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The Sardana: Catalan Dance and Catalan National Identity

Stanley Brandes

The sardana, a circle dance from northeast Spain, emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as a key symbol of Catalonia.1 A prototypical invented tradition, the sardana represents qualities that Catalans hold dear, such as harmony, democracy, brotherhood, and national identity as an achieved, rather than ascribed, status. Threats against the sardana are perceived as threats against Catalonia. Hence, Catalan folklorists rewrite history in an attempt to defend the dance's purity and persistence.

     The people of Catalonia have long asserted their unique ethnic—some would say national—identity. Occupying the northeast corner of Iberia, and spilling over the Pyrenees into French Roussillon, Catalonia is today experiencing the same regionalist fervor that characterizes much of contemporary Europe (Esman 1977). Catalans distinguish themselves from the French and, particularly, the Spanish within whose political boundaries they have existed for centuries. In the face of aggressively hegemonic French and Spanish regimes, which many Catalans consider to be foreign imperialist occupiers, this cultural minority has been able to survive as what Edward Spicer would call a "persistent" (1971) or "enduring" (1980) people.

     Any attempt to understand the persistence of Catalan ethnic identity must take into account the long-standing economic strength of Catalonia, which was the first area of Spain to industrialize (Pi-Sunyer 1974; Schneider, Schneider, and Hansen 1972). It also would point to the widespread use of the Catalan language as the preferred language of most Catalans, who number some six million people. This linguistic pattern, as many scholars (for example, Azevedo 1984; Badia i Margarit 1979; Vallverdú 1981; Woolard 1983) have already noted, is undoubtedly the single major source of Catalan identity. And yet there are other forms of what the Spanish sociologist Salvador Giner (1980: 10) has called "symbolic acts of ethno-cultural affirmation" that may be invoked to explain how Catalans manifest and maintain a distinctive identity, despite the absence of an autonomous state.

     Among these expressive forms, perhaps the most important is the sardana, which Catalan scholar Esteve Fàbregas i Barri has termed "the national dance of Catalonia" (1979: 7). In this article, I wish to explore the sardana as national symbol. My purposes are, first, to analyze the origins and contemporary status of the sardana; second, to explain the dance's symbolic potency; and, finally, to show how both the sardana and sardana scholarship have been used in the service of furthering Catalan ethnic identity (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1. A mural in Barcelona from 1981 that states, 'For a Catalonia that is free, prosperous, and without class differences.' Photograph by Stanley Brandes.

The Sardana in Contemporary Catalonia

As anyone acquainted with Catalonia can attest, the sardana is no quaint folk survival. Even today, it is danced publicly and frequently in cities, town, and villages throughout Catalonia, as well as wherever Catalans congregate (including, in my experience, California). It is very possible that, in the 1980s, more Catalans attended nighttime discotheques than daytime aplecs, or sardana dance festivals. It is also true that some Catalans have never learned to dance the sardana, and many others, who danced in their youth, have spent many years without taking a single sardana step.

     Whatever the statistics, symbols of identity are measured in large part by their uniqueness and emotional salience. According to these criteria, the sardana far outstrips any tangible representation of Catalan identity, except perhaps the famous four red stripes of the Catalan national flag (the so-called quatre barres) and the image of the Virgin of Montserrat, who is inextricably linked in the popular mind to Catalonia. Sardana icons appear throughout Catalonia. They include everything from the large cement Monument to the Sardana in Monjuich Park, overlooking Catalonia's capital city of Barcelona to colorful drawings on restaurant sugar packets to a wide range of medallions (Vilalta 1961) and picture postcards. Pablo Picasso, who spent much of his childhood and early adulthood in Barcelona, incorporated the sardana into many of his ceramics, graphics, and paintings (Mainer and Vilalta 1981); this work is reproduced in countless posters and publications. Wherever you go in Catalonia, from schools to tourist shops, you are confronted by decorative art based on the sardana.

     It is also not unusual to encounter people dancing sardanas, especially on Sundays in town plazas and parks throughout Catalonia. The dance is routinely performed on holidays, including most Sundays in Barcelona, whether on the esplanade in front of the cathedral or in the Plaça Sant Jaume, just outside the Generalitat, the principal Catalan government building. Towns and villages throughout Catalonia, as well as barris, or neighborhoods, in Barcelona frequently include sardana dancing as part of their annual patronal saint's day festivals (Barrera González 1985: 302; Obra del Ballet Popular 1983: 36–37). The Generalitat subsidizes sardana instruction in schools throughout Catalonia, with the explicit aim of integrating immigrant children from other parts of Spain into Catalan society (Hall 1986: 103). Further, in recent years there have been about 150 aplecs celebrated throughout Catalonia annually (Obra del Ballet Popular 1982, 1983), and even more ballades, or relatively brief public dances. As Barrera González has said, "Any celebration, fiesta or special event is reason enough in Catalonia to organize a sardana ballada" (1985: 302). Sardana aplecs are by contrast elaborate affairs, defined as festivals convened literally in "homage to the sardana" (Mas i Solench 1981: 22); they often attract dancers and musicians from all over Catalonia who come together specifically for sardana dancing.

Figure 2
Figure 2. At the entrance to an aplec in the province of Girona (1981), a sign beckons visitors to become members of a sardana association. The cartoon figure wears unmistakably Catalan traditional dress. Photograph by Stanley Brandes.

     While it would be inconceivable to encounter the dance at any Iberian fiesta outside Catalonia, for example, in Andalusia, Castile, or the Basque country, it is hard to imagine a Catalan festival without sardanas. Small wonder, then, that the dance has been called, among other things, "the true national anthem" of Catalonia (Roura i Alzina 1949: 58); or, according to an advertisement for sardana videocassettes ([Anonymous] 1985), themselves indicative of the sardana's popularity, "one of the most living and characteristic expressions of the Catalan people." In a famous ode to the sardana, the great Catalan poet Joan Maragall called it "the most beautiful dance created" (1981: 39), a judgment that many Catalans would find hard to dispute.

     Fàbregas i Barri has formulated a concise description of the dance, worth quoting in its entirety:

A band of eleven instruments, almost all winds, called the "tabla," plays high-quality sardanas. . . . It is a classical and mathematical dance. Sardana dancers freely group themselves in "rotllanes," that is to say, holding hands in the form of a ring. The dancers have to count the musical beats—which tend to be of different number in each composition—and translate them into steps, so that, these steps being followed, [the dancers] turning first to the right, then to the left, the dance develops and finishes exactly according to the traditional norms that govern it. (1979: 7)

The sardana, then, is a circle dance, accompanied by a standard instrumental ensemble, and governed by "traditional" rules. However, as we shall see, the attribution of traditionality in the case of the sardana is more important than its reality.

History and Classification of the Sardana

The popular Catalan and, indeed, Iberian belief that the sardana is traditional raises the question of genre. The sardana is certainly not traditional in the sense that folk dances are. Folklore, properly considered, is learned and transmitted through informal processes, not through organized classes, sponsored by public schools (Hall 1986: 103,106) and other formal organizations, as is the case with the sardana. As of 1985, the city of Barcelona alone boasted some forty-eight dance schools and societies—with names like Amics de la Dansa (Friends of the Dance), Cercle Sardanista (Sardana Circle), Esbart Joventut Nostra (Our Youth Dance Group), Agrupació Cultural Folklòrica Barcelona (Barcelona Cultural Folkloric Company), and the like. These organizations are all devoted to teaching and disseminating the sardana. About three hundred additional sardana societies are spread throughout cities and towns all over Catalonia.2 Further, there are over seventy coblas, or sardana bands, in Catalonia, eleven of them in Barcelona. These kinds of formal agencies are uncharacteristic of the unstructured communications networks through which folklore normally diffuses.

     Folklore, too, undergoes certain, if sometimes barely perceptible, evolution in content and structure, usually in response to changing social circumstances. By contrast, the sardana has for nearly a century been fossilized into two variants (representing the districts of La Selva and the Empordà, respectively) of an unchanging, ideally perfect sequence of movements. In cases of variation, bitter arguments emerge among self-declared experts about which of these variants represents the proper or traditional sardana style. An example is the controversy that emerged in the 1950s between two Catalan folklorists, Aureli Capmany and Luís Albert i Rivas, about whether the steps known as curts (shorts) should be danced with arms down or up. Albert's attack against Capmany fills a 104-page volume, devoted exclusively to combating the idea that the dancers' clasped hands should droop. Writes Albert i Rivas emphatically, using capital letters alone,


Albert describes this style as a "completely capricious and arbitrary innovation" (ibid.). Moreover, he exclaims that the people of the Empordà—his native region, and the one in which he claims the sardana originated—

hold firm and without concessions, true to our tradition and to our ancestors . . . that robust and candid people who during centuries have known how to endure without capitulation to every kind of invasion, preserving intact their most precious treasure: LA SARDANA. (1953: 6)

If the positioning of the arms during the so-called short steps, which are limited to a very brief segment of the dance sequence, can elicit this kind of extreme sentiment, we can be certain that the dance is rigidified in a way that folklore by definition is not.

     Nor can the sardana be termed popular culture. Unlike folklore, popular culture generally originates with some clearly identifiable creator—a songwriter, movie director, or advertiser, for example. To be sure, the contemporary sardana was shaped largely through the creative efforts of the nineteenth-century musician Josep Maria (Pep) Ventura, a figure to whom we return for discussion below. Sardana music, too, has for over a century been composed and published in standard notation by identifiable and, in some cases famous musicians (for example, Josep Anselm Clavé), occasionally following Italian and German operatic styles (Pla 1958: 178). However, the primary historical roots of this music and of the dance itself are unquestionably anonymous (Mainer 1970, 1: 26) to an extent that is uncharacteristic of most popular culture. The precursors of the modern sardana, which were themselves localized folk dances, existed and evolved over the course of centuries. Rebull (1976: 15–22) cites Catalan texts from as early as the sixteenth century in which sardanas (variously written cerdanes, serdanas, çardanes, and numerous alternatives [Mainer 1970, 1: 19–22]) are cited. These circumstances make it impossible to classify the sardana as popular culture, in the usual sense.

     Popular culture generally enjoys only ephemeral existence, and disappears along with the special conditions ultimately responsible for its emergence. The modern sardana—that which is danced today—dates from 1850, from which time it has remained unchanged (Mainer 1970, 1: 24), apparently unaffected by the radical socioeconomic and political alterations that have occurred since. Both the long evolution of the dance into the modern sardana and its stylistic ossification almost a century and a half ago place it outside the realm of popular culture.

     The highly standardized nature of the contemporary sardana gives it some resemblance to high culture, for example, to classic ballets or string quartets. Likewise, the composition and performance of sardana music, like that of high cultural compositions, require years of formal training, since the eleven-man cobla (until circa 1980s, it was exclusively masculine) functions somewhat like a chamber orchestra. However, the creation and enjoyment of high culture, by definition, are normally restricted to a social elite. Sardana dancing, by contrast, can be mastered by virtually anybody who sets his or her mind to the task. As we shall see below, too, the sardana is conceived as a democratic, non-elitist dance, thereby distinguishing it definitively from high cultural forms.

     Thus, the sardana, while perhaps sharing elements of folklore, popular culture, and high culture, fails solidly to meet the criteria for any of these categories. The sardana is, rather, an "invented tradition" (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). An invented tradition, as most culture historians are now aware, is

[a] set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature . . . which automatically implies continuity with the past. (ibid.: 1)

Hobsbawm and Ranger, who coined the term "invented tradition," believe that it is society's need for stabilizing cultural anchors that causes traditions to be created during periods of rapid socioeconomic or political change (1983: 4–5). Hence, invented traditions were particularly characteristic of the Industrial Revolution.

     This model perfectly fits the sardana. Until the mid-nineteenth century, when Catalonia was industrialized, numerous variants of the dance, generally associated with religious festivals, flourished in the Alt and Baix Empordà, la Selva, el Gironès, and other north Catalonian districts. As Prat i Carós has said, in this period the sardana "had no special significance and was but one of many dances that could be found in Catalonia" (1988: 171). Between 1840 and 1850, the father of the modern sardana, Josep Maria Ventura i Casas, produced a standard version of the sardana, which included steps known as els llargs (the longs) as well as musical accompaniment by an eleven-man cobla playing a clearly defined combination of mostly wind instruments (Pla 1958: 177). This new version of the dance became fixed through several influential instructional treatises; by 1860, the dance became popular in Barcelona, from whence it diffused throughout Catalan towns and villages (Mas i Solench 1981: 59–61; Pla 1958: 177). It was thus in the period 1840–60 when the sardana was established "as dance of the Catalans" (Mas i Solench 1981: 59), although Catalonia was at that time home to numerous other local dances as well (Amades 1983). As Barrera González (1985: 300–308) has shown, the sardana has continued to extend its influence even throughout the mid-twentieth century, as the influential dance group, Obra de Ballet Popular, organizes aplecs and other sardana events in communities where it was previously unknown. Since the 1960s, the Obra de Ballet Popular has lit a Flama de la Sardana (Eternal Light of the Sardana), which travels once a year in public procession from one city to another, each city being named "Heir to the Sardana" for the year in which it conserves the eternal light (Barrera González 1985: 307).

Sardana Symbolism

We must now consider precisely what it was about the sardana that appealed to the Catalans, and established the dance so firmly as national symbol. At the most basic level, it is important that the sardana is a musical genre. The Catalans are justifiably famous throughout Spain and, in fact, much of Western Europe, for their musicality.3 It is therefore not surprising that a dance form such as the sardana—like the choral groups that Pere Artís i Benach (1980) analyzes and the operatic gatherings at the Gran Teatro del Liceu which Gary McDonogh explores (1986: 185–201)—should emerge as a major source of personal and social identity. In fact, there are probably many Catalans who appreciate the sardana for its pure musical quality, as much as for its ethnic or political associations. Then, too, the sardana has provided a fertile outlet for the well-known Catalan propensity to band together in voluntary associations (Hansen 1977: 107–118; Pi-Sunyer 1983: 47). The dance's complexity, requiring extensive instruction, has given rise, as we have seen, to literally hundreds of localized groups devoted specifically to learning, perfecting, and practicing dance formations. There are, in addition, dozens of other organizations concerned more specifically with sardana composition, instrumentalism, and musical performance. Hence, as a musical form spawning a plethora of voluntary associations, the sardana is consonant with the texture of Catalan life.

     More important, the dance became a national symbol because it became identified with core Catalan values, including harmonìa (harmony), germanor (brotherhood), and democracia (democracy) (Barrera González 1985: 307; Brandes 1985). As Josep Miracle puts it, the sardana is

living democracy . . . the realization of that program which has pervaded the universe with the eighteenth-century trilogy: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. . . . [T]he impact of the sardana is not formed by a portion of the [populace] but rather by the totality: the people. The people with all their social classes ["estaments"], with all their differences, in all their forms. The sardana in Catalonia is everybody's, just as the sun that gives us light each day is everybody's. (quoted in Capmany 1948: 180)

Other scholars, too, interpret the sardana as a great leveler of human differences. Hence, Salvador Giner stresses that the sardana is "the national dance, in which rich and poor, old and young, men and women, participate in one unbroken circle" (1980: 10). In the same spirit, Matorell and Valls declare the sardana to be

almost a rite; the sardana should not be observed, it should be danced, and it should be danced in a spontaneously-formed circle, uniting without distinctions of age or class the female and male dancers ["unint sense distinció d'edats ni de classes, balladores I balladors"]. (Quoted in Mas i Solench 1981: 12)

     It is this democratic attribute of the sardana, as perceived by Catalans, that in large measure accounts for the feeling that the dance promotes harmony, and that it is symbolic of brotherhood. Hence, a leaflet distributed in Solsona in May 1983 on the occasion of an aplec declares that "dancing the sardana should be a sacrament of brotherhood" (un sagrament de germanor). Likewise, an instructional brochure distributed in Vic in 1982 by the Department of Culture of the Catalan Parliament defines an aplec as "[a] gathering of people coming from diverse locales who get together to dance and listen to sardanas; all in all it simultaneously combines festival and brotherhood." Dancers themselves reiterate this message. For example, in August 1983, during one of the regular Sunday dances at the Plaça Sant Jaume, I inquired why dancers regularly cry out "Visca!" (Long Life!) on the final beat of the last dance of any dance session. A woman in her fifties answered spontaneously, "Long live our people, Catalonia, the sardana, brotherhood; all together!"—"Visca el poble nostre, Catalunya, la sardana, el germanor; tot plegat!" Aplecs are often infused with a sense of competition among dance and instrumental groups who arrive more or less as representatives of their home communities. No doubt as a way of dispelling the conflict that these events engender, they typically end with the famous Sardana de Germanor—the Brotherhood Sardana—in which all competitors form a single large dance circle, in symbolic disregard of the inevitable differences in talent and training among local groups.

     The circle itself, variously referred to in Catalan as the rotllana or rodona, is a key symbol. If, as we have said, the sardana represents democracy, brotherhood, and the elimination of class distinctions, it also paradoxically symbolizes a kind of hermetic insularity and exclusivity. This is why Giner refers to the sardana as a dance formed of an unbroken circle (1980: 10). Once the dance begins, each circle—normally composed of six to twelve dancers—becomes a seamless ring of alternating men and women holding hands. Other than this positioning in the circle by gender, there is no noticeable differentiation of roles. Each dance has a leader, the man or woman ultimately responsible for the complex counting of measures upon which the step sequences are based. But the leader directs with such subtlety of eye or head movement that only a tutored observer could distinguish him or her from the others in the circle, all of whom, in any event, are required largely to follow the music.

     Each sardana circle strives for perfect unison. Hands should be held at just a certain height, feet extended precisely a given distance, the final beat timed by all the dancers as if guided by the same clock. Each dancer measures the performance as much by the uniformity of the circle as by his or her observance of the multitudinous, detailed rules by which a dancer's qualities must be evaluated. Manuel Capdevila sums these up in the so-called hundred recommendations (Cent Consells), all composed in rhyme (1948: 91–104). To wit, it is advised that

  El qui balla amb ritme estrany [He who dances off beat
  estorba sempre el company. disturbs his companions.]

Likewise, it is said that

  La rotllana, molt ni poc [The circle, neither a little
  no s'ha de moure del lloc. nor a lot, should move from its spot.]

And that,

  Tan ací com a Girona [As much here as in Girona
  l'anella ha d'ésser rodona. the dance ring should be round.]

In other words, the circle imposes a mutual interdependence on the dancers. There is no necessity, and little latitude, for displays of individual expressiveness or virtuosity, such as routinely occurs, for example, in other Iberian dances (most notably flamenco).

     The need for uniformity of movement means that each circle focuses on itself, virtually oblivious of everything outside except the music. To dance together in a circle also implies mutual trust, the confidence that each person's performance will redound to everyone's enjoyment. The interdependence and trust that characterize the sardana circle perhaps receive their most concrete representation in the pile of cloaks, purses, and other possessions that the dancers deposit in the center of the ring. Since the dancers totally enclose these valuables within their circle, they alone have access to them. This arrangement, of course, also allows individual owners to keep a watchful eye on their possessions throughout the dance.

     It is almost as if the dancers in any given circle formed a temporary society of their own. Membership in that little society is theoretically open to anybody who knows the dance. But there are rules that must be strictly obeyed. A Catalan poet, Josep Maria López Pico, captured this situation succinctly in an ode to the sardana

  Dansa numerada. la teva mesura [Numbered dance, your measure
  és franca penyora de cordialitat is forthright guarantee of cordiality.
  ens aculls a tots, però restes pura You protect us all, but remain pure
  perquè saps els límits de la llibertat. (quoted in Capmany 1948: 309) because you know the limits of liberty.]

The rigidity of the dance is based on the measured consistency of the dancers, who learn and carefully adhere to a detailed set of rules. Unaccomplished dancers are relegated to their own sardana circles, and generally feel unwelcome dancing with those who have already mastered the technical niceties.

     As implied in López Pico's poetic reference (above) to the sardana as a "numbered dance," the most important dance rules concern counting. In fact, anyone who talks to sardana dancers or reads the sardana scholarship can only come away impressed by the consistent emphasis on quantification. The complexity of the dance and the need for extensive instruction, in fact, derive from the complicated counting system. As the hundred recommendations counsel,

  També està sempre defes [Also it is always prohibited
  de fer un 'dos' si cal fer un 'tres.' to take a 'two-step' if you should take a 'three-step.'
  Per' xò el ballador—és clar!— For this reason the dancer—it's clear!—
  sempre, sempre ha de comptar. Always, always has to count.]

     As if to underscore this feature of the sardana, Catalans mock their own despised stereotype as selfish capitalist accumulators with the proverb, "Catalans are such money-grubbers that even to dance they count"—"Els catalans son tan pesseteros que fins i tot pera ballar comptan" (Díaz Viana 1988). Parenthetically, we might speculate that the self-declared Catalan affinity for counting helps to explain why the modern sardana emerged in a period of rapid industrialization. Precise measurement of time and money is, after all, a necessary if insufficient condition for the kind of rapid economic expansion that Catalonia achieved in the mid-nineteenth century. More important for our purposes, however, is that everybody is capable of learning how to count sardana steps, and those who master the rules are admitted unconditionally to the dance circle.

     Hence, the single most important criterion for entry into the small society that is the sardana circle is knowledge and skill—knowing how to do the dance. Sardana dancers boast proudly of how hard the dance is, how difficult it is to master, how necessary it is to practice in order to keep in shape. And yet nobody would claim that some people are capable of learning it and others not. As Barrera González's investigations confirm, everybody is in theory qualified to dance the sardana (1985: 307); entry into the closed circle is therefore simply a matter of being educated to the rules and following them.

     In this respect, dancing the sardana is not so different from speaking Catalan. In fact, one informant, an official of the Agrupació Cultural Folklorista in Barcelona, proclaimed casually, but with conviction, that "[t]he sardana is like a language" ("La sardana es com um llengua"). Just as anybody who puts a mind to it can dance the sardana, so too is everybody capable of learning and using Catalan. To be Catalan requires little more than identifying with the culture and adopting its symbolic system as one's own. Language, to be sure, is the most salient of these symbolic markers, although the sardana forms part of the overall Catalan symbol system as well.

     The sardana's history is not unlike that of the language. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, as earlier indicated, local variants of what we have come to call the sardana were spread throughout northern Catalonia, in the districts that today comprise the Spanish province of Girona. Only after sardana dance and music become standardized did they diffuse throughout all of Catalonia. Unlike the sardana, the Catalan language predominated throughout Catalonia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, its status was similar to that of the dance in that it lacked standardization. Beginning in 1891, with publication of linguist Pompeu i Fabra's influential series of grammars, the multiplicity of dialects became a single codified tongue. The diffusion of standardized Catalan language and dance during the last half of the nineteenth century was part of the same Romantic movement that swept throughout the rapidly urbanizing and industrializing Catalan world of the period (Johnston 1983: 72–85). They both became important symbols of identity, associated with some timeless, mythological continuity to the past.

     The Catalan people have long maintained an implicit belief in something that anthropologists have long known, that is, that race and culture are wholly separable. Biological ancestry does not make a person Catalan. Catalan identity, like Catalan language or dance, can be acquired through learning, and then internalized to the point of thorough identification. In this respect, the sardana represents one of the most supreme Catalan values: ethnic identity as an achieved, rather than ascribed, status. The sardana, therefore, places in relief two seemingly contradictory Catalan tendencies: deep-seated democracy and group exclusivity. It is dance as national character.

The Sardarna as an Ethnic Marker

In 1975, on the eve of Francisco Franco's death,4 Oriol and Mary Jane Pi-Sunyer wrote that Catalan perceptions of their social universe are plagued by "political subordination and fear of culture loss" (1975: 291). Because Catalans define themselves largely in cultural terms—that is, a Catalan is as a Catalan does, regardless of surname or ancestry—cultural suppression is for them equivalent to annihilation as a people. This posture explains the defensiveness that Pi-Sunyer rightly identified, and that so mystifies and aggravates Castilians (Esteva Fabregat 1984: 167) and other Spaniards who tend to believe that birthplace and/or descent primarily define national identity.

     For Catalans, the sardana is among the most salient ethnic markers, worthy of defense against potential threats from outsiders. Given the history of the sardana, this posture is hardly paranoid. Throughout the twentieth century, there have been brief periods—for example, in the 1940s under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco—when the dance was prohibited by Castilian centrists in Madrid (Benet 1973: 386). One edict cited the tendency of the sardana—an "accursed 'differentiating agent,'" as it was called (ibid.)—to foment "false" feelings of pride and superiority among the Catalans, thereby justifying the dance's prohibition. In fact, the dance was only prohibited in certain locales in and around Barcelona, and not even for very long at that. Further, many pro-Franco Catalans, oblivious to its anticentrist overtones, continued to dance the sardana throughout the Franco period. No doubt because the dictatorship considered the sardana to be relatively innocuous, the dance was allowed to flourish as a form of what we might call "peaceful protest" (Brandes 1977) against the regime's more effective and oppressive campaign (Benet 1973) to eliminate the public use of the Catalan language.

     More subtle and perhaps revealing illustration of the Catalan fear of culture loss emerges in two instances—one contemporary, the other historical—in which Catalan nationalists show concern over the impact of immigration on Catalan culture. Both cases involve migration from Andalusia in southern Spain into more economically dynamic Catalonia, a phenomenon characteristic of both the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries (Esteva Fabregat 1973, 1975; Luzán 1979). The first, and briefer, example concerns a journalistic controversy that was aired in the summer of 1988 in the Catalan newspaper Avui. It began on August 28, when a contributor, Ivan Tubau, published an article entitled "L'emigrant," defending the introduction of the Andalusian feria de abril (April Fair), and with it flamenco dancing—a dance style indigenous to and thoroughly identified with Andalusia (Grande 1979)—into the Catalan town of Barberà del Vallès. His defense rested upon an analogy between Andalusian dance in Catalonia, on the one hand, and Catalan dance in Amsterdam, on the other: both were innocuous expressions of immigrant national identities, he said, and should be allowed to thrive. Columnist Ernest Sabater i Siches responded strongly a few days later (September 2) by asking whether Tubau "had ever stopped to think that the Catalans never invaded Holland, and they've never wanted to impose upon [the Dutch] their language and customs." Continues Sabater i Siches,

[I]t is obvious that, in contrast, Hispanism ["espanyolisme"] has adopted Andalusian folklore as a sign of identity in the service of the immigrant masses . . . in order to try to destroy our national character ["eliminar la nostra personalitat national"].

Sabater i Siches clearly perceives dancing as a consciously manipulated instrument of Spanish state domination. It is as if distinct ethnic groups within Spain were struggling for survival, and the Catalans, being subject to hegemonic control by the Castilians (represented in the passage above by the Castilian-speaking Andalusians), had to defend themselves against cultural genocide by censoring a foreign dance. The unbridled supremacy of the sardana is perceived as somehow vital to Catalan survival.

     We may note parenthetically that, elsewhere in the corpus of Catalan writings, a complementary attitude is often encountered: to dance the sardana is automatically to express solidarity with Catalans. Consider, for example, a passage from author Montserrat Roig's novel Molta roba i poc sabó (A Lot of Clothing and Little Soap) (1978). One of the Catalan protagonists, in a humanitarian outburst of brotherly sympathy, defends Castilians by stating,

I know people in the government who are very well intentioned and are able to participate in our way of life. . . . They're people of good faith who have danced sardanas with us, who have read Maravall [a great Catalan poet], who understand our language, and who send their children to spend the summer at the beaches of Girona. (Roig 1978: 66)

The sardana, like the Catalan language, must be defended against possible incursions by the dominant Castilian culture.5 In situations of contact between Catalans and non-Catalans, the best assurance of cultural survival is for non-Catalans to adopt Catalan culture. Failing this process, the opposite might occur and Catalonian culture altogether disappear.

     A second case of perceived threat, this one concerning historical interpretation, deals not with the persistence of the sardana as such, but rather with the ethnic origins of its creator, Josep María ("Pep") Ventura i Casas. Pep Ventura is a problematic figure for Catalan musicologists and historians because his ethnic origins are questionable. He was born in 1817 in Alcalá la Real, an Andalusian town located in the province of Jaén, where his father, an army sergeant, was temporarily stationed. When he was not yet three, Pep's father was reassigned to the Catalan city of Figueres. There Pep was reared. In theory, at least, he might thus be seen as the original, prototypical Andalusian immigrant to Catalonia, who so successfully adapted to his new land that he almost single-handedly forged one of its primary symbols, the modern sardana. At least one writer, Josep Grahit, in fact offers this interpretation. In his 1907 book on the sardana, which is probably one of the earliest lengthy treatments of the subject to appear, Grahit refers to Pep Ventura as "a pure Andalusian" ("un andalús pur"), although he felt impelled to qualify this statement by asserting that Ventura "felt catalanescament [that is, felt himself to be Catalan] for having come very young to our land, and grown up and become a man here" (1907: 14).

     In classifying Pep Ventura as Andalusian, Grahit follows standard Castilian custom in which birthplace is a primary determinant of personal identity. Hence, in the Castilian language, as used throughout Spain, it is common to identify someone as "son" (hijo) or "daughter" (hija) of such-and-such a place, so that, for example, a woman who is born in Alba de Tormes is "daughter of Alba de Tormes," an expression that associates her definitely with that town, as if it actually gave birth to her and endowed her with certain intrinsic peraonality traits. This classificatory system places primary emphasis on ascribed, rather than achieved, characteristics. Moreover, to consider Pep Ventura as a "son of Alcalá la Real" is automatically to negate his Catalan identity. For this reason, some Catalan scholars (for example, Coromines 1953: 57; Morant i Clanxet 1971: 57), slightly but critically altering Castilian ascriptive categories to suit their purposes, classify Ventura as Catalan by virtue of biological conception: because the biological conception that led to his birth occurred in Catalonia, he must be counted Catalan. Hence, Jordi Morant i Clanxet claims that

[t]he circumstances [of Pep Ventura's birth] do not diminish the Catalan identity ["catalanitat"] of the newborn child, given that . . . he was conceived in Catalonia, son of Catalan parents and of native family descent. (1971: 57)

Most Catalan historians, however, employ more complex combinations of ascribed and achieved characteristics for determining ethnicity. Consider, for example, Francesc Salvat's assertions:

Some have said that Pep Ventura became assimilated to our land. We reject this affirmation, for we find it completely wrong. How could he have assimilated if he was always from the Empordà ["empordanès"]? If the blood in his veins also was? If the first words that he pronounced were in our father tongue. If the months that he lived away were those of the tender infant, unconscious and totally innocent, in which he was practically still in the maternal womb! Ventura followed the same road that he would have followed if instead of being born in foreign territory he were born in the heart of the Empordà. His foreign birth did not change one iota ["no canvià gens ni mica") the physiognomy of his soul. (1932: 3)

This matter of the soul, which we might be tempted to dismiss as a mere stylistic extravagance of the author, appears in other historical accounts as well. For example, Aureli Capmany, who, after reminding readers that Ventura's father was from Roses and mother from Manlleu, states, "[T]hus put, we can affirm that Pep was from the Empordà despite the circumstances of his birthplace, and that his soul ('ànima') was also completely from the Empordà ('empordanesa')" (1948: 77).

     Objectively speaking, Pep Ventura has no intrinsic national identity. Ethnically, he is who people want him to be. Ventura's fame lies in his association with the sardana. And, the sardana being the salient national symbol that it is, most Catalan historians and ethnomusicologists go to great lengths to disprove the idea that Ventura had Andalusian roots. To disassociate Ventura from Andalusia, scholars resort to criteria other than his birthplace—including his bloodline, where he was conceived, where his parents were born, as well as the first language he spoke, and the composition of his soul. By all these measures, he comes out on balance Catalan.

     The idea of Pep Ventura's soul being Catalan is particularly revealing. The soul is an imaginary part of human constitution that at the same time contains something like cultural content—ideas, values, sentiments, and the like. Itself a cultural construct, the soul nonetheless combines ascribed and achieved characteristics. On the one hand, the soul adheres to an individual at birth; the very physiological existence of the person partly determines the character of the soul, as in Capmany's assertion above that Ventura's soul was Catalan because his parents were of Catalan birth. On the other hand, as Salvat implies, the soul gradually becomes imprinted through learning and exposure to the world around it (1932: 3). The soul is therefore a joint product of nature and nurture. As such, it provides a perfect rhetorical basis for classifying Pep Ventura as Catalan, for it expresses a combination of Castilian and Catalan criteria—of ascribed and achieved characteristics—that might be acceptable to any Spaniard, but that no doubt especially appeals to Catalans, who speak and therefore think in terms of both Castilian and Catalan categories. Ventura's soul is his ultimate defense against what some scholars would consider a tainted Andalusian birth.

Summary and Conclusion

>For over a century, the sardana has maintained its status as a potent symbol of Catalan national identity. Its origins extend back at least to the sixteenth century. Throughout the three subsequent centuries, localized folk dances known as the sardana flourished throughout a limited part of Catalonia, that is, in villages and towns situated in the present province of Girona. The modern sardana, though probably bearing some resemblance to the earlier forms, was created and standardized in 1850, and introduced shortly thereafter into Catalonia's capital city of Barcelona, from whence it diffused to the whole of Catalonia. A number of the dance's qualities—especially its determinate authorship, rigid standardization, and choreographic ossification during nearly a century and a half—differentiate it from folklore and popular culture, as these terms are usually understood. On the other hand, the sardana may be considered an invented tradition, that is, a cultural artifact imbued with a mythological past that is geared toward authenticating the ancient origins of a national or ethnic group. Because the Catalans define themselves primarily in cultural terms, rather than through ascriptive categories like birthplace or descent, the sardana and other shared "traditions" have loomed large in their self-definition as a people.

     If the sardana itself is a cultural invention, so too is ethnicity. Ethnic identity, in Spain and elsewhere, is not a product of fixed, timeless categories, but rather may be manipulated in accordance with the particularistic goals of speakers and writers who consciously or unconsciously follow political and personal agendas. Both the sardana and Pep Ventura have become symbols of national resistance against the overbearing power of Castile. It is for this reason that scholars insist so vehemently upon Pep Ventura's Catalan origins. Of course, neither the sardana nor Pep Ventura is inherently Catalan. It is merely the attributes with which they are invested that make them so, and that have endowed them for the past hundred years with symbolic salience and emotional power.

     And yet, it is reasonable to suppose that strong feelings about the sardana could not have emerged if the dance had not expressed qualities that Catalans themselves appreciate. The most frequently mentioned of these qualities—democracy, harmony, and brotherhood—are, we should say, consonant with at least some of the rules of the dance. To the extent that these qualities are read into the dance, in other words, to the extent that the dance is interpreted in light of these qualities, the sardana reminds people of them. In this respect, the sardana reinforces the perpetuation of democratic, brotherly, and harmonious values in Catalan culture. By stressing the inclusion of everyone who learns the rules, the dance is a microcosmic reflection of the general Catalan belief in ethnicity as an achieved status. However, the sardana also excludes those who neither know nor follow the detailed rules of the dance. This quality demonstrates group exclusivity, an implicit antidemocratic strain that exists side by side with the more positive values. Both this group exclusivity and the rigidity of musical forms represented in the sardana reflect the entirely reasonable Catalan fear of engulfment by the more powerful, omnipresent Castilian culture.

     But to explain fully the emergence and solidification of the sardana as Catalan national symbol, we may speculate on a possible correspondence between the economic activity that was going on in Catalonia during the mid-nineteenth century, on the one hand, and the almost instantaneous popularity that the sardana achieved at that time, on the other. The particular norms and values embodied in the sardana were at the very least consonant with liberal, bourgeois capitalism. A democratic society, open to all those who were willing to learn in order to achieve, is only part of the picture. Also of critical importance, and embodied in the dance (as in so many other aspects of Catalan expressive culture), is the willingness and ability of individuals to cooperate and coordinate efforts toward common goals. Finally, it may not be pure coincidence that counting is important to both sardana dancing and industrial growth. This quality, together with the other, more normative features embodied in the dance, may help to explain why the modern sardana emerged when it did, and quickly achieved the status it still retains as Catalan national symbol.6


1 An earlier version of this article was published in the Journal of American Folklore 103(407) (1990): 24–41. Reprinted with permission of the American Folklore Society.

2 The only such organization outside of Catalonia that I am certain exists is the Esbart Maig [May Dance Group], sponsored by the Círculo Catalán in Madrid, although parallel bodies might very well be found in cities like Buenos Aires, Mexico City, London, and Caracas, all of which have large numbers of Catalan immigrants.

3 A sampling of world-class Catalan musicians includes Montserrat Caballé, Victoria de los Angeles, Josep Carreras, Xavier Cugat, Pau (Pablo) Casals, and Alicia de Larrocha.

4 General Francisco Franco (1892–1975) was a dictator who ruled over Spain from 1939 until his death. He rose to power during the bloody Spanish Civil War when, with the help of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, his Nationalist forces overthrew the democratically elected Second Republic. [editor]

5 See Kathryn Woolard, Double Talk: Bilingualism and the Politics of Ethnicity in Catalonia (1989) for further details of the language issues. [editor]

6 I am grateful to the Program in Catalan Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, for providing me the funds to carry out the research on which this article is based. An earlier and much shorter version of this article was presented at the Symposium on Contemporary Catalonia in Spain and Europe, held March 24–26, 1989, at the University of California, Berkeley. I received excellent comments on earlier drafts of the article from Jesús de Miguel, Ignasi Terradas, Andrés Barrera, and Joan Prat, and wish to thank them for their assistance.


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