When I moved to Barcelona I learned to dance the sardana, the Catalan national dance. I found a place that holds a dance every Friday evening, with lessons for those who want them. Manuel didn’t want to go, so I started going alone and after a while I got to where I could do the sardana passably, at least to where I was usually headed in the right direction on the appropriate foot at the right time. It eventually turned out that learning the sardana became much more than just learning the steps of a dance, but more about that another day.
The sardana is danced in a circle and entering a circle has its protocols. The man to the left of a woman is assumed to be her partner (although partners are not required), so one never enters between the pair. You also don’t enter between a man and the woman on his left (I don’t know why) unless you are a couple or you have no other option. It is always OK to enter between two women. The unlimited number of women in a circle allows any woman to dance whether or not she has a partner. So, once I learned how, if I wanted to dance, I just went to a place where they were having sardanes and joined in a circle.
Next, the common etiquette is to join into a circle of people who dance at the same level of knowledge and physical ability as you. That makes it difficult for the complete beginner who doesn’t know beans about how to do the dance. But there are those kind souls who will take a newcomer aside and show them the steps, although it takes more than a few minutes to really learn the dance (simple as it may look) and if you dance badly, you spoil it for the rest of the dancers in your circle.
At first I had tried to pick up the steps by following behind someone in a circle or joining into a group of gent gran (elderly!). But even with the gent gran I was a little bit lost. For one thing, inexplicably, they would all suddenly stop the step they were doing and then start in again either with the same step or with a different one, sometimes on the left foot, and other times on the right. Figuring it out seemed like a great puzzle to which I didn’t have a clue, except that the stops coincided with stops, or breaks, in the music. But every time I went, I heard different melodies. Clearly everyone knew when to stop, when to change steps, which foot to start out on again and exactly when to finish. Had all the hundreds of dancers committed every piece of music to memory?
On the other hand, dancing with the gent gran could get a little boring. Quite frankly, some of them schlepped. Those groups of younger people who danced better seemed a lot more interesting -- instead of shuffling they bounced, sometimes they jumped, their foot movements were more precise and pretty to look at, and even though it was the same dance, there seemed to be more variety to what they did, certainly more elegance. It was clear that I wasn’t even close to their level of dancing, but I had my aspirations, so I decided I would take lessons which eventually led me to the Friday evening dances.
There are only two basic steps to the sardana: els curts (the shorts) and els llargs (the longs). You join them together with a combination of two- three- or four-step cambis (changes). The dance goes like this. On the numbered count you lift your knee and point your toes down and then tap the ground with the tip of your shoe. The following step will be with the same foot. Say you’re starting with your left foot, which is how the dance always begins, the curts go ONE, step, step, step, TWO, step, step, step, and you’ve moved a little to the right, then you’ve moved back a little to the left. Danced well, you have placed your feet very close together and on the third step you cross one foot in front of the other. After more than three months of practice, I was still tripping over myself every now and then if I didn’t concentrate on what I’m doing. Were my feet too big? The Catalans never trip.
Llargs go ONE, step, TWO, step, THREE, step, step, step, also going back and forth and ending up pretty much where you started. If, in addition, you also bounce once on your planted foot, keeping time to the rhythm, every time you point or step, then you are dancing rather well. If you dance entirely on the balls of your feet, bouncing but never touching your heels to the ground, then you’re a good dancer.
Every circle has a leader who calls out the cambis. That person is counting every beat of the music. The person who counts only has to know in advance how many tirades (sets or layers) the sardana has. Unless otherwise announced, the cobles always play sardanes of ten tirades. The leader counts the first set of curts, and later the first set of llargs. They can tell the end of a set because of a break in the music. After that, the leader keeps right on counting because all tirades of curts will have the same number the first set had, and all the llargs will have the same as the first set of llargs, and the leader has to keep counting to know when to call out the changes and the stops. The count for a set of llargs can number up into the eighties. That’s a lot of counting.
I have attended a couple of sardana events where there was no one in the circle who could count. You can’t dance properly if no one can count -- part of the joy of the dance is ending up exactly with the music.
Sometimes a circle will also have a second leader. This is the stylist. The stylist calls out when to bounce, to bounce more, to jump, to jump higher, to stop the jump or the bounce, and so forth. Because a well-danced circle constantly bobs up and down at different levels of intensity that complement the music, and everyone who dances knows when to start, when to bounce, when to jump, and when to stop, each circle looks like a living organism.
There is a sameness about sardanes that would boggle the mind of many. People who need constant stimulation of new and fast-moving things would probably not like the dance. If you are the type of person who needs to go to a new restaurant every weekend, the sardana might not be the dance for you. There is only one set formula for the dance, no opportunity for improvisation to speak of, and even though each song is different, many of them have melody fragments so similar that if you know the repertory, you still might initially confuse one for another. They all have the same structure, and your feet always do the same two steps.
So why do Catalans love the dance so much? Well for one thing, it has a subtle beauty when done well and the whole circle moves like one unit. Also, when you look across a plaça where many circles are dancing, it looks like some sort of musical mass movement and all the people know that they are participating in something intrinsic to their culture. The music too, once you get used to the slightly whiny sound of the gralles (a unique, Catalan wind instrument), has its own unique sound and if that sound does not hurt your ears, you quickly start to have your own favorites, both for dancing and for listening. Yes, listening. They give sardana concerts where you sit in a hall and just listen. Some people – diehards -- attend these.
Going to sardanes is as much a social event as an opportunity to dance and most people come for both. And finally, people enjoy doing their national dance not only because they consider it beautiful or fun or good exercise, but because they weren’t allowed to for so many years. So it’s a little like the difference between going out to a new restaurant every weekend, as opposed to going to your grandmother’s house every week for Sunday dinner. The sardana is definitely Sunday dinner and learning to dance it became an invitation to join the family.
I have danced very seldom since leaving Barcelona, but on this last La Diada (the Catalan national day, 11 September) I went to a nearby village where I had heard there would be sardanes with a live band. It took a bit of poking around sausages, cheeses, and handmade soaps in a medieval-style fair, but I found it. I sat through the first one then joined into the second. I must have said something to this woman because after sitting out the third, she came up to me and asked if I wasn’t going to dance any more, that I danced very well. Her name was Maria and she was from Lleida, a city she said I must visit to see especially the cathedral. Wasn’t that nice? So, the people were friendly, the music was wonderful, and the whole experience reminded me of why I loved it here in Catalunya when I first came. It made me feel alive again.