If you’re browsing the streets of the Gothic Quarter on a Sunday afternoon, you might stumble across large groups of people practicing an odd folk dance in the plazas. This is the “Sardana”, Catalunya’s national dance. It’ll involve circles of people holding their hands above their heads and following a seemingly easy pattern with their feet. Some might be wearing traditional clothing, others might have just been walking past, put down their bags, and joined in. Not only is it a sure-fire way to get your body moving on the weekend, it’s also a symbol of Catalan unity and pride. It brings together locals in a way that’s both fun and moving (both figuratively and literally).
What is the Sardana?
The Sardana involves circles of people who join their hands together and raise them above their heads. The group dances a simple yet precise coreography, moving slowly round and round. Often, other people will join in, making the circles grow in size. Often a small group of 10 or so can end up doubling or tripling in size as more people join in.
When the circles get too big to function properly, new ones are formed so at the end there are several groups of dancers all working to the same beat.
Though the precise steps might look simple from the outside, it’s actually fairly complicated. One person is chosen to lead the movements and timings, but if someone loses their place or falls out of step, the whole circle has to pick up and reform.
These complicated steps are known as curts, which are the shorter, staccato steps, and llargs, which are the longer, more fluid movements. Tiradas are the various sections of the dance that come together to create the full spectacle.
Alongside the dancers you’ll see a small group of 11 or so musicians tooting away on folk instruments. They’re known as a ‘cobla’, and their wind and brass instruments create a unique sound for the dancers to follow. The ‘flaviol’ is the most prominent part of the band. It’s a small, typically Catalan flute, whilst the tambourine is used to set the pace and rhythm of the dance.
The History of the Sardana
Though the exact timeline of the Sardana is hotly debated, it’s thought to have emerged in the 19th century during the Renaixenca (Renaissance) movement. Catalans were becoming more and more confident in their own language and culture and were dead-set on reviving old traditions. The Sardana emerged as a symbol to showcase the regional pride locals felt towards their unique identity.
However, when the Franco dictatorship took over Spain in 1939, he found the Catalans and their distinct culture and language to be a threat to his idea of a single, homogeneous, monolithic Spain. The dictatorship enacted harsh laws that restricted Catalans from using their language in public spaces and from carrying out their traditions – including the Sardana.
When Franco fell from power, the Catalans easily picked up where they left off, bringing their local culture and the Sardana to the forefront of festivals and other celebrations.
Where to see the Sardana
The Sardana is danced outside the Cathedral every Sunday at midday. You can also watch it on Saturdays at 6.30pm in the same spot, or in the Placa de Sant Jaume on a Sunday evening.