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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Basques and Their Dances
By Carol Ann "Candi" deAlaiza, 1978

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Information: Many have considered the Basques to be a strange and mysterious people. The fact that they are a non-Indoeuropean-speaking group living in western Europe, and the uncertainty surrounding their origins and early history have led to the invention of many stories about the Basques – some with a grain of truth, others totally ridiculous.

Today the Basques occupy a territory divided politically between France and Spain, in the area where the western portion of the Pyrenees mountains and the Bay of Biscay come together. There are three regions, or provinces, on the "northern" or French side: Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule; and four on the "southern" or Spanish side: Vizcaya, Alava, Guipuzcoa, and Navarre. The Basques are in large identified by their language which they call "Euskera" and designate themselves as "Eskaldunak," or "speakers of Esukera," as opposed to "ersdeldunak" or speakers of another language. Today, however, many Basques do not speak Euskera fluently, and there is much debate as to whether the language is a determining factor in Basque identity.

Map of Basque Country

In addition to their very distinctive language, the Basques can also be differentiated from their neighbors by some physical characteristics, most frequently seen in the frequency of 0 and Rh-negative blood types. Although we do not know how long the Basques have occupied their present homeland, the high frequency of the 0 blood type and the negative Rh factor lead scholars to believe that for a long time they were fairly isolated and did not breed with surrounding groups of people. They are very likely one of the most ancient peoples of Western Europe still living in the same place and were quite possibly in the Western Pyrenees before the invasion of the Indoeuropean-speaking tribes in the second millenim BCE. The language, of course, has taken in such vocabulary from surrounding Indoeuropean tongues such as French and Spanish, but the structure seems to bear little resemblance to other known languages and does not fit into any group easily.

There are many theories about where the Basques came from – some based on physical characteristics, others on language or mythology, but none has yet managed to convince a majority of scholars. In general, the culture trends to retain elements once found in many parts of Europe long after they have died out in other areas. This is so much the case that the Basques have been accused of having no culture of their own, or at least, of making no original contributions but rather, in the words of Rodney Gallop, of acting as a living museum. The Basques do, however, have a very strong sense of identity, even today, and even in the very cosmopolitan urban areas of the Spanish provinces.

The seven provinces together barely extend to 100 miles in any direction. The total population is a little over 2½ million, although little more than 700,000 actually speak Basque. Nearly all the Basques speak either Spanish or French, depending on where they live, and many speak all three languages. The Spanish-French border has divided the Basque Country since the 16th century, but has never been totally accepted by the Basques, who find smuggling not only profitable but often an exciting sport as well. In general, the attitude is that smuggling is fine, and there is no social stigma, not even by the clergy.

Both France and Spain have had a great deal of influence on the lives and the cultural manifestations, including the dance, of the Basque people. The French Basques must attend school in French. Television, radio, and most newspapers are in French. Fluency in French is an economic necessity in all but the most remote villages. On the Spanish side, Spanish has a similar influence, although now many children are able to attend "ikastolak" – Basque schools where instruction is given only in Basque. Many of these children come from homes where Basque is not the native tongue, and gain fluency in the language only at school. Until Franco's death, the Basque language was severely suppressed in Spain, although there was some improvement in the final years of his regime.

There are major differences between the northern and southern provinces. The southern, or Spanish provinces, are much larger, richer, more industrial, and more urbanized. Over 90% of the Basque population lives on the Spanish side. These provinces contain about 7% of the population of Spain, and some are among the richest and most highly industrialized in the country. In France, in contrast, the Basques are about .4% of the population. There is very little industry compared to the Spanish Basque Country and to the rest of France, and the only major city is Bayonne, whose Basque identity is highly questionable. Aside from the division between the Spanish and French provinces, large contrasts can be found from one region to another in history, geography, and economy. There are also tremendous differences between the rural and urban areas and between Basque-speaking and non-Basque-speaking areas, and these differences are reflected, of course, in the dance culture. It is difficult to make large general statements about Basque culture, including the dance, and have them be accurate enough to be of much use.

Because of the varied geography, remarkable in such a small area, the Basques have a variety of subsistance patterns. In the coastal areas, fishing and shipping have been of great importance. Much of the inland lives by agriculture, especially in the form of small holdings owned and worked by individual families. Grain is important, especially corn and wheat (the threshing floor – the era, is a favorite dance area), fodder, and pasture lands are used for the animals (and the shepherds, during their free days in the mountains learned the complicated folk dances and songs of Soule). There are apples in the north and grapes in the south, and potatoes in the province of Alava. Most families have milk cows and pigs, sheep, and bees are very common. Lumber and iron have been of great economic importance. The urban areas are highly industrialized and offer a great variety of jobs, and tourism, especially along the coast, is a major source of income for a great many Basques. This last industry has had a great deal of impact upon the dance culture in recent years.

The history of the Basque Country is complex and varies from area to area. Many peoples have passed through the region in historical times, and presumably did so in earlier periods as well. Few have held tight control over the Basque people. Legend gives credit to the Basques for their fierce spirit of independence, but it was probably not very practical to try to hold the mountainous portions of this territory under tight control. The Romans had, it seems, loose control of the area, beginning in the 3rd century BCE; the Germanic tribes passed through, as through the rest of Western Europe. Portions were held by the Goths, then the Franks. From the 8th century, the Basques were in contact with the Arabs who held much of the Iberian Peninsula. In 778, Charlemagne's troops were ambushed in Roncevaux, Navarre. The Chanson de Roland blames the Moors, but Basque tradition holds that the attackers were Basques, avenging Charlemagne's destruction of Pamplona.

The 9th century saw the formation of the kingdom of Navarre, the only real time of any Basque independence, divided again in the 11th century. From the early 13th century, the English were able to claim parts of the Basque Country and held interests there for centuries. More recently, the French Revolution gave a mortal blow to northern Basque regional rights. The Basque Country has served as a battleground between France and Spain and England, and the Spanish side especially suffered, as did all of Spain, in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The scars left from the Civil War and from the French regime are visible everywhere.

A strong spirit of nationalism exists in parts of the Basque Country today, especially on the Spanish side. There is still much talk of an independent Euskadi, and ETA, a well-known terrorist group, is active today, not only in the Basque area, but throughout Spain. The question of a politically independent Basque Country is a difficult one. The Basques are not only by any means in agreement on the subject of nationalism, and this is not the place to go into detail. The nationalist separatist movement, however, has had a great deal of influence on the dance culture, especially in the urban areas on the Spanish side, and extending even into the mountains of French Soule.

A large part of the Basques' claim to independence is based on their traditional rights, called fors or fueros. Most areas of the Basque Country at one time had specific rights agreed upon by rulers and the inhabitants, and the rulers had to swear to respect those rights before the Basques owed them any service. The formal rights gave the Basques full local autonomy. The king did not own the land and could not tax the Basques directly, although they did pay a tribute. The Spanish Basques had freedom of trade. They were nearly exempt from military service except in the time of war, and even then did not have to serve outside their own territory and had to be paid. The system of local government was through an elected body of representatives called the Junta, the Etats, or the Biltzar in different areas. After the Revolution, the French Basques were grouped together with the Bearnais in the Basses-Pyrenees. The reaction of the Basques, rather than rebellion, was one of quiet resistance, making the essential adjustments to the new situation and following as closely as possible, their traditional ways.

The Spanish Basques, who lost most of their "foral" rights through the Carlist War a century later, still maintain something of the foral spirit. Because of Pro-Franco action in the Civil War, Alava and Navarre were allowed to keep a Diputation Foral, a provincial government somewhat more independent from Madrid than that of their neighbors. The idea of the "fuero" is not dead, however, and in 1976, one hundred years after the last "fueros" were abolished, there were many demonstrations in the Basque Country asking that "foral" rights be restored. The last few years have brought some success in the restoration of a small degree of autonomy to the area, but it is much too soon to tell what the final result will be.

Today, the idea of Basque identity seems to center around the urban areas and often takes the form of political action. Traditional music, dance, costume, and sports are called upon to express and increase the feeling of belonging to a group distinct from the surrounding Spanish and French cultures. Some of what is seen and accepted as Basque is part of a continuing tradition, never lost in the rural areas and now restored to the cities. Much is carefully researched from the past and given new life by urban performing groups. Much of what is presented as "Basque" is not really traditional at all, being of recent composition, sometimes in keeping with the feeling of culture, but unfortunately, more often outside it and destined for a short life.

Dance then, is included in the cultural process of the cities. The urban performing groups have a great influence on what is actually seen and what the general public (as well a tourists and non-Basques living in the Basque Country) believe to be Basque. Further, what goes on in the cities often reflects back into the rural areas, where new choreographies are accepted from the urban groups, along with new costumes and new dances, or dances from other areas of the Basque Country, which are not traditional in the regions where they are found.

In the cities, there is a confusing and complex interaction of ideologies. Most of the Basque dancing (versus rock, disco, or ballroom, and clearly distinguished as such by the Basques) that goes on, be it street dancing, staged performances or competitions, is in some way connected to the people associated with the urban performing groups. There are many groups in each of the major cities and in many smaller towns and villages, and during the summer they perform constantly. The repertoire and its presentation differ from group to group in accordance with the philosophy of the directors. There are groups, usually with much history, that concentrate on specific dances which they consider to be theirs, and which they must preserve in a "pure" a state as possible. Although some of these groups are from large cities, most are from towns or villages and do little beside their own dances.

There are also groups dedicated to research, which reconstruct and present dances that have been lost, often by talking to older people who still remember them, or by using written descriptions from earlier times. There are groups, or directors, who do not hesitate to change traditional steps or floor patterns for the sake of aesthetics, for novelty, or for the introduction of meaningful (often political) symbolism. There is a constant search for new material, partially from an honest desire to preserve as much as possible of the culture, and partially from a desire to have new and different material to present on stage.

Finally, there are many, many minor groups who learn a more or less standard repertoire of dances, supposedly from different regions or villages, but very often different from what was or is performed in that particular place. These are usually groups of children, who enjoy the dancing and the outings as well as the chance to wear costumes and appear on stage. These groups are held in very low esteem by ethnologists and "purists," but the truth is that a very large proportion of the Basque dance done today is done by these groups, and the majority of people, especially in the cities, who are interested in and capable of doing the dances have, at least at some time, been associated with this sort of group. The question arises whether these very changed and standardized versions of the "traditional" dances are actually Basque dances. There is little agreement on the subject, but one cannot deny that anyone seeing these groups would recognize the dance as "Basque."

The Basques have many types of traditional dances. Once again, it is difficult to generalize, but a few broad statements (to which there are almost always exceptions) could be useful here. Much of Basque dance is male-oriented. In earlier times, when women participated at all, it was usually in a minor way. That does not mean that women did not dance (although some will say that that was the case) or that there were no dances for women. In most areas the women do dance today, often in the same dance with the men, and in both social and stage situations. Most ritual-type dancing, however, is still limited to men.

In a vast majority of Basque dances there is no direct physical contact between the dancers. If a chain is formed, the dancers are most likely to hold handkerchiefs or berets and not hold hands. There are exceptions, however, especially when the dancers are all of the same sex.

Many Basque dances are of a ritual or ceremonial character and are meant to be watched. The dancers represent the larger group in making a religious offering or in welcoming a visitor, and general participation in the dance is indirect – that is, not by actually dancing. Today these dances are often seen on stage, and performed towards an audience, rather than to a statue of the Virgin or a visiting dignitary, although the dances are still used in both religious and secular ceremonies as well.

Although dance zones can be loosely defined for some areas of the Basque Country, they overlap and do not seem to distinguish neatly between all regions. This is a subject for research, and generalizations tend to indicate which dances from which areas are the best known, rather than give an idea of the types of dances which actually exist in each area. For example, when one speaks of Vizcaya, the dances from the Durango area, that there are no chain, solo, or couple dances in Vizcaya, or that dances very similar in nature to the Vizcayan dances do not exist in such wide-spread areas such as south Alava, northeast Cuipuzcoa, south Navarre, or even Soule.

Basque dances take many forms. There are processional dances, some in a double column, which the dancers use to get from one place to another, often to accompany an image in a parade. Today, these dances are also used by performing groups for stage entrances. Specific examples are the Bolant-Dantzas from the Valcarlos area in northern Navarre, the Paseo from Laguardia in southern Navarre, and the Paseo of Soule. There are many dances where the dancers (male, usually) are linked. Point-and-hilt sword dances are found in Vizdaya and Guipuzcoa and an almost identical form using decorated sticks in northwest Navarre. There is a similar linking with handkerchiefs ("Otxagabía") and arches ("Oñate"). Dancers hold hands, at least today, for the Farandole (northern Navarre, Gasse-Navarre) and the Biribilketa, a skipping, serlpentine dance found almost everywhere.

Many dances are performed in a circle with no contact between the dancers. The Jautziak ("Sautés") of northern Navarre, Basse-Navarre, and Soule take this formation, as do the Mutil-Dantzak of the Baztan (Navarre) and some of the Jotas (Navarre, southern Alava). Other dances are done in set formation, usually with dancers in multiples of four, the most common being eight, twelve, or sixteen dancers. The dancers nearly always carry something for this type of dance: sticks, swords, arches, ribbons, and so forth, and these objects shape the movement.

Most parts of the Basque Country have dances of the Ingurutxo ("Little Circle") type, which follow a similar evolution in all areas. They begin with a line of men, the leader doing some sort of solo work as the group circles the dance area. Eventually, two men leave the line and bring a woman before the leader, who does some sort of a solo in her honor. She is then incorporated into the line, usually joined to the men on either side by handkerchiefs and/or berets. Other women are brought in in a similar manner until the line is complete, each man followed by a woman, but with the last man placing his partner ahead of him so that he ends the line. These dances, like most Basque dances that move along a circle, move counterclockwise. Today, most of the Ingurutxo type dances and with a Basque Jota and Biribilketa, although older sources do not mention them. It is interesting to note that in Lequito, Vizcaya, the roles are reversed and the women lead the line, incorporating the men into it one by one.

There are couple dances found in the Basque Country, besides the ubiquitous Waltz, Polka, Schottische, and Paso Doble. The moste popular of the "Basque" dances is without question the Jota, which consists of a Fandango in 3/4 time and and an Ariñ-Ariñ in 2/4 time. The steps and formation vary from area to area, and the Jota is often performed in a circle or in three's or four's. A close relative of the Jota is the Esku-Dantza ("Hand Dance") which usually uses Ariñ-Ariñ steps combined with some sort of clapping pattern. Unlike the Jota, the Esku-Dantza is always, as far as I know, for couples. The Basques also have a number of quadrilles, which differ minimally from the French, and which are found especially in the regions of northern Navarre, Basse-Navarre, and Soule.

There are several solo dances, some extracted from a larger context. The most common is perhaps the Aurresku ("dance of the first hand") based on the solo steps of the leader in the Ingurtxo type dances. The Aurresku, in many forms, is often seen on stage and is presented in dance competitions. The Viscayan Kaxarranka, performed on a chest as it is carried on the shoulders of six or eight men, is another solo dance which often appears on stage. It has a characteristic step pattern, followed by a lively Fandango and Ariñ-Ariñ. There is much solo dancing in the province of Soule, especially connected with the Carnival Masquerade, and some in Guipuzcoa and Navarre.

Within the Basque country, there are many regions, towns, or villages especially known for their dances. If one is fortunate enough to be in the correct place at the correct time, one can see beautiful and varied dancing throughout the year. During the late spring, the summer, and early fall, groups from the villages travel to festivals all over the Basque Country to perform their own traditional dances. Some of the urban groups also do a fine job of presenting dances on stage, often with authentic costumes and music, although the choreographies are sometimes changed greatly from the way they appear in the smaller towns and villages.

The region of Vizcaya is perhaps best known in dance for the Vizvayan Sword Dance Suite, also called Dantzari Dantza (the "Dancers' Dance") from the towns on the Durango area to the southeast of Bilbao. The Dantzari Dantza is a group of dances for eight men, with high kicks and rapid changes of figures. There are dances where one, two, four, or eight dancers move at once, as well as two sword and one large stick dance (all pyrrhic). Perhaps the best known of the group is Tontxongullo, where the "dead" leader is lifted by two of his companions for the final section of the dance. Folklorists have argued for years over the meaning of this dance; whether he is a great leader fallen in battle, a legendary thief captured by the townspeople, or perhaps a figure of death and rebirth not unlike those found in other parts of Europe such as the British Isles and Romania.

Besides the Dantzari Dantza, Vizcaya also has a point-and-hilt sword dance (Xemin'ko Dantza) where the captain is raised on the lock formed by the swords of the other dancers. Kaxarranka, the solo danced on the chest of town papers as it is moved to the home of the new mayor on St. Peter's Day, and the women's Ingrurutxo, both from the town of Lequito, were mentioned earlier. The Dantzari Dantza also ends with an Ingurutxo (Ingurutxo Soka Dantza), led by men and followed by a Fandango and Ariñ-Ariñ.

The province of Alava to the southeast of Vizcaya offers an interesting contrast in types of dance. The north, which today has little living dance of its own (that is, different from that found in other areas) is known for several Ingurutxo-type dances, such as the dances of Salinas and Maestu. The dances of the southernmost part of the region, the Rioja, are well preserved and very interesting, but are closer in movement, music, and costume to the dance of Logrono and neighboring Castille than to other dances of the Basques. Once again, many of the dances are for eight dancers – at one time, all men, but since the Civil War, often women. There are, as in the north and in many parts of the Iberian Peninsula, maypole dances and non-pyrrhic stick dances, especially in the village of Villabuena. The Rioja region of Alava has its own type of Jota, usually performed in a circle, but with a sense of partners, consisting of steps not too unlike those used in the north, but with their own styling. The northern part of the province does the Jotas of Vizcaya or Navarre, depending on the specific group of dancers.

Guipuzcoa, to the east of Vizcaya, also has a sword dance suite consisting of twelve dances. As with the Vizcayan dances, a group does not necessarily do all twelve each time it performs (although it may). The Guizpucoan dances are usually named after the implement carried: little stick dance, big stick dance, field dance, ribbon dance, hoe dance, little arch, big arch, sword dance (not pyrrhic), and so forth. Most of the dances consist of a "zortziko" pattern (in 5/8 time) where the implements are not used and a "joko" ("game or play in 6/8 or 2/4 time") pattern where they shape the arm movement. Unlike the Vizcayan, the Guipuzcoan dancers, most often 12 or 16 in number), are accompanied by a captain who does a brief solo before most of the dances and then inspects others as they perform.

Navarre is incredibly rich in dance, with a great variety of types. Some of the best known are the Ingurutxo from the town of Leiza, and the dances of Otxagabia, near the French border. The dances are accompanied by a "bobo" ("jester") figure similar to one which appears in the Rioja of Alava. The area around Valcarlos is known for the Jautziak, or Basque Sautés, dances done in an open circle with short step patterns which are often sung out. The Baztan valley has its Mutil-Dantzas ("man's dances") with similar movement patterns. The town of Lesaca contributes a point-and-hilt sword dance done with sticks instead of swords (but still called a sword dance), and Cortes, in the extreme south, is known for its maypole-ribbon dance and a human tower. There are other Ingurutxos in Navarre as well as solo dances, line dances of many types, and, of course, Jotas.

Passing to the French side, Soule is the province perhaps most admired for its dancing. Besides the quadrilles and Sautés, the Souletines do beautiful solo dancing, usually associated with characters in the Carnival Masquerade or the pastorale, a traditional outdoor theatre genre which includes poetry, music, and dance. The most spectacular and perhaps the best known moment in Basque dancing is often believed to be that one when the Zamalain, the Hobby Horse figure in the Masquerade, jumps onto a glass of wine without spilling a drop. The Zamalzain is one of the five or six (depending on the village) main characters in the Masquerade, although there are some forty characters in a full Masquerade, most of whom dance at some point, and Godalet Danza (the "wine glass dance") is certainly within the pastorale, is of similar nature and often is done by the same dancers who take the lead roles in the Masquerades. The dancing is so similar that more than one folklorist, no doubt seeing the dances out of context, has placed the Satanak and their dance in the Masquerade.

To the west of Soule is Basse-Navarre, at one time part of the province of Navarre, well known for its Carnival celebrations. Basse-Navarre is the home of the Sautés, perhaps a little more like those of northern Navarre than those of Soule, of the quadrilles, especially in earlier times, and the Farandole, a serpentine dance led by a man or boy carrying a branch in one hand.

The province of Labourd, on the Basque coast, preserves little of its own traditional dance. Because of the tourist trade and because of the influx of Baswues from other areas (many came from the Spanish Basque Country during Spain's Civil War), many types of Basque dance may be seen in Labourd, especially during the tourist season (mid-July to September). The city dances found in nearly all the urban areas are performed in Laboourd along with adaptations of Vizcayan dances. Performing groups from San Sebastian visit towns near San Juan de Luz during the summer (about twenty minutes by bus) showing a variety of Guizpucoan and Navarrese dances, and there are festivals that groups from all over the Basque Country, both French and Spanish, attend.

The Jota appears in virtually all areas. It was not traditional on the French side, but today there are very few dance events, even in Soule (where people say that the Jota does not exist) which do not contain some Jotas. They are much less popular in the northern provinces, however, than in the south where they can easily be considered the national dance. Jotas have been incorporated into the Ingurutxos, into dance contestes, into such dances as the Kaxarranka and the Esku-Dantzas, and end most of the suites and "scenes" which have been composed recently.

Some mention should also be made of the dances which are composed today. In conjunction with the growth of the urban groups and the changing social needs, especially in the cities, some adjustment was needed for the participation of women in dance. Many dances were adapted for women from existing men's dances, and some of these are now known as women's dances to the extent that many of the people do not realize that they were once men's dances at all. Some examples ar the Navarese Sagar-Dantza ("Apple Dance"), the Vizcayan Zinta Dantza ("Ribbon Dance"), the Guipuzcoan Makil-Txikiak ("Little Sticks") and Arku-Aundiak ("Big Arches"). Other dances were composed for women, using traditional steps from men's dances, such as the very popular Juarrieta, composed by Argia in 1970. Still other dances were completely new compositions and have become part of the standard repertoire in the cities and in the villages where there are children's groups who learn their dances from the city groups. Museta and Contrapas de Orbea, Segadoras ("Harvesters"), Tejadoras ("Weavers"), and many other dances that appear frequently are of this type.

With such full and active participation in dance, there is virtually never a time when dancing is not found, at least, not in the cities. For those who prefer village dancing, where the Basques will tell you that they have been doing the same dances in the same way for thousands of years (and according to some scholars, that is not at all unlikely), the best time to see dancing is the village feast day. Popular days are Santiago, San Juan, San Ignacio, San Vicente, San Miguel, Santa Isabel, Santa Ana, and August 15 which is the Feast of the Assumption. If the holiday comes during the week, it is often moved to the closest Sunday, but still more often it is celebrated on the scheduled day and then it is repeated on the following Sunday. There is dancing connected with the festivities in Pamplona for San Fermin (July 7), especially the night of the 6th, and very beautiful dancing in the town of Leasca on the morning of San Fermin. Santiago (St. James), July 25, is celebrated in Vallacarlos and many other places. The fiestas in Lequitio Vizcaya, are between St. Peter and St. John, the last week in June. Berriz, Vizcaya celebrates Santa Isabel the first week in July. Estella, with its suite of dances called Baile de la Era ("Dance of the Threshing Floor") performed each night at 1:00 a.m., celebrates its fiestas at the end of July or beginning of August; Vitoria (capital of Alava), the week of August 4; Leiza, Navarre is the third week in August. The week of August in San Sebastian usually has a different group (urban this time) performing each night in the Plaza de la Trinidad in the old part of town, with Goizaldi (a very good choice) on August 15. Different parts of San Sebastian have things going on all through August and the first part of September, but dates must be checked on the spot, as nearly all of them move around some. Most cities or towns have a local Centero de Atraccion y Turismo on the Spanish side and a Syndicat d'Initiative on the French side where a visitor can find information on dates and places. The local newspapers often list activities for fiestas (be prepared to wait or to be rained on throughout the Basque Country in summer). In the case of rain, events may be rescheduled, but it really takes a awful lot of water to keep the event from taking place!

The Basques, then, have a very rich and varied dance culture depicting many facets of their existence. Many old ritual dances are still performed today, if not specifically to make the crops grow, at least with the idea that the dances have always been done at a certain time and it is right that they should continue to be done. These same dances are also presented on stage, both by village groups and city groups, but now as entertainment. Since many Basque dances are in front of the rest of the village, the transition from plaza to stage has not been a difficult one, and, depending on the group performing, dances can be seen on stage with little distortion. To cite one example, Goizaldi always performs certain dances facing in each of the four directions, even when that means that a quarter of the time they are dancing to a stone wall with their backs to the audience. In fact, under these circumstances, the captain's solo is completely hidden from the audience by the other dancers standing behind him.

The content of the old dances reflects the concern of the Basques for their religious and subsistence patterns, especially in fishing and agriculture, and fertility symbols in some of the dances are clear. Many of the older dances reflect historical events, particularly contact with outside groups such as the Moors and the Romani. But the concerns of today are also expressed through dance. Without passing judgement on the fact, one must realize that it would be absurd to try to ignore the use of Basque dance, both traditional and newly composed, as an instrument for the promotion of feeling of Basque unity and identity, especially in the cities. The frequency with which the Agintariena, a flag salute from the Vizcayan Suite, appears and other dances of recent origin which depict the flag, is a direct indication of nationalistic sentiment. The popularity of the Zazpi Jautziak ("Seven Jumps") is based on the fact that there are seven Basque provinces and the Basque motto is Zazpiak Bat ("The Seven") one. Other dances of recent origin present traditional (but now discontinued) activities of the rural Basques in an attempt to promote some sort of feeling of identity with the past.

Much has been lost as living tradition, or has been changed. In the rural areas, television has replaced the dancing on Sunday afternoons in many places, and easy access to the cities with movies and other activities, especially sports, takes the youth outside the villages. Many people commute to work in the cities and towns and spend much time away from home. There is less dance in the rural areas than a generation ago. But, ironically enough, in some of the small towns where the youth had just about given up their traditional dances, they too have begun to place a high value on them. If that trend continues, maybe the dances will not be lost in the rural areas after all. Today, many rural groups, which are not necessarily performing groups, feel that it is important to preserve their dances, and further, some of the dances which were once done only ritually and by a limited number of dancers are now performed socially, and by many of the young people, both men and women. Such is the case with the Jautziak and the Mutil-Dantzas which have spread to other areas of the Basque Country as recreational dances – and as the Jota has spread to the north, also as a social or recreational form.

The Basques continue to dance and to enjoy a wide variety of dance forms presented to them in many different ways. As they are a living and changing people, quickly adjusting to modern life styles, their dance culture, if it is to remain alive, must change with them. Hopefully they will be able to maintain a balance between the preservation of elements important in preserving a sense of history within the culture, and incorporating at the same time the changes needed to keep the dance as a vibrant and dynamic part of their lives today.



Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, December 1978.

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