Sword dances from Spain
There are a number of linked sword dances in the Iberian peninsula, including dances where swords have been replaced with wooden sticks but are otherwise structurally the same. The similarity with sword dances in German-speaking countries, and partial association of sword, or stick, dance locations with Visigothic settlements, suggests that these ancient Germanic tribes may have been the inventors of the linked sword dance – but this is essentially an educated guess and can never be conclusively proven. Other than in the Basque Country, where their dances are still widely performed, other Spanish sword dances no longer seem to be performed today.
The Basque dances usually have large groups of dancers linked by their swords, and perform fairly simple figures as a linked group. The dance also includes more spectacular acrobatic figures performed by members of the chain or by dancers standing outside the chain who perform mock battle figures with short swords. Traditional Basque costume is worn, including their trademark red txapelas (berets).
One of the Basque traditions is from the province of Guipuzkoa, with a dance using swords, bucklers and sticks; the sword dance part, the Ezpata Dantza, consists of a block of dancers in 2 or 4 files and multiple ranks, dancing separately but linked to each other by swords held hilt-and-point. At the front of each pair of lines there is a single lead dancer called the maisu-zarra who holds the points of the swords of the first dancers in each line. There are also solo dancers separate from the main group, who hold a short dagger called a ezpata-txikiak pointing directly in each hand. The dance, characterised by high kicking and athletic stepping, is accompanied by txistus (traditional Basque flutes) and drums.
The dance of the Viscaya province is better known, and more closely resembles other European linked sword dances. It also includes fencing sequences, called Ezpata Jokoa, and flag waving, usually by a dancer elevated on a lock in a figure used to conclude the dance called Txonkorinka.
Little is known about the origin of the Basque sword dances, or of the other sword dances that existed in various parts of the Iberian peninsula during the Middle Ages; some have suggested a Moorish origin, but this has never been proven and no similar dance exists in North Africa or the Middle East. The earliest record of Basque sword dancing is a prohibition of 1482, and the first mention of the Guipuzkoan dance was in 1660.
The Basque dances are still performed today, and Basque sword dance groups have been regular visitors to the international Sword Spectacular festivals held in Scarborough and Whitby from 1996 to 2004.
The Spanish region of Aragon is home to a number of hilt-and-point sword dances, including dances from Sena, Torres del Obispo, and Tolve – ancient mining villages – and the town of Huesca. These dances often contain Morisca elements – “Moorish” characters and plays recollecting the Moors and the Reconquest – and building of human towers similar to Catalan traditions.
The regions of Asturias, Cantabria and Castile have a number of linked dances using sticks rather than swords, but otherwise resembling sword dances in that they are held “hilt-and-point” and include figures such as locks, and elevation of leaders onto locks. The city of Burgos has such a dance using swords. This was the region from which the Reconquest was started to reclaim Spain from the Moors, and it is possible that the linked sword dance spread across Spain from here as victories were celebrated.
Some dances using a mixture of swords or staves and cords to link the dancers are performed in Galicia, the Celtic region in the far north-west of Spain. These are usually accompanied by tunes in 6/8 time, played on the gaita, the Galician bagpipe. These dances are traditionally performed by fishermen or sailors, in the fishing villages of the Galician Rías. A characteristic of these dances found only here and in Portugal is that sometimes they are performed by young girls standing on women's shoulders, a form intriguingly similar to accounts of the Perth Glovers' dance from Scotland.
Linked sword dances were sometimes performed as part of religious fiestas in the towns and cities of Andalusia, inlcuding Seville. Cervantes wrote that such a dance was performed at Camacho's wedding in Don Quixote.
“Shortly after this, several bands of dancers of various sorts began to enter the arcade at different points, and among them one of sword-dancers composed of some four-and-twenty lads of gallant and high-spirited mien, clad in the finest and whitest of linen, and with handkerchiefs embroidered in various colours with fine silk; and one of those on the mares asked an active youth who led them if any of the dancers had been wounded. ‘As yet, thank God, no one has been wounded,’ said he, ‘we are all safe and sound;’ and he at once began to execute complicated figures with the rest of his comrades, with so many turns and so great dexterity, that although Don Quixote was well used to see dances of the same kind, he thought he had never seen any so good as this.”
Records of the Andalusian dances are mainly in the form of paintings, but there is a description Andalusian sword dance from a village in Huelva province in 1886, which seems to be a very simple dance without elaborate figures.
Trevor Stone, Sword Dances from the Basque Regions of Northern Spain, Rattle Up My Boys 1994; 4(5):3-7