A People's Story in Dance:
NABO Basque Lecture Series with Juan Antonio Urbeltz

Juan Antonio Urbeltz (photo above) has played a leading role in the world of Basque dance and culture for a generation, and his mark is clearly visible today, specifically in bringing about a profound change in how Basque dance groups think about dance and how they now present it.  His experience and teachings provide us a unique opportunity to look into the world of folk dance to learn something more about the Basque people. He has played a pivotal--if not the central role--in a virtual revolution in the world of Basque dance:  how it is prepared, portrayed, presented and understood. 

NABO initiated its first sponsored lecture tour (with support from the Basque Government) featuring Juan Antonio Urbeltz back in the Fall of 2007.  He was accompanied by his wife Marian and his son Mikel as musicians.

Mr. Urbeltz's presentation will highlight defining moments of his career from his early days of dancing with the group "Goizaldi" of Donostia, his transformation of the group "Argia" to his ongoing work today in the perpetuation and creation of Basque folk dance.   He will also be elaborating on his theory as to the origins of Basque dance--you'll find that article below.

J.A. Urbeltz has played a leading role in the world of Basque dance and culture for a generation, and his mark is clearly visible today, specifically in bringing about a profound change in how Basque dance groups think about dance and how they now present it.  His experience and teachings provide us a unique opportunity to look into the world of folk dance to learn something more about the Basque people.  We hope to see you at these lectures!

Basque Carnival, Sword Dances, and Their Metaphors

By Juan Antonio Urbeltz
 Translation by Regina Davies

EDITOR'S NOTE.  Article reproduced here in case it is moved from this original source:

In the Basque Country, folk traditions are very similar to those in the rest of Europe. However, the Basque language is not Indo-European, and unrelated to any other known language. The Basques are thought to be descended from among the oldest inhabitants of Europe, which is of great importance to the study of this folklore. In the Basque area, some specific terms are used during the Carnival period, which give Carnival activities a meaning which pre-dates the Lenten explanation. There are two especially important words, Inauteri [1] and Aratuste, both meaning "the time of pruning," referring to the tasks carried out in the month of February before the arrival of spring and damaging insects. These activities, which possibly date from the Neolithic period, clean the trees and fields of insect larvae. Let us see the relation between this pruning and Carnival

During the Carnival the most important traditional element to be found is in the clothes that people wear. In the Basque Country, as in other parts of Europe, there are numerous people in fancy dress processions, as we shall see. But the most striking thing is that in Basque the words for "disguise," zomorromozorrokokoorromumua, etc., also mean "insect." [2] That is why the Basque language paints a very different picture of the Carnival. If the same word is used for "disguise" and "insect" it means that all the fancy dress costumes turn people into insects; they "insect-isized" people.  In the month of February, Carnival time, there are not yet any insects. They are still in a larval state. This is why everyone "becomes an insect" by means of a costume. The disguises replace the spring insects which must be warded off.

The exorcising of the insects is seen when disguised callers go from house to house and are given offerings of money, wine or bacon. This means that the insects have received their payment, and will not be able to come begging a second time. Some Carnival characters such as the Ioaldunas from the villages of Ituren and Zubieta in Navarra are used to protect against these insects. Their weapons are a horsetail used as an aspergillum (holy water sprinkler) and great cowbells of 30 liter capacity.

It is well known that the horse uses its tail to drive off flies and horseflies, but perhaps it is less well known that the cowbell has the same function. The Greek cowbells [3] made of cast bronze engraved with horseflies, in our opinion offer a clear indication of the function of the cowbells, which is to scare off the flies so as to protect the face of the cow or horse grazing in the field. For this reason the costumes are a clear expression of a power intended to exorcise the insects.

There are two insects that, in our opinion, have this great primitive power: the mosquito and the locust. In the Basque Country we also have the horsefly. Because of their diabolical nature, these insects are hidden in several metaphors. The fox is a metaphor for the mosquito; the hobby horse for the locust; the sword for the horsefly. 

First I'll speak about the hobby horse. This animal figure is made from cardboard and cloth and appears in many places in Europe. Here we will analyze, briefly, its presence and meaning in the Carnival celebrations of the village of Lantz. We mentioned that the hobby horse is a metaphor for the locust. We support this idea with evidence from the Old Testament, in the book of Joel, in the book of Nahum, and in the Apocalypse of Saint John, where it appears as a terrifying animal referred to as "a horse." Also the common name for the locust, in many European languages is "horse," or perhaps "mare." The skirts of many hobby horses do not necessarily indicate clearly their female gender, and, so we ask, are they mares? In Spanish as well as in Italian and Sicilian it is caballeta (the feminine of horse, but that is not to say "mare" which is yegua). In Italian it is also saltacavaglia; in Rumanian it is calus; in Russian and Czech, kobylka; in French sauto-pou chinchin or pouchinchin; in Basque, larraputinga, etc. [4]

In the village of Lantz we have three main characters: Miel Otxin, the giant; a straw filled man called Ziripot, and a hobby horse called Zaldiko. There is also a fancy dress procession of Perratzailles, "blacksmiths," and the costumed young people of the village known as the Txatxos[5]

The giant Miel Otxin, like all the giants of the Middle Ages, represents hunger. [6] Giants, included in the Ogre group, are voracious and have an insatiable appetite. Their stomachs reach from the roots of their hair to their toenails. In Lantz they say that the giant is a bandit who robbed travelers on the roads around the village, until one day he was captured, tried and killed. Local people say that Carnival is celebrated in memory of this drama.

Ziripot with his clumsy movements can hardly walk. During the Carnival he is constantly charged by the hobby horse or Zaldiko [7]. Zaldiko is made of a wooden frame which a young man wears attached to his waist. This young person's face is blackened. The hobby horse races wildly among masqueraders and spectators, chases the girls and attacks Ziripot. A parody of the shoeing of the horse is also acted out. 

In Lantz, in this rural drama, the bandit Miel Otxin tries to flee but is caught and returned to the town. On Carnival Tuesday, they act a parody of a trial when he is condemned to death. They "kill" him with two shots of a gun. His straw body is burnt on a bonfire while the Txatxos perform a traditional dance.

This is a summary of the farce of Lantz. Let us see how we can show the meaning of this drama. Starting from the connection between the hobby horse and an insect such as the locust, fat Ziripot is also participating, in one way, as an "insect." In our opinion the principal characteristic of this costume, an incredibly fat body which has difficulty in walking, represents the insect in its larval state. From this we conclude that the hobby horse, which represents the fully developed insect, attacks Ziripot attempting to put an end to the larval stage which he represents. The plague of locusts represented by the hobby horse has its consequence: hunger. Miel Otxin, the giant, is the symbol of ravenous hunger. This is why he is not allowed to escape, nor roam on the loose. He is kept contained because of the danger he represents. The parody of the trial and punishment, the gun shots and the noisy dance by the Txatxos end this Carnival act in Navarra.

As a complement to this Carnival drama, some Basque sword dances also correspond to insect metaphors. Basque sword dances are called in Basque, Ezpata-dantza, and the dancers, ezpata-dantzaris. In the Basque Country there are two forms of sword dance. In one, which is seen in Zumarraga, Legazpi and Markina and in the Corpus Christi processions in Gipuzkoa, two, three, or four dancers armed with a dagger in each hand covered with a handkerchief are followed by a largish group carrying linked long swords. Another type of dance is seen in the villages of the Merindad de Durango in Bizkaia.  The villages of Berriz, Garai, Iurreta, Manaria, Abadino, and Izurtza have this type of dance which is performed by eight young men, face to face, using swords and staves in a mock battle. The movements are very spectacular, with the dancers leaping high.

The dancers wear white shirts and trousers and white espadrilles with red ribbons, a red band, gerriko, at the waist, and red berets on their heads. It is also traditional to wear a velvet waistcoat with an immortelle flower embroidered on the lapel.

Today the dances are performed in front of the local authorities. Formerly the young dancers performed on the eve of the Patron Saint's Day before the elders of the village, who had to give their approval of the performance. The dances begin with the dancers filing out accompanied by the local flag. Then there is an exhibition of dances by, one, two, and four dancers. One dance is called "short swords" or Ezpata-txikiak in Basque. Another is known as the "great game of swords" or Ezpata joko nagusia, and there is also a dance with long staves, Makil-dantza, and another where one of the dancers is raised horizontally above the ground, as though he were dead, in a dance called Txotxongillo. In addition, and perhaps related to the previous dance, there is also a ribbon dance, Zintza-dantza.

Now let us speak about some symbolic aspects of these dances. Firstly, the name 'sword', ezpata in Basque, is the generic name of these type of dances and ezpata-dantzari the dancer. The word ezpata has two meanings in Basque; one is "sword," while the other is "horsefly" (Stomoxys calcitrans or Hippobosca equina [8]). In our research, we have tried to solve this question leaving to one side the obvious meaning of the sword and analyzing how far we can take the metaphor of the horsefly.

The question we are raising is that, if we omit the evidence offered by the sword, the term of "sword-dancer" takes us to the metaphor: dancer = horsefly. From this point of view these groups of dances would be ceremonial dances performed to ward off the dangers that the insects bring in the spring under the leadership of the horsefly.

The series of dances commences with a violent waving of the flag, like a variant of the movements of the handkerchiefs in English Morris dances; or the presence of horsetails in the Carnival. It is a powerful instrument for shooing away insects such as the horsefly, for example. Then come the dances in which the young men show their physical strength, by high kicks and leaps. But there are two dances in which we can capture the symbolism of the horsefly. One of them is the Ezpata joko nagusia, "the great game of swords," where the dancers take a sword with both hands using it as though it were a sharp point. These are exercises of attack and defense. In the attack the dancer projects the sword as though it were the proboscis of an insect. This could not be done with real swords because the edge of the sword would cut the fingers of the left hand. After the waving of the flag, the choreographic movements of the Zortzinango dance imitate the flight of a fly. The repetitive tune of the dance reminds us of the buzzing of the fly. 

To finish, we would point to the possible existence of similar cases within European ceremonial dances. In the first place we have the Romanian calusari [9]. These ceremonial dancers have a double connection with insects. First with the locust through the word calus, since calus or "little horse" is one of the popular names for insect. Secondly with the mosquito, through the Iele or fairies, a dangerous transmitter of malaria. As for the Morris dances and their metaphors, we make no mention here since we have an extensive essay on this question. [10]


[1]. Azkue, Resurrecci󮠍ar�de: Diccionario Vasco-Espa񯬭Franc鳬 Bilbao, La Gran Enciclopedia Vasca, 1905/R 1969. Michelena, Luis: Diccionario General Vasco/Orotariko Euskal Hiztegia, Bilbao, Euskaltzaindia, 1989. 
[2]. Azkue, Resurreccionar�de, op. cit. Michelena, Luis, op. cit
[3]. Anonayakis, Fivos: Greek Popular Musical Instruments, Atenas, Edit. Melissa, 1991, Plat. 22; 151, 1; 15. 152, 4. 
[4]. Schuchardt, Hugo: << 'Graub.-lad. 'salip', m䲫, 'slippo' "Heuschrecke">>, Zeistchrift f?anische philologie, Halle, vol. XXXI (1907), pp. 1-35. ? 
[5]. Le Goff, Jacques: La civilizaci󮠤el Occidente Medieval (trad. esp. Godofredo Gonzᬥz), Barcelona, Edit. Paid󳬠1999. ?
[6]. Alford, Violet The Hobby Horse an other Animal Masks, Merlin Press, London, 1978. Urbeltz, Juan A.: Danzas Morris. Origen y met᦯ra (in printing). 
[7]. Alford, Violet: Pyrenean Festivals, London, Chatto & Windus, 1.937. Urbeltz, Juan A.: Danzas Morris. Origen y met᦯ra (in printing)
[8]. Azkue, Resurreccion, op. cit. Michelena, Luis, op. cit 
[9]. Kligman, Gail: Calus, Symbolic Transformation in Romanian Ritual, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1981. Sobre los calusari, Carlo Ginzburg, op. cit, pp. 148-153. 
[10]. Urbeltz, Juan Antonio: Las danzas de espadas y sus simbolos. Cingas, insectos y "moros", Iruna/Pamplona, Edit. Pamiela, 2000.  Danzas Morris. Origen y met᦯ra (in printing). 


Alford, Violet. "Santa Orosia: a Thaumaturgic Saint", Antiquity, (1934), 281-289.

..."Some Hobby-Horses of Great Britain", JEFDSS, (1939), 221-240.
...Introduction to English Folklore, G.Bells & Sons, London, 1952.
...Sword Dance and Drama, Merlin Press, London, 1962.
...The Hobby Horse and other Animal Masks, Merlin Press, London, 1978.

Anonayakis, Fivos. Greek Popular Musical Instruments, Atenas, Edit. Melissa, 1991. 

Azkue, Resurrecci󮠍ar�de: Diccionario Vasco-Espa񯬭Franc鳼/u>, Bilbao, La Gran Enciclopedia Vasca, 1905/R 1969.

Forrest, John. Morris and Matachins. A Study in Comparative Choreography. Sheffield, Cectal Publications, number 4, 1984. 

...The History of Morris Dancing, 1458-1750. Cambridge, James Clarcke, 1999. 

Gallop, R.: "The Origins of the Morris Dance", JEFDSS, London 1934,I (3),122-129.

Le Goff, Jacques: La civilizaci󮠤el Occidente Medieval (trad. esp. Godofredo Gonzᬥz), Barcelona, Edit. Paid󳬠1999.

Michelena, Luis: Diccionario General Vasco/Orotariko Euskal Hiztegia, Bilbao, Euskaltzaindia, 1989.

Urbeltz, Juan Antonio: Bailar el Caos. La danza de la osa y el soldado cojo, Edit. Pamiela, Pamplona, 1994.

...Las danzas de espadas y sus s�olos. Ci鮡gas, insectos y "moros", Iru񡭐amplona, Edit. Pamiela, 2000.  

...Danza vasca. Aproximaci󮠡 los s�olos, Lasarte-Oria, Edit. Etor-Ostoa, 2001.
...Euskal Herria eta Festa (con fotograf� de Santiago Ya񩺩, Donostia, Elkar, 2004.
...Danzas Morris. Origen y met᦯ra (en impresi󮩼/font>




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