have learned.
The sardana is a distinctive, some might say quaint, sight: people in a circle holding hands, dancing with dainty steps to the sound of haunting music which floats across many of the city’s squares each Sunday. As if by telepathy, the dancers seem to know when to change steps, when to jump or stop together and shout Visca! or ‘long live Catalunya!’
Montserrat accepts that the dance is rather like Marmite. “You either love it or you hate it,” she explained. “Some people are sold on it after their first dance class and say ‘sign me up for the whole course’ while others are bored if they just do the steps rather than getting into the technical side, the counting.”
Even local personalities have been divided in their opinion. Picasso described it as “a communion of souls, it abolishes all distinctions of class… the servants hand-in-hand with their masters.” Meanwhile, Salvador Dalí, always controversial, remarked: “It would suffice in itself to cover an entire region in shame and ignominy.”
Despite his harsh words, Dalí painted himself dancing the sardana with his wife Gala, and is believed to have taught it to his intimate friend, the poet García Lorca.
The origins of the sardana are unclear but the general consensus is that similar dances existed in the Mediterranean region and may have been around in ancient times. Perhaps it came from Sardinia, hence the name. Or it may possibly have started life as a quasi religious dance in worship of the sun. What is clear is that the dance as we know it today derived from Northeast Spain in the middle of the 19th century.
So is it harder than it looks? There are two basic steps—els llargs, long steps and els curts or short steps. Picking up the rudiments is fairly painless—after all, young children manage it—but perfecting it takes longer. A working knowledge of the eight times table also helps in order to know when to make a change.
The writer, Patricia Langdon-Davies, started dancing the sardana back in 1950, when she first came to Catalunya. Her late husband, John Langdon-Davies, wrote a book on sardanes, Dancing Catalans (1929).
Patricia last danced on her 90th birthday in the summer and said, “When I was still spry enough to join in regularly, I always recovered that joy in dancing which all children have, at any rate little girls—the joining hands, jumping, moving together. As I’ve become more and more informed and part of Catalunya, I’ve recognised the uniqueness of the sardana as a living folk art. It has long been a nationalist symbol of Catalunya and it was a big part of my life with John so for me, there’s an emotional aspect.’
Watching the sardanistes in front of the gothic cathedral on Sundays you might be forgiven for thinking that this pastime appeals mainly to the middle-aged and elderly. Do the under-35’s see it as uncool and is there a risk the tradition could die out?
“Personally, I don’t think so,” Patricia said. “There are frequent cries of ‘Is the sardana in crisis?’ but never an answer. The musicians recognise what is needed for today and there are innovations.”
Nowadays, sardana music is sometimes played with an orchestra. One cobla, the sardana band, has even incorporated Shakira and The Beatles into its music, which Montserrat says has strong youth appeal.
“People are open to change but if it’s too much then you lose the tradition,” said Patricia about the fine balancing act.
While it may be true to say that there’s no blood on the dance floor with the sardana, devotees claim it offers a subtle charm when set against more fiery dances, like the flamenco or tango.
“You can’t compare them,” stressed Montserrat. “It’s obviously not the tango but some sardanes possess a huge amount of feeling. In Franco’s time that might have been political while today it could be romantic.”
It is the most democratic of dances; everyone is welcome whether young or old, rich or poor, fit or flabby, male or female, nimble or cursed with two left feet. Even tourists, provided they have the right attitude and show interest, Montserrat says. No flashy gear is needed either as it’s not a performance; participants can just turn up and dance.
These days, Montserrat is free to dance the sardana whenever and wherever she likes. But the same spirit and sense of fraternity she felt all those years ago under the dictator live on.