Picture the scene…
You’re on holiday in Barcelona, strolling down the street, soaking up the vibe and minding your own business. You round a corner and stumble across a group of people in a circle holding hands, tapping their heels and from time to time throwing their hands up in the air. Congratulations! You have chanced upon the traditional Catalan dance of the sardana.
Although it can seem a bit tame compared to the flamboyance of flamenco, you might be surprised to learn there’s a lot more to the sardana than meets the eye.
A custom close to Catalan hearts
The first thing you might notice is the serious looks on the faces of the dancers in the circle. This is partly because the dance is much more technically complicated than it looks, but it’s also because the sardana is quite a solemn affair that’s a vital symbol of Catalan cultural identity.
So where did it come from? The origins of the dance are hotly debated, but what is certain is that the sardana was around in 19th-century Catalonia. It developed out of the Renaixença (Renaissance) movement that took place around that time, as Catalans began to grow more confident in reviving their language and culture. The sardana became a symbol representing the feeling of regional pride and Catalonia’s distinct identity from the rest of Spain.
By the 20th century more and more people had begun to take an interest in celebrating the sardana, and its sedate little skips and hops were being danced all over Catalonia. As a vital and visceral symbol of Catalan patriotism, it was inevitably always going to be a target when the dark days of Franco arrived. The regime promptly banned people from dancing the sardana, but despite their best efforts, the dance has survived through to the 21st century.
In fact, overcoming this suppression has increased its symbolic significance for local people. In 2010 the Catalan government added the sardana to Catalonia´s festivities heritage catalogue and declared it a festivity of national interest.
You put your left leg in…
So, are you up for some street dancing action? Since it’s a circle dance, the sardana is a big social affair, and onlookers are welcome to join in. You’ll often see other members of the public setting down their handbags in the middle of the circle and taking up a place. And why not – we’re the first ones to recommend a bit of carpe diem holiday spirit in Barcelona. A word of warning, though – it’s a lot harder than it looks!
When the music pipes up, couples take to the floor (or plaça, in this case) and link arms to form a small circle. If you’re lucky enough to have a partner clued up on the moves, you’re all set. Make sure you choose your position carefully, as each pair should stay together. If you don’t have a partner, or just feel like showing off your solo skills, look for a circle made up of singletons. Some of the circles will be made up of performers from actual dance groups (called colles) – you can usually tell them apart from the general public as they’ll be wearing some sort of uniform.
When one particular circle gets too big, it splits off to form a splinter group, and little by little the entire plaça fills with dancers. There are only two step sequences, but these are very meticulous and the changes between them are quick and precise. One person in the circle leads the movements and timings and if someone falls out of step, it spells disaster for the whole dance. If you want to gen up on the proper terms, curts are the short steps, llargs are the long ones, while tiradas are the various sections of the dance.
If this all sounds too much like hard work, you might prefer just to enjoy the dance from the sidelines. Notice the band playing the typical sardana music – it’s called a cobla, and is made up of 11 musicians playing traditional folk instruments, including a three-holed pipe and Catalan clarinet. The music is quite evocative and just as the tune starts to fade away, it comes back with renewed enthusiasm.
Where to catch a sardana display
You’re virtually guaranteed to see the sardana being danced at the many festivals that take place throughout Catalonia. It’s very popular at the Sant Joan celebrations in June, or at La Mercé festival in September. If you have the time, we recommend you hop on a train and head outside of Barcelona to watch locals dance the sardana in a nearby town, to really capture the spirit of the dance in a more authentic setting.
In Barcelona itself, sardanes are danced outside the Cathedral every Sunday at noon, as well as on Saturday evenings around 6.30pm. Plaça de Sant Jaume in the Gothic quarter is another favourite spot on Sunday evenings. Throughout the summer keep an eye out for the various district festivals, where you’re bound to catch the locals dancing their hearts out on a local square till it gets dark. See you in the circle!