The Sardana and I

Coby Lubliner

Barcelona is one of Europe’s hot, hot, hot – as the travel magazines would have it – tourist destinations. Americans north and south, Asians south and east, Europeans east, west and mittel: they all ramble along the Ramblas, they gaze at Gaudí and Gothic, they pick at paellas, and, at noon on Sundays, they collect in front of the Cathedral to watch Catalans young and old (mostly old) engage in the mysterious ritual of dancing the sardana.

Mysterious? James Michener, whose Iberia (1968) was for many years the leading American reference on Spain, seemed to think so.

“One Sunday morning,” he wrote, “as I was walking through the Gothic Quarter... I heard the lovely sound of rustic pipes and muffled drums. I could have been in a woodland except that the cathedral rose above me, and as I entered its plaza I saw that several hundred people... had gathered about two orchestras...” After a somewhat inaccurate description of the “orchestras” (with a reference to “five country oboes”), Michener goes on: “As I was watching the fiscorn players, for I had not before seen this instrument, a strange thing happened all around me. A moment ago the Catalans in the plaza had been listening to the sardana; now, without anyone’s having given a signal, large circles had formed, containing men and women of all ages down to eight years old, so that the entire plaza was covered with people silently performing the folk dance that accompanies the sardana. I was astonished at how quietly this had happened, for there were at least eleven of these large circles, some with thirty members, and the dance was vigorous and beautiful, yet how it had started I couldn’t say.” And further: “I found that if I took my eye away from the plaza for even one moment, I missed the beginning of this strange dance... I was determined to see who gave the signal for this dance, so on several occasions I kept my eyes glued to a fixed spot where experience had told me a circle would be formed. One moment, not a sign of dancing. Then a girl, unaccompanied by any boy, sedately placed her purse on the flagstones. Nothing happened. Then a boy carefully took off his jacket, folded it and placed it atop the purse. Within seconds a dozen purses, jackets, walking sticks and coats were piled neatly in that spot, and around them the Catalans, strangers one to the other, began their slow sardana. More than anything else this strange beginning resembled the process by which ice forms across the surface of water; now it is fluid; now it is crystallized; the dance has begun.”

Not all observers of the sardana are baffled by it; some respond philosophically. In – of all places – the January-February, 2000, issue of Journal of Nuclear Cardiology, the editor, Dr. Barry L. Zaret, reports on his participation in the 1999 congress of the European Association of Nuclear Medicine, held in Barcelona.

The museums, architecture, culture, and restaurants provide all the right stimuli for both one’s senses and one’s cerebrum. Each Sunday in the square in front of Barcelona’s large gothic church the citizens of the city gather to dance the sardana.
After a cursory description of the dance, he goes on:
As the multiple circles moved clockwise and counterclockwise the dancers’ faces revealed a feeling of satisfaction, pride, and joy. This dance was far more than a recreational activity. Suppressed in previous eras, it symbolizes a people’s unflinching commitment to its heritage, its values and its willingness to take risks for what it believes.
And Dr. Zaret concludes:
On the flight back across the Atlantic, I thought again about the sardana. Does its symbolism have relevance to the way our discipline is practiced currently? Perhaps it is time to look with fresh eyes and open minds about how best to achieve a sustained and growing discipline of nuclear cardiology in Europe. A fresh look at old issues is a very healthy exercise, almost as healthy as dancing the sardana.

I have my own relationship with the sardana, one of long standing. Also, Barcelona has become, in some ways, my second hometown. But it was not there that my relationship began.

I first visited Spain – and Barcelona – in the late fifties, but I never got to hear or see the sardana then. It was the middle period of the Franco dictatorship, well before the transformation from dictadura to dictablanda (a play on the Spanish words dura ‘hard’ and blanda ‘soft’) that took place in the sixties. It was also my first return to Europe as a newly naturalized American, and my first time ever in Western Europe.
My wanderings began in Gibraltar, that strange hybrid of Latin and British; but as soon as I stepped off the ferry in Algeciras, I could feel that the Spanish air was thick with repression; the grim-looking Guardia Civil was omnipresent, and people expressed their opinions in whispers, if at all. Still, traces of Iberian joie de vivre could be found in places: the flamenco scene (at a time when this art form was at the peak of kitsch) of Granada and Seville, or the lively nightlife of Madrid. In Granada there was also the splendid Music Festival (I’ll never forget Andrés Segovia’s recital – the golden anniversary of his debut – in the Court of Lions of the Alhambra, Artur Rubinstein’s playing of two Beethoven concertos in one concert, or Antonio and Rosario – by then already separated, but dancing together on this special occasion – in El Amor Brujo with Victoria de los Angeles singing the vocal solos); and in Madrid I chanced upon the finals of the Spanish Football League Cup (nowadays called Copa del Rey but in those days Copa del Generalísimo), which brought thousands of Basques from Bilbao to cheer for their team against Real Madrid, by then already a soccer superpower (with Franco’s support). Bilbao won, too.

Barcelona, however, wad depressed and depressing. The spirit was one of sullen resistance, expressed most of all by the tenacity with which the Catalans clung to their officially banned language. All public employees – policemen, bus drivers, municipal clerks – were required to speak in Spanish only, but this didn’t stop ordinary people from vociferously addressing them in Catalan. And in the private sphere, I remember witnessing a conversation involving two mixed (Catalan-Castilian) couples: a Castilian man and his Catalan wife who owned the cheap hotel where I was staying, and a middle-aged Catalan man who had come to arrange for a room for his young and pretty Andalusian girlfriend. The dialogue could easily have been carried on in Spanish all around, but what in fact took place was that each couple would converse in Spanish, while the negotiating was done in Catalan by the two Catalans.

I found this linguistic guerrilla warfare fascinating but alienating – somehow I felt that, by virtue of speaking Spanish, I was the enemy – and I soon left Barcelona for Perpignan. On the France-bound train I shared a compartment with a Catalan family, who viewed me with suspicion until they found out I was American. Once they were assured that I was not a Franco spy, they relaxed; a bottle of wine was shared, and jokes were told, first in Catalan among the family and then translated into Spanish for my benefit.

At the Perpignan station, a beautiful woman who had stepped off the train was approached by a young man. “┐Es usted española?” he asked. “Catalana!” she replied indignantly.

The main reason for my stopping in Perpignan was to attend the Casals Festival in Prades, less than an hour’s bus ride away; but breathing the free air of France – my first time in that country – was a heady experience after a month in Fascist Spain. As soon as I found a cheap hotel near the station and ate a satisfying French dinner, I took a walk into the center of town.

As I neared the center, I began to hear some strange, reedy-sounding music. Up ahead, through the glass of an ornate round building (built in the ubiquitous manner that the French know as modern’ style and Americans call art déco), could be seen the silhouettes of people bobbing up and down in time to the music. At the time I had just completed my first year of graduate school, and it was in the course of that year that I was initiated into international folk dancing, most of which was of Central and Eastern European origin. But here was some real folk dancing, done by real folk, in an unexpected spot!

The building turned out to be a café-bar called Le Palmarium and billed as le Palais de la sardane. I went inside, ordered a beer and sat down at a table to listen to the band and watch the dancers. The steps turned out to be simple: either a two-measure pattern (point-step-step-cross) to the right, followed by the same pattern to the left, and repeated over and over, with the arms down; or a similarly repeated four-measure pattern (with the point-step done three times) with the arms up. While the arms-down step remained a moderate walking step throughout, the arms-up step would, as the music became livelier (not faster, just louder and more staccato), acquire leaps and running steps.

With my demi of beer half drunk, I joined the circle, and was welcomed with smiles. Before long I felt my right hand squeezed by my neighbor. What was that about? And the dance stopped abruptly. But before I had a chance to disengage, it resumed. This happened several times over, until the music stopped for good, to general applause. An older man came over to tell me, in a heavily accented French, that I was welcome to dance, but that when I felt my hand squeezed, I should immediately do the same to my neighbor on the left; that’s how they signal the ending.

The last few measures of each section involved some intricate footwork such that the dance would come to a clean ending exactly with the music. Each time I thought I had figured it out, though, I was wrong the next time. I went back to my beer, watched the dancers some more, and walked back to my hotel with the sounds of those shrill oboe-like instruments ringing in my head.

The next day I took the bus to Prades, and heard Alexander Schneider conduct Bach in an afternoon concert. It was nice but nothing spectacular, and according to the program Casals himself would not be performing during those days. What was exciting was that, in the window of a bookstore on Prades’ main street, I saw a book, in French, about la sardane. I bought it immediately, and read through it on the bus returning to Perpignan. Back in town, after a shower and a simple dinner, I went back to the Palmarium, and had only slight difficulties in ending the dance sections together with everyone else.

On the first page of the book was a quote attributed to Joan Maragall (whoever he was): La sardana és la dansa més bella / de totes les danses que es fan i es desfan. Clearly, then, this was a Catalan dance, called sardana in its language of origin, and sardane was the frenchified name. I had already noticed that the region of which Perpignan is the capital, known historically as Roussillon and officially as Pyrenées-Orientales, was called by its inhabitants le Pays catalan, and that the people whom I overheard speaking Catalan were not necessarily Catalans from Spain but possibly, especially if they were older, local French people. (The bus company that conveyed me to and from Prades was called Les Courriers Catalans.) I already knew something about the ethnic diversity of France – about the Bretons and the Alsatians and the Corsicans – but here was an element that was new to me.

For the remainder of my days in Perpignan, I spent my afternoons at the beach at Canet-Plage – at the time a little family beach village totally unlike the overbuilt mini-Miami Beach that it is today – and my evenings at the Palmarium, not before rereading the book’s chapter on the arithmetic of the endings. By the third night I felt that I understood the theory completely. It was, however, time to go on: to Marseille, to Cannes (where I was to hear Ella Fitzgerald, at the height of her powers, at the Festival du jazz), to Italy...

I didn’t return to the sardana for twenty-eight years. But its memory, like that of a youthful love, never left me. I would occasionally hear snatches of sardana music (as in the soundtrack of a documentary about the Spanish Civil War) or even see it danced (as in a folk festival at the Arènes de Lutéce in Paris), and I would feel a thrill of recognition, even doing the steps mentally.

When I stopped off in Perpignan on my way from Paris (where I had attended a conference) to Barcelona (where I was to spend a sabbatical semester), of course I sought out the Palmarium. It was there, all right, but it was no longer the Palace of the Sardana, or any other kind of palace; it had become what in good French is called un self – a cafeteria – serving decent and (for France) inexpensive food, under the shortened name Le Palma. Such a transformation is not unheard of in Perpignan: the splendid late-Gothic monument called Loge de mer now houses a hamburger joint of the Quick chain.

Once I was settled in Barcelona, however, all I had to do was open the calendar section of any newspaper to see that sardanas were a regular part of local activities. Aside from the weekly gatherings in front of the cathedral at noon and in the Plaça Sant Jaume in late afternoon on Sundays, they are an indispensable element of neighborhood fiestas both inside and outside the city of Barcelona; and at least one such fiesta happens every weekend.

The first fiesta during my Barcelona stay took place in El Prat de Llobregat, a suburb that is home to (1) Barcelona’s airport; (2) fields producing bountiful artichokes and strawberries; (3) chemical plants that imbue the town’s air with a powerfully sulfuric aroma. It was a cloudy day of early autumn, on a drab square in front of the municipal market. But the tuning noise of the instruments, a heady blend of reedy and brassy, filled me like the scent of a lost love.

I had long since lost the book I had bought in Prades, but I found that, despite the long time that had passed, I still remembered the essentials of the dance, if not the details. It helped that here, instead of hand squeezing, endings and step changes were announced by someone in the circle. It also helped that, before coming to Barcelona, I had learned some Catalan, mainly to be able to understand the songs of my favorite singer-songwriter, Joan Manuel Serrat (who writes half of his songs in Spanish, half in Catalan). And so I was able to understand the announcements, at least literally.

I had not forgotten that the shorter section, in which the dancers kept their arms down and did the two-measure pattern, is called curts, while the longer section (arms up, four measures) is called llargs. But I had forgotten the theory of the endings. In order to relearn them, I had to relate the calls to what the dancers did, which took some trial and error – a little trial and a lot of error.

I was reminded that there is an invariable pattern in which the two sections are played. Each playing is called a tirada (plural tirades), and the order is as follows: curts, curts, llargs, llargs, curts, curts, llargs, llargs; a two-measure break called contrapunt; llargs; contrapunt; llargs. At the end of the last llargs, the final chord is repeated, causing the dancers to bring their already raised arms with a joyful shake into the circle.

During the contrapunt a simple melody is played by the musician who plays a fipple flute called flabiol, fingered with the left hand only while the right hand beats, with a small stick, a tiny drum (called tamboril) that is strapped to the left forearm. A somewhat longer, rhythmically free little melody (called introit) is played on the flabiol before the beginning of the sardana, and a beat on the tamboril marks, so to speak, the first beat of the zero-th measure. This musician, who sits on the left of the front row, is the leader of the band.

There are ten other musicians making up the cobla, as the band is known. Sitting in the front row beside the leader are the four who play shawms (Michener’s “country oboes”), two each of a treble (tiple) and a tenor (tenora) instrument. The other six, standing, make up the back row. There are two each of trumpet and of flügelhorn (called fiscorn in Catalan and unfamiliar to Michener, though it’s a fairly common band and jazz instrument), a trombone, and a three-stringed double bass.

The tenora is the quintessential sardana instrument. It was created around 1850, as an adaptation of the tenor oboe, by an instrument maker in Perpignan to the specifications of a musician from Figueres (Salvador Dalí’s hometown) named Pep Ventura, who is regarded as the father of the modern sardana (the steps were codified by his associate, the dance master Miquel Pardàs). The sound of the tenora – which replaced the bagpipe of the old rustic bands – instantly evokes Catalonia; it is powerful, vibrant, haunting and yes, somewhat shrill – a dear friend of mine (American), who plays classical oboe, can’t stand it.

The makeup of a cobla never varies, any more than the musical pattern of the sardana, or the program of a typical, ordinary sardana dance known as ballada de sardanes – the kind that takes place on a weekly basis in Barcelona, or as part of a neighborhood or village fiesta (there are special events that I will describe later). There are always six sardanas, with an intermission of about fifteen minutes between the fourth and the fifth. Typically, a list of the sardanas, with title, composer and (sometimes) breakdown of measures, is written in chalk on a blackboard in front of the band. After the fourth sardana is completed, the band replays (after a short break) one tirada each of curts and llargs. The same happens with the sixth sardana, and on the very last chord the dancers, as they bring their arms into the circle, shout Visca! (the Catalan equivalent of the Spanish íViva!).

The variety is found in the music itself. Many thousands of sardanas have been composed since Pep Ventura (who wrote about 200) created the form. More sardanas continue to be composed; in some conservatories, writing a sardana is a required assignment in composition courses. The musical styles vary enormously, from the Verdiesque to the Hollywoodesque, and one can hear influences of Wagner and Debussy, flamenco and jazz (though I’ve never heard an atonal sardana). What remains constant is the rhythm – 2/4 or 6/8, with a metronome beat of about 112 – and the basic structure of a shorter and a longer section, though the actual length of each can also vary quite a bit: curts can be anywhere between 20 and 50 measures long, and llargs between 50 and 100. (I, too have composed a sardana, which I call l’Estranger – “The Foreigner” – and you can hear it (in a simple piano version, which is all I know how to write) by clicking here.)

Knowing the number of measures in each section is crucial to dancing the sardana, since the closing steps must be prepared in advance. While, as I said before, the blackboard in front of the band sometimes lists the measure breakdown (for example 25/79, meaning 25 measures of curts and 79 of llargs), using that information seems to be somehow regarded as cheating, and the convention is that dancers (at least some of them) count the measures; you can actually see their lips moving. Since the full count is not known until the first tirada of llargs has been played, it’s on the second llargs that the dance can begin; until that point, dancers can stand around, listen, and (except for those who count actively) chat. The “signal” that eluded Michener is simply the beginning of the second llargs.

I have noticed that in the last ten years the convention has been changing, at least in Barcelona. Nowadays circles often form right at the start, dancing curts straight through, without stopping, from the first to the second tirada; of course, by the time this one ends, the count is already known and a close can be prepared. The same happens with the first and second llargs. Starting with the third curts, when the full count is already known, each tirada gets its own proper close.

What are those all-important closing steps? I won’t try to describe the footwork – essentially variations on the basic step – except that on the first beat of the last measure the feet are brought together, with a rest on the second beat. What is interesting is the arithmetic.

In the curts this is relatively simple. If the number of measures is odd (as it is in the overwhelming majority of sardanas), then a simple close after the last two-measure step does the trick, except that it’s the combination of this last step and the final close that’s regarded as the closing pattern, which thus consists of three measures and is consequently called tres. In the course of the preceding measure, the counter will call out un tres, and everybody knows what to do. If the number of measures is even, or if the two tirades of curts are danced together (in which case the total number is even regardless of what it is in the basic curts), then the next-to-the-last measure is used for a bridging step to the close, and the combined two-measure closing pattern is called, not surprisingly, un dos.

Things get more complicated with the llargs. Since the basic step covers four measures, the closing depends on the number of measures modulo four (that is, the total number minus the largest multiple of four). If this number is two or three, then the same dos and tres are used, respectively, as in the curts. If the number is one, then the closing is distributed over the last five measures: two are used for a curts step (which in this context is called dos, though of course it isn’t the same as the closing dos), and the last three for a tres. What the counter will call out is dos-tres, though the formal name of this pattern is repartició de cinc (distribution of five). Lastly, in the extremely rare case of a llargs section whose number of measures is a multiple of four, the closing pattern is a repartició de quatre, called quatre for short, though it could just as well be called dos-dos; it consists of a curts step and a dos close.

But there is more. Another rule of the sardana is that at each contrapunt or at the end of the dance, the close must be with the right foot. Since the llargs step changes direction every four measures, in the last three tirades the modulus becomes eight rather than four. The counters must calculate whether a closing as described in the paragraph above will end on the right side. If it does, fine. If not, then the closing pattern must be extended backward by another four measures, and in them the llargs step is replaced by two curts steps or dosos (the plural of dos). In this case the counter calls out dosos and, to end the dance, simply un dos or un tres. In other words, if a repartició de cinc has to be extended into a repartició de nou (nine), then the pattern is three dosos and a tres; it is not thought of as two dosos and a dos-tres.

Sardana recordings, by the way, don’t contain the full set of tirades unless they are labeled sardanes per a ballar (sardanas for dancing); otherwise one only hears the “concert sardana” consisting of introit, two playings of curts and one or two of llargs.

It’s very common to hear a Catalan say, “I know how to dance a sardana, but I don’t know how to count it.” Competent sardana counters, who, often with little more than an elementary education, can perform modular arithmetic in their heads in seconds, are national treasures. Of course, the very idea having to “count” a dance strikes non-Catalan Spaniards, and even some Catalans (especially left-leaning and younger ones), as ridiculous. To the former, it reinforces the stereotype of Catalans (the Iberian equivalent of the Scots) as money-obsessed folk “who count everything, even their dances.” To the latter, it symbolizes the rigidity of Catalan bourgeois morality.

At any ballada de sardanes one is likely to find circles that are open to one and all (called rotllanes obertes) and closed circles that are formed by sardana clubs or colles. It’s easy to spot the difference. In a colla there is a strict alternation of men and women; the women invariably wear espardenyes (espadrilles with laces that tie around the shin); the dancing is quite stylized, with intricate variations called out by someone (not always the same person) in the circle and executed precisely by the rest. Colles also tend to be age-specific. In fact, very few young people are seen nowadays in the open circles; if there are any, they are likely to be in a colla with other young people. For the colles, dancing at an ordinary ballada is often a chance to practice to live music for a competition. There is actually a tournament of competitions for the Catalonia-wide championship of colles sardanistes, but competitions also take place at special events, known as aplecs (gatherings) de sardanes, which may go on for a whole afternoon and/or evening, with at least two cobles playing.

Since that sabbatical in Barcelona, I have returned just about annually (including one stay of a full year), and usually the first thing I do upon arriving is check the sardana section in the events calendar of the Catalonia edition of El País. By now, of course, I can get the information on the Internet, wherever I happen to be (fed.sardanista.com).

Oddly enough, of my many Catalan friends, not one is a sardanista. They find it amusing that I am one, and they respect the sardana as a Catalan symbol. Being mostly of the socialist persuasion, however, they tend to associate active sardana dancing with the bourgeois nationalism personified by Jordi Pujol, who has been the president of the autonomous government of Catalonia since 1980 and whom they thoroughly dislike. Nonetheless, the leader of Catalonia’s socialists, Pasqual Maragall – former mayor of Barcelona and grandson of the poet Joan Maragall (whom I quoted at the beginning) – claims to be a good dancer (though a bad counter) of the sardana.

By the way, Joan Maragall’s verses mean “The sardana is the most beautiful dance / Of all dances that are done and undone...”

Catalans of a progressive bent prefer cultural expressions of Catalanism that are less bourgeoisified than the sardana. There is a lively folk-music movement in Catalonia, closely associated with its Occitan counterpart in Southern France; the Catalan and Occitan languages are quite similar, and in the Middle Ages Catalonia was an integral part of the troubadour culture. Indeed, an offshoot of this movement is a folk-oriented early-music culture – separate from the official early-music establishment headed by the renowned Jordi Savall – whose musicians and musicologists emphasize the relation between medieval music and the folk music that springs from it.

Concerts, dance events, and television programs devoted to the folk music of Catalonia and neighboring regions – but not including the sardana – are produced by an organization called Tradicionàrius. And from spring to fall, another weekly outdoor dance event, one that very few tourists attend, takes place in Barcelona. It happens on Friday nights in the majestic Plaça del Rei, also in the Gothic Quarter. Bands featuring the usual folk instruments – fiddle, accordion, guitar, mandolin – and some not-so-usual ones play old-fashioned couple dances – waltzes and polkas, schottisches and mazurkas, pasodobles and jotas – as well as some line and circle dances. Among these is one that is nowadays called sardana curta, but was simply the sardana before Pep Ventura transformed it: a local folk dance of the region known as the Empordà (Ampurdán in Spanish), occupying the northeastern corner of Catalonia (and hence of Spain) and with Figueres as its chief city. This dance also has curts, llargs, and contrapunt, but the music is simple and foursquare – all sections are in multiples of eight measures – and there is no need for closing steps or for the counting of measures. The sardana curta is, somehow, politically correct to the dancers of the Plaça del Rei, none of whom I have ever seen dancing the standard sardana.

The name Empordà derives from a Greek colony named Emporion (today Empúries), and romantic enthusiasts liked to relate the name “sardana” to the Greek region of Sardis, pointing to vase paintings from ancient Greece that showed dancers in poses remarkably similar to those of sardana dancers. It is far more likely, though, that “sardana” is a respelling, with no difference in pronunciation, of cerdana (Catalans have great difficulties with spelling their language), referring to the region called Cerdanya (Cerdagne in French) that straddles the Pyrenees to the west of the Empordà. This etymology doesn’t mean that the dance originated in Cerdanya; people rarely name a dance for their own country – for example, not one of the many dances named for Poland is Polish: the polka is Czech, the polonaise French, the polska Swedish, the pols Norwegian.

That the Empordà is the homeland of the sardana is generally acknowledged. The museums of Figueres include the Dalí Museum (one Spain’s most popular tourist attractions), a toy museum, and a museum of the sardana. In the course of the 19th century, however, the sardana quickly became a symbol of Catalan identity, and the habit of dancing it spread southward and conquered Barcelona, but at first it made relatively slight inroads much further south. This is not unlike the Christian reconquest that took place around the year 800, under the leadership of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious – it did not extend very far beyond Barcelona; the reconquered area became known as the Spanish March, while the rest of what ultimately became Catalonia remained under Arab rule for another two centuries, and so a kind of split between “Old” and “New” Catalonia was created, like the one between Old and New Castile (though, unlike the latter split, it is not reflected in administrative divisions). And, while the sardana is danced throughout Catalonia, Old and New, its roots run deep only in Old Catalonia. One indication of this fact is that among the sardanas in my cassette collection, of the dozen or so whose titles contain Catalonian place names, not one names a town south of Barcelona.

New Catalonia has its own contribution to Catalan identity symbolism: the sport of castells, or the building of human pyramids or “castles,” invariably done to the accompaniment of the gralla, also a shawm but more like the Middle Eastern zurna than the oboe-like tiple and tenora. I am calling this activity a sport, but it is not competitive in the usual sense: castle-building teams (called colles castelleres) normally compete not against one another but against established degrees of difficulty, based on the number of levels (the more the harder), the number of persons per level (the fewer the harder), and some other details. A castells event, unless it’s specifically organized as a competition, is called a performance (actuació) or a show (exhibició). Even if two colles take part in such an event, it will be reported that one built the extremely difficult quatre de nou (nine levels, with four persons on most levels) while the other managed the more modest tres de set, but never that the former defeated the latter.

Castells originated in Tarragona and surrounding towns such as Reus, Valls and El Vendrell, and their popularity spread northeastward – in a direction opposite to that of the sardana – to Barcelona. It’s only recently, however, that the practice has begun to make inroads further north. The fact that an important colla castellera, which has managed some of the most difficult constructions on record, is now found in Terrassa, north of Barcelona, is still spoken of with some astonishment.

In Barcelona itself both the sardana and castells are fully established, and major festivities usually include both, as spectators of the 1992 Olympic Games around the world could readily witness. But many Catalans are divided over which one better represents their identity. As with so much else, the division has political overtones. Partisans of both activities like to point out their democratic qualities. The sardana, its enthusiasts exclaim, embodies the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity: anyone can join any time, there is no leader, hand are clasped. On behalf of castells it is argued that colles castelleres have been, far more than colles sardanistes, welcoming to immigrants from outside Catalonia, and within each colla there are roles for participants of both sexes and of all shapes and sizes, from the sturdy rugby types who form the pinya or base to the small but agile boy or girl who climbs to the very top to signal the completion of the castle.

There reigns among the castellers a palpable sense of common purpose. The colla is like a highly functional extended family, and I find the mutual trust and affection on display before and after the construction of a castle deeply moving. And, as spectacle, even a relatively easy castle is far more impressive than a carefully choreographed, precisely executed sardana by a prize-winning colla sardanista. But it so happens that I like to participate. Occasionally a colla castellera will call for the public to join in forming the pinya, but, unless one joins a colla, castells are a spectator sport. At a ballada de sardanes, though, I can ignore the colles doing their fancy steps, put my jacket and my newspaper in the middle of a rotllana oberta, join the circle of dancers and move my body to the music. And nothing moves my heart quite like being part of the dance.

November 3, 2000

Revised April 11, 2001

© 2001 by Jacob Lubliner

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