Overview of Basque Dances

by Emilio Javier Duenas

Every culture has its own defendable character and traits, as well as universally established social connotations. Traditions are preserved in spite of significant social change, and the younger generations are often involved in keeping traditions alive. Sacrifice and effort accompany everyone who, in one way or another, try to revitalize customs in each generation. Traditional, popular, ritual, playful or religious folk dances surround us at every local festivity or private gathering. It is the manifestation of body movement and rhythm, generally represented to the beat of a specific melody.

Confining ourselves to the different types of dance preserved in the Basque Country we will focus on three characteristic forms: the romerías, or open-air dances, sword dances and end of festival dances.

ErromeriaTHE ROMERIAS OR OPEN-AIR DANCES. The proliferation of dance in public plazas and open air saint day celebrations has declined significantly over time and has transformed into an activity reserved for specific social parts of festivals and is often carried out by people associated with established dance groups.


Ezpata DantzaSWORD DANCES. On the other hand, the sword dances, some of which were already mentioned above in the section on Dantzari Dantza, are diversified and their relation with European dances of the same type is obvious. The Ezpata Dantza from Gipuzkoa, as well as the version of the same dance from the town of Zumarraga, or Legazpi or Xemein all give witness to the use of swords. The Makil gurutze from Lesaka, the San Roke Dantza from Deba and the Bordon Dantza from Tolosa are a combination of the ceremonial and festive use of ritual dance, without forgetting the participation, respect and support by the rest of the town of each dance group.

END OF FESTIVAL DANCES. The third group of dances comprises the dances that wrap up feast days and Carnival festivities. These days have been handed down to us in certain areas of the Basque Country. The Jorrai Dantzak (weeding hoe dances) and Zaragi Dantzak (wineskin dances) in Arano, Markina, Goizueta, Mutriku, Deba and Oikia serve as a symbolic ending to the wild festivities with their beating and thrashing and burning of the swollen yet empty wineskin. It is the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.

CONCLUSIONS. With this overview, we wish to show that no dances are more important than others. Some are better known than others. Some are more complex, while others are simpler. Some are ritual and others entertaining. Some religious others pagan. Some sacred and other profane. Some are open group dances and others closed. Generally the space in which they are carried out is open, although a few were originally danced in closed quarters. The vast majority are danced only by men, some only by women and others by both sexes.
The basic characteristics of Basque dance can be seen between choreography, historical and festive elements, and the universal traits of tradition, entertainment, tourism and especially religious-festive events.

We can distinguish different forms of representation, but undoubtedly they all belong to the human and social manifestations inherent in each community, as well as idiosyncrasies and popular sentiment and the personalisation of local and family rituals.


The systematization of the Basque folk dance corpus is a complex task, focusing on festivals, physical context and choreography. We can find complete dance cycles from specific areas together with certain dances common throughout an entire province or only in certain towns.

Dantzari DantzaDANTZARI DANTZA FROM DURANGALDEA (BIZKAIA). Without question, the best known cycle of dances, both within and beyond the borders of the Basque Country-for a variety of reasons-is the Dantzari Dantza or Jantzari Jantza. It is danced annually and with great ritual by a number of dance groups throughout all of the Basque provinces and at different parish churches in the Duranguesado area, where it is originally from.
On the eve of the local feast day, it is the custom to set up the traditional San Juan or Donianeatxa oak tree (nowadays usually a poplar). The trunk is peeled and the branches limbed, and flowers and a sometime a flag or two are placed at the top. All of the festive activities take place around this symbol, which is set up in the middle of the town square.
The nine dances that make up the cycle have remained unchanged since at least the 19th century; the choreography consists of two parallel rows of dancers standing face to face. The dancers, in a show of virility, very skilfully manoeuvre fighting weapons as part of the dance.
The names of some of the dances correspond to the number of dantzaris (performers) who display their skill at the central moment of the exhibition: Banangoa, Binangoa, Launangoa (one, two, four); others take on the names of the tools, or weapons that are used bang against one another: Ezpata Joku txikia or nagusia (sets of small or large swords), Makil Jokua or Makil Dantza (sticks); the rest, Agintariena, Zortzinangoa and, finally, Txontxongiloa, where one dancer is lifted in a horizontal position while the others file underneath the body. According to different legends this act represents the execution of a bandit or the exaltation of a leader.
Another cycle of similar dances can be seen in the Brokel Dantza from Gipuzkoa, which also comprises nine dances and small and large sticks banged against each other. In the Zinta Dantza shields are also used. We also find similar characteristics in the cycles of dances from the towns of Berastegi and Lizartza, danced for the feast day of San Juan and during Carnival.

Sorgin Dantza 2012SORGIN DANTZA FROM ORIA (GIPUZKOA). The comical or burlesque dances reach their peak in the Sorgin Dantza, or dance of the witches. These dances, a combination of wild and sometimes a bit obscene body movements, have managed to remain alive over time in certain towns. The best known of these dances can be seen in the town of Lasarte-Oria. As the story goes, this dance simulates a group of workers who moved here from the town of Bergara. Today this dance is also danced in the town of Antzuola during Carnival, although here, along with the dantzaris and musicians, there are also people dressed up as bears and monkeys. And the neighbouring town of Aretxabaleta has an identical version known as Txino Dantza. The dancers wear a simple linen nightgown and sing a song in allusion to green grapes. It appears that dances of this type were more common in the past. In Otxandio the elders vaguely recall an itinerant Sorgin Iantza which was very theatrical and involved a lot of shouting.

FOLKLORE FROM THE BAZTAN VALLEY (NAFARROA). Very few places have such a rich Baztancultural tradition as can be found in this unique verdant valley with its clean air and cool water.
Cencerradas, or children's cowbell dances in early January; Sagar Dantza (apple dance) at Carnival time, complete with bear; in May, songs for collecting money; and on the patron saint feast day, the Mutil Dantzak (boy's dances), a deeply rooted local tradition.
In the town square, the participants tip their txapelas (Basque beret) and shout "aunitz urtez!" (for many years). They form a circle and rhythmically move in a counter clockwise direction. The dance steps carry names that have very little to do with their movements: Xerri-begi (swine's eye), Xoxuaine (thrush), Xoriaine (bird) or Ardoaine (wine), Zazpi Jautzi (seven jumps), Hiru puntukoa (three points)...

All along the Basque Pyrenees there are countless similarities. The northern regions are not only like in terms of topography but also language and, of course, choreography. Jautziak (jumping dances) are circle dances common to a number of towns, and having names that refer to the towns or areas themselves: Azkaindarrak, Milafrangarrak, Lapurtarrak…. And here we Jauzishould not overlook one of the most important centres where these and other dances have been kept alive-the border town of Luzaide. Here the ancestral Carnival celebration, changed from Easter Sunday over 50 years ago, is highlighted in the performance of the Bolantak dances, with long ribbons dangling from the backs of the dancers' shirts. The entire town and surrounding villages take part in this celebration, with colourful costumes, festive environment and throngs of people.

Back to the Baztan Valley, we find another dance cycle. The Irri Dantzak or Iostaketa Dantzak, or dance-games. Originally these dances were enjoyed when taking a break from working in the fields, or as a way of entertainment during long winter days. Their names are connected with how they are danced/played: Katadera Dantza (chair dance(s)), Esku Dantza (hand dance(s)), Saskito Dantza ("almud"-a grain measurement-dance), Zurrume Dantza (heel dance) or Zartain Dantza (Frying pan dance), among others.

MASKARADAK FROM ZUBEROA. Carnival representation and farce is seen at its best at the winter masquerades in the Zuberoa area. Itinerant dances are mixed with games, gags, curious dress, tattered clothing, money collection, popular participation, exhibition, mock trades and marginal races, varied satirical languages and music.
Every year the townspeople, sometimes bolstered by out-of-towners, put together and rehearse a complete repertory to be put on each Sunday for approximately four months, in a different town in the valley.

MaskaradakThe entourage is divided into two practically antagonistic groups. The "reds", or Gorriak, are elegantly dressed, orderly and move with great grace. The "blacks", or Beltzak, are disorderly and rude, dress in rags, get in the way of passers-by, shout and formerly would speak in the Bearn dialect or Occitan.

In the morning these groups walk around the town, wined and dined by their hosts. All the while the Barrikadak are taking place, a blend of money collection and peaceful dance confrontation, after which the participants are given, sweet and salty snacks, refreshments and liquors.
Dances are taken in turns, featuring the most important characters Txerrero, Gathuzain, Zamaltzain, Kantiniertsa and Banderari, gravitating between muriskas and antrixat before the expectant eyes of Jauna and Anderea (lord and lady). Meanwhile, the Beltzak, Caldereros and Gypsies flounce upon one another, joke playfully and harass, both verbally and physically, the rest of the entourage and the public, bringing about fun and laughter.

FOLKLORE OF THE SOUTH. With a contrast in geography and climate, the Mediterranean offers us an additional varied element in its festive celebrations. First off, the Rioja Alavesa, is closely tied to other nearby towns. In its patron saint feast days, between spring and summer, at the height of the holiday season, is when the processions and rituals come together.

In Iekora, on the feast day of Santo Domingo, a dance known as the Dance of the Virgen de la Bercijana or the Virgen de la Cadena, is performed in front of the image and of the Virgin and along the route between churches. In Biazteri, on the feast day of San Juan, the local flag is waved, accompanied by the Danza de los Ramos. In Eltziego, during the Virgen de la Plaza festivities in September, El Árbol, Cuatrocalles and the Jota. And in Oion, in the middle of winter, the Danza de los Patronos and the unique Revolcón del Cachi. This tradition consists in waving the municipal flag, below which the so-called Cachi, dressed in a Harlequin-like costume, rolls about on the ground.

KatxiIn most of the dances from this area this character appears dressed in jester-like clothing, and has names such as Cachimorro, Cachirulo and Cachibobo and/or the Bastonero. This character is in charge of leading the parade or of entertaining the crowds, depending on the town.

The Erribera region in Navarra is influenced by other nearby towns. In places such as Kortes, Fustiñana, Ablitas, Monteagudo, Murtxante, Ribaforada or Buñuel, the Dance or Paloteado, is a combination of theatre in verse and dance, with historical relevance and certain reminders of medieval its origins: El Rabadán, el Mayoral... and dances with bows, ribbons and sticks.

SOKA DANTZAK. This section includes a large group of dances all having one thing in Larrain Dantzacommon. The Soka Dantzak or rope dances can be found throughout the Basque Country. They have a number of different names, including Aurreskua, Erregelak, Ingurutxoa, Zortzikoa, Soka Dantza, Baile de la Era or Larrain Dantza, Ttun ttun, Dantza or Iantza Luze, Branlea, Trapatan, Pamperruque, etc.

Photo: The dancers of Lizarra/Estella (Navarre) dancing in the procession on the most important day of the festivities in honour of the local patron saint.

These are social dances par excellence. Both sexes take an active role, breaking with the traditional male hegemony. There is no set criteria for dress as is often the case in other types of dances. These dances are made up of different parts, some of which are performed on their own. Such is the case of dances a lo suelto (individual) or a lo agarrao (dances where the couple holds each other close together) dances: Jotas, Arin-arin or Porrusaldak/and the so-called Kalejirak dances.

Structure varies from one dance to another, both in order and number, but they all have a common denominator: the categorization and sense of human relationship. The challenge between the first and the last hand, that is the first and last one on the rope. the individual display of each participant, the invitation to the opposite sex to be "honoured" or revered, both individually and collectively, and finally everyone dancing the Jota, Arin-arin and Biribilketa as they leave the town square. In other varieties, the women have an active role from the outset, or even lead the dance.

There was a time when Soka Dantzak permeated every corner of the country. Today they have been replaced by the so-called "Aurresku of honour", which are the much the same as far as melody is concerned, but totally different since they are now an individual dances lacking any of the original character.


Traditional dance is a special artistic and cultural activity involving one or more people who, dressed in special clothing, move their bodies in way other than they do when going about their normal daily activities. It has been observed that in the so-called traditional societies there is a strong inclination towards dance at moments considered fundamental in the course of peoples' social life, their economic activities and their spiritual and religious conventions. Hence, traditional dance is understood as an activity closely linked to the expression of extraordinary social and cultural sentiment. Not surprisingly, dances occur during situations in which people feel the need to celebrate a crucial event within the community, an event commemorating an economic, religious, historical, political, legendary or personal event. However, generally the event entails the celebration of a circumstance which combines a variety of the characteristics listed above. Therefore, traditional dance is a social event that is organised in order to observe and honour important situations in peoples' lives.

Classification Approach. Researchers do not agree on what the most important criteria is when it comes to classifying Basque dances. For example, Juan Antonio Urbeltz followed morphological and choreographic criteria in drawing up a classification system for Basque dances (1). Basque folklorist José Antonio Quijera, on the other hand, based his system on formal choreographic criteria (2). The classification system proposed by Juan Antonio Urbeltz singles out seven categories: individual men's dances; individual women's dances; men only group dances; women only group dances; men's and women's group dances; Carnival and masquerade dances; dances based on trades; dance-games and games. Juan Antonio Urbeltz also points out the existence of other divisions within each of these categories and lists the dances falling into each of these subdivisions. José Antonio Quijera suggests a classification system based on dances using tools and dances without tools, each of which is further divided into more precise categories with their corresponding dances.

Julio Caro Baroja stands out among the researchers preferring a seasonal basis for festivities. This can be clearly seen in his books entitled El carnaval: análisis histórico-cultural (3) and El estío festivo: fiestas populares del verano (4). The official journal of the organization Euskal Dantzarien Biltzarra, Dantzariak, published a calendar of festivals in Euskal Herria in its first issues. The calendar listed the festivals held in different towns, together with their corresponding dances and other peculiarities, beginning with the 1st of January and following the calendar day-by-day ending on the 31st of December. However, in her book Fiestas populares: España día a día (5), María Ángeles Sánchez maintains that festival cycles do not follow the calendar year, and therefore feels that her list, which begins on the 13th of December with the feast day of Santa Lucía, is more appropriate. María Ángeles Sánchez's reasoning is that the winter festival cycle gets underway with the Christmas festivities, which in her opinion begin with the festivities honouring Santa Lucía. Much the same as in María Ángeles Sánchez's calendar, the winter festival calendar drawn up in Navarra by historian José María Jimeno Jurio also reflects the conflict between the commencement of the popular festival season and the civilian calendar, although José María Jimeno Jurio establishes the 24th of December as the initiation of the festival season (6).

Basing traditional festivities and dances on chronological criteria brings up several questions. First of all, in a specific culture, which feast day determines the beginning of the festive cycle? Which festivity brings the cycle to a close? And what characteristics allow us to group several celebrations in the same cycle? The calendar of festivals provided here has two overlapping time-based criteria: the cycle revolving around local economies and the seasonal cycle of people's lives.

Choice of the chronological mode. In this respect we see that a good number of festivals and dances are celebrations that have to do with economic activities and which depend on natural biological cycles. We also see that dances and celebrations of this type appear to be associated with religious festivities, either Christian or pagan, or a combination of both. When it comes to cataloguing celebrations of this type, folklorists have set apart four major festive cycles: winter festivals, spring festivals, summer festivals and autumn festivals. Generally in winter festivals, the younger people of the town tend to play a more prominent role, as is the case with rural Basque Carnival events and other festivities on different dates. A number of them involve door-to-door carolling in exchange for some sort of gratuity, while some dramatise matters closely tied to the death and rebirth of humans, animals or plants. This is why these festivals have been interpreted as regeneration feast-days. Spring festivals, on the other hand, are seen as focusing on prevention, either of agricultural plagues, illnesses or family and individual misfortunes. Many Basque open-air dances are associated with festivals of this type. Summer feast-days are usually more lively and tend to celebrate consummation, or coming close to successfully carrying out some sort of economic activity which is vital to group survival. This can be seen in the patron saint feast days celebrated in quite a lot of Basque towns. Finally, the autumn festivals connect the world of the living to the world of the dead. These festivals are set aside for honouring the dead and praying for their souls. Much the same as the winter festivals, these celebrations are a reminder that the threshold between life and death is minute. However, the winter festivals place more emphasis on the regenerative aspect of matter than do the autumn festivals, where souls and the spirit world play a central role in the celebration.

(1) Juan Antonio Urbeltz, Reflexiones sobre el folclore coreográfico vasco, Cuaderno de Sección de Folclore nº1, Sociedad de Estudios Vascos, San Sebastián, 1983. También se puede consultar el nº10 de la revista Dantzariak, páginas 4-8, Euskal Dantzarien Biltzarra, Bilbao, 1979.
(2) José Antonio Quijera, Sistematika euskal folklore koreografikoan, Jentilbaratza nº7 Sociedad de Estudios Vascos, San Sebastián, 2000.
(3) Editorial Taurus, Madrid, 1965.
(4) Editorial Taurus, Madrid, 1984.
(5) María Ángeles Sánchez, Fiestas populares: España día a día, Maeva Ediciones, Madrid, 1998.
(6) José María Jimeno Jurio, Calendario festivo de invierno, Panorama nº 10, Gobierno de Navarra, Pamplona, 1988.




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