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Dantzari Dantza

The Dantzari Dantza is a sequence of dances peculiar to the Duranguesado or Durangoaldea de Bizkaia, a region with abundant mythology, ancestral beliefs and a traditional economy based on merino sheep-raising farms and agriculture, apart from this, it bordered on the former kingdom of Navarre during the Middle Ages, and has wealthy mansion houses and defensive towers characteristic of this medieval period.

Regarding the before mentioned choreographic sequence, the different authors do not agree about the dances that form it, nor about their origins and even less about the sequence that they should be in.

In any case, we have an introductory dance with the waving of the flag over the heads of the dancers (Agintariena); a series of dances nominally related to the dancers who take turns to show their skills (Zortziko, Banako, Biñako and Launako), a play of weapons (Ezpata Joko Txikia, Ezpata Joko Nagusia and Makil Jokoa), and, at times, a dance that seems to represent death and, in that case, the resurrection of one of the dancers (Txotxongillo). This brings us to the Soka Dantza, a mixed circular dance that is performed anti-clockwise, the Fandango or Orripeko, Arin Arin and, finally the Biribilketa (or Street Runner).

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Iñaki IRIGOYEN (in Bizkaiko Dantzak, published in the Revista Dantzariak, special edition number 1, 1978) offers us the following descriptions of the garments used when dancing the sequence of the Dantzari Dantza, in the case of Abadiño, he says: "On the eve of the feast day a tree had to be placed in the middle of the square, this function was entrusted to the dantzaris. They wore their plain clothes, which consisted of a beret, gerriko and hempen sandals tied with red ribbons, while doing this."

The beret, the corset (gerriko) and the footwear are red or have red ribbons, however, if the dantzari is in mourning, or his companion is, they are black. On the day of the big festivity the dantzaris will appear in the square in all their finery, red beret and gerriko, white shirt, trousers and socks, white hempen sandals with red ribbons and a waistcoat.

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The flag

The flag, as Juan Eduardo Cirlot points out in the Diccionario de Símbolos, and Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant in the Diccionario de los Símbolos, is a totemic insignia that you put on a mast (as) a symbolic protection of the group. It is, at the same time, the symbol of authority, assembly and the leader. It therefore implies a cry for protection that Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant summarize as: "The bearer of a flag or standard lifts it over his head. He is, in a way, crying out to the heavens, creating a bond between heaven and earth". The flag or standard brings us closer to the existing bond between the symbol, its bearer and those acting in its name. Maybe here we could find a way of interpreting the salute to the flag that is performed in the Dantzari Dantza.

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The Sword

The sword, with its hilt and cutting edge, has symbolised many different things at different times in European history, from the honour and virtue of the Medieval knight who shunned the pleasures of the flesh (Tristan and Ysolde) to the very concept of chivalry personified in the bitter struggle against evil, the dragon or the Beast. It has also been a symbol of Christianity, because of the cross shape formed by the quillons, and before that symbolised Mars, the god of war and agriculture. It can therefore be seen as a tool used to ward off the forces of evil or the enemy, whatever his nature.

As a metal instrument the sword stands in contrast to trees and vegetation, and forms part of a masculine environment where the latter are associated more with feminine aspects, along with - for instance - the spindle, as referred to by Marius SCHNEIDER and later Juan-Eduardo CIRLOT. Curiously, the ezpata-dantza or word dance of the Duranguesado area of Bizkaia is linked to the feast of St. John, marked by dancing around a tree, and to images of late 19th century spinners. It is a dance in which the women, whose steps are usually associated with movement and generation, remain still in sharp contrast to the mobility of the male dancers, whose steps are firmer in philosophical categories, as demonstrated in the Soka Dantza and the Aurresku danced in church porches in the Duranguesado and other regions.

Leaving aside such areas as their magical functions, etc. (for information on which readers are referred to the works of J.G. FRAZER) sword dances come in a wide variety of forms in different places. Some are danced by individual men, who show off their skills at weaponry, and some by women who symbolically add their weight to their husbands' war parties. Such dances are seldom found in Bizkaia, or indeed anywhere in the Basque Country.

Before going into forms and developments in sword dances in Bizkaia, two points should be looked at which have sparked off discussions throughout the 20th century, and indeed continue to do so.

First there is the supposed development in the figures and instruments used, which led Curt SACHS to put forward the hypothesis that clapping to mark time developed into the use of short sticks - evidence for this can be found in Bizkaia in clapping and hand games and the Zaragi Dantza danced at carnival time in Markina and Ondarroa, and in other regions of Gipuzkoa and Nafarroa, where movements similar to clapping above and below the legs are made with small sticks. From there the next development could be long sticks or clubs.

Subsequently, in the view of some authors, clubs gave way to swords or poles, and finally to bows. Similar structures of dances with clubs and swords (Makil Jokua, Ezpata Joko Txikia, the Gernikako Arbola Dantza in Garay and Ezpata Joko Nagusia), or with swords and bows (Xemeingo Ezpata Dantza and Lanestosako Uztai Dantza), can also be found in Bizkaia. There are, however, other dances which do not seem to be related to the above, and which pose more of a problem for researchers, such as the Zortziko in the Dantzari Dantza and the Txotxongilo from Iurreta and Berritz.

The second point concerns the original significance and function of these dances. Different authors have given different interpretations, ranging from those who see all sword dances as war dances to those who believe them to be fertility rituals, dances of initiation into communities of iron-workers, medicinal or shamanic rituals, or even initiation rites for young men. All these theories can be found in the articles to which we refer here.

The locations of these dances and the dates on which they were, and continue to be, performed may also provide interesting data for more detailed study, as may the structures which they have acquired around the province.

In Bizkaia, sword dances can currently be found in Xemein and some of the villages in the Duranguesado area. Historical records confirm that similar dances once existed in other areas bordering on the above, such as Lekeitio and its outlying Districts, and Las Encartaciones. These include mining areas, coastal areas and farming areas, some isolated from the rest of Bizkaia and some not, but each bordering on the others areas in some way in the complex layout of districts and areas within the region, and no single explanation of their significance can be given.

The dates when the dances were performed vary according to the dates of local festivities, so no firm conclusions can be drawn there either, and further research is needed.

Finally, some of sword dances in Bizkaia have features in common with those of other regions, while others have their own, unique characteristics.

There are dances in which the performers, in full battle gear, (though that does not necessarily mean they are war dances) present arms to the authorities or to a flag (Agintariena). The flag itself and other associated matters must be taken into account when considering their symbolism.

In others, the sword is carried by performers but not actually used. This does not seem to be the case outside the Duranguesado area (Zortzinango).

In yet others the sword is carried by some performers and raised at some points to form what researchers have called a "coffin" (Txotxongilo).

Finally, swords are sometimes also used to form archways beneath which authorities pass, which is seen by some as symbolising a request for protection, or to form a platform (known as a "rose") onto which one dancer then climbs (Xemeingo Ezpata Dantza). This is similar, though not identical, to other dances in Gipuzkoa and elsewhere in Spain and Europe.

However there are no dances here involving individual or group exhibitions of sword handling of the kind found in Eastern Europe.

Sticks and clubs

Being made of wood, sticks and clubs belong to the world of living beings in which the cycle of birth, growth, reproduction and death repeats itself on ever higher levels. The club and the stick thus represent cyclical time and perpetual renewal, so it is no surprise that Christ himself died on a cross of wood at what Mircea Eliade and other authors have called axis mundi, the centre of the world, a place which has its roots in the netherworld, its strength in the mortal world and its canopy raised to heaven. The club acts as a post or column which holds up the three levels of reality: the first subterranean and inhabited by unknown, perhaps malignant numens; the second at ground level, where the trunk bears witness to the passage of time; and the third heavenly, giving access to higher planes. The stick and the club, then, are routes into other realities. It is not by chance that the wood on which Christ was sacrificed can symbolise access to both hell, where he spent a short time, and heaven, where he sat at the right hand of his Father.

There is a striking contrast between the symbolism of sticks and clubs as wood, with connotations of new shoots springing up even from apparently dead stumps, and the cold, sharp steel of swords.

If the club represents fertility (albeit not clearly manifested), then the sword represents just the opposite, i.e. staticness. If the club is associated with female symbols, as ventured by DURAND in Estructuras Antropológicas de lo Imaginario (published in Spanish by Taurus), the sword represents rationality and purity of thought: it is a symbol of platonic, cerebral love dissociated from the needs of the flesh, as they would have said in former times.

These ideas may help us to reach an initial interpretation of the reasons for dances with sticks and clubs, and for dances with swords or daggers. Symbolically we can perhaps posit a juxtaposition between the two types of dance, but this does not suffice as an overall interpretation.

Leaving aside the general symbolism associated with sticks or clubs and with swords or daggers, perhaps it would be of interest to look in more detail at their use. Let us leave swords and daggers for another occasion and concentrate for the moment on sticks and clubs.

Short sticks and longer sticks or clubs have been used for many purposes over the centuries: as implements for digging, cleaning, sketching on the ground, making fire, defence, etc.
Folklore experts and early 20th century dance scholars make various points concerning the possible origins of these dances with implements.

Curt SACHS and some of his followers argue that the use of sticks in dances was a development from clapping dances, with the slap of hand against hand leading on to a similar movement of stick against stick and thus giving rise to dances with short sticks. This view may perhaps fit in with such dances as Zaragi Dantza ("dance of the wine-skins"), which is currently performed at Carnival time in Markina and Ondarroa. This point will be looked at in more detail later.

These authors argue that these short stick dances developed into dances with clubs, then swords and daggers and finally dances with bows, poles and other implements.

There is a group of dances in which short sticks are used in movements and figures similar to those of clapping dances. They sometimes feature movements which first speed up then slow down, leading them to be considered as rural dances representing farm work. Following this same hypothesis it is no surprise that small hoes or other implements should sometimes be used instead of sticks.

But small sticks were also used instead of daggers as weapons in the training of troops, often accompanied by small shields. The Trokel or Brokel Dantzak (as it was apparently known in the Duranguesado or Durangoaldea area of Bizkaia) seems to derive from this, though other interpretations are also possible.

Reputable scholars have also suggested that sticks and clubs represent something similar to magic wands in fairy stories, i.e. ways of bringing to light buried treasure. In an agricultural and pastoral society this is clearly associated with digging up tubers and plants hidden underground. This (in line with Violet ALFORD, Julio CARO and many other researchers) would make short stick dances agricultural dances or fertility dances.

Those who favour this interpretation and see sword dances as developing from dances with sticks or clubs have simply put forward the conjecture (Lucile ARMSTRONG) that since swords make more noise when they clash they can more easily awaken benign spirits and frighten off evil ones from crops (whether they be demons, witches or plagues of insects). Stick, and later sword, dances would therefore have the same purpose: to ensure the sustenance of the people.

But short sticks have also been used for other purposes: e.g. instead of sashes (gerriko) laid on the ground in the dancing game of txakolina, in which the dancer, after drinking a certain amount of alcohol, must skip alternately through the four segments formed by two crossed sashes (gerriko), as described by Resurrección María de AZKUE. In some dances in the Pyrenean areas of Nafarroa they are also used as supports to help dancers keep their balance.

Before looking at dances with clubs, it is worth mentioning the myth, recounted by Josemiel De BARANDIARAN in Mitología Vasca (published by Txertoa), of the man who, searching for the end of the world, came to a place where the sun was raised by beating against the rocky peaks with clubs.

Although this myth tells us that we cannot reach the end of the world, it also reflects the popularly held belief that the sum was lifted up above the earth, and that this was done by men beating clubs against the rocks. This idea that the beating of sticks or clubs (one against another or against other objects) is needed to raise the sun points us in the direction of interpreting club dances as sun-worship rituals which seek to ensure by magic that the sun will rise.

Like stick dances, club dances would therefore be fertility dances, though other purposes may also have been involved in some of them.

How should we interpret the Makil Joku? There is for the moment no direct or indirect evidence as to its origin, but we can at least put forward some possibilities.

Small bells

Symbolism of the hand bells: Many authors such as Curt SACHS, Violet ALFORD, Lucile ARMSTRONG, Juan Antonio URBELTZ, Marius SCHNEIDER or Juan Eduardo CIRLOT agree in their interpretation that the hand bells are implements or instruments that "are supposed to have prophylactic powers against misfortune" and as such were used by those devoted to Dionysus, the medic men in Africa, and the Callicantzari in Skyros. This could put us on the right path to an explanation of their use in the dances of swords, such as the Dantzari Dantza, being therefore dances with a strong ritual context bound to Nature and its spirits. However, that the spirits that they want to frighten off are only of a rustic nature, or that they refer only to the dead or other images of a numen is going to cause a lot of controversy and arguments that will be heightened in our case, by the symbolism of the dances with swords.

On the other hand we cannot ignore their simple and direct function related to keeping the rhythm of the performances. The sound of the bells could well have had the role of making the dancers keep to the rhythm of the dance.


All the experts on the subject of the Dantzari Dantza (Iñaki IRIGOYEN, TILIÑO, Juan Antonio URBELTZ, K. DE HERMODO, etc.) coincide in asserting that the exhibition is performed to the sound of the Txistu and of the tabor, although the Silbote can also be used, which, although belonging to the family of the flutes or wind instruments, is longer than the former, and the kettle-drum, which unlike the tabor, is shorter and wider, besides which its percussion is made with two drum-sticks and not with just one, as happens when the musician plays the Txistu and the tabor at the same time.

The Silbote, Txistu and Txirula are the three musical instruments belonging to the family of the three-holed flutes, which we find in the Basque cultural region, and it is the first two that are used in the folklore of Bizkaia.

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History and Geography

But in the case of the Dantzari Dantza dance cycle, which is typical of the Duranguesado or Durangoaldea area of Bizkaia, there is an added obstacle: each dance in the cycle must be investigated individually in each of the towns and villages where is it is still performed, and historically in all those with which it may be related in some way.

We must therefore be cautious when it comes to drawing up a chronology. We must also bear in mind that these dances originated in an uneducated society where writing was not a normal form of communication and ideas were not set down in words until relatively recently. The Basque language did not find its way into print until very recently, so any references we find to dance performances are either recent, as is the case of the work of Resurrección María de Azkue and other 19th and 20th century ethnographers and ethnologists, or take the form of account books at town halls and provincial council buildings or at churches, these being the only places where written records were kept. 

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