Chain Sword Dancing in Marin! Also, Sevilla was splendid, but Travel was Terrible!

Time to travel halfway across Spain to see some sword dancing! My plan for the day was an ambitious one; I would bus to Huelva and then Sevilla (Seville), where I would drop my stuff at the house of a couch surfer and explore the city for the day. I would then catch a train from Sevilla to Madrid where I would take a sleeper train to Pontevedra up in the northwest corner of Spain in Galicia. From there it would only be a short hop on a local bus to Marin, where I was to see a huge sword dance at 10:00am tomorrow.

As was becoming my usual pattern, I arose far to early in the morning to begin my travels. I gathered my bags, left the keys in the room, and made my exit. The air was surprisingly cold, and I had left a lot of my warmer stuff in Eibar along with my tent, extra shoes, and all the accumulated books and other stuff I had accumulated. The stars were still bright and the moon was just going down as I arrived at the little bus stop with a small crowd of commuters had huddled together in the glass cubicle of a station. As each person got on the bus, they spaced themselves out along the whole length of the coach, filling up two seats or a full row as they struggled to squeeze in another hour of sleep. I got to Sevilla around 11 and call Kawthar, a Moroccan woman who has been living in spain for around 10 years. I get directions to her house and manage to find the bus after a bit of wandering and several fantastic murals.

When I arrived at her house she was out with some Couchsurfers from Austria so I played banjo on the curb and in a few minutes they all showed up and helped me inside with my stuff. We chatted and had some snacks and then set out to explore a bit of the city. The first stop was at an open air market in on of the numberous parks around the city. There were stalls selling crafts from “Around the World” which mostly meant from spanish speaking countries around the world. It turned out that Sebastian, the austrian guy, had spent half a year in Argentina, so we bonded over lusting after dulce de leche and other argentine specialities. Probably the strangest thing that we saw at the fair was a small booth that was absolutely packed with people, jostling each other to get close and hand in their money. It turned out that it was a “Personality Analyzer” that worked by you signing a slip of paper and then the “computer” “analyzing” it and giving you a “report.” All of these things are in quotes because this is what it looked like:

Pretty much straight out of a Bond film from 50 years ago. For all the flashing lights, “binging” noises and whirring tapes the “output” was a pencil that zigzagged across a little sheet of paper. We decided that one of us would have to give it a try. This is how I now know that I am (among other things) “tidy, introverted, not attractive to the opposite sex, outgoing (yes, and introverted) wise, and destined for financial success.”

The next stop was the Plaza de Espana, a stunning plaza surrounded by administrative buildings, with fountains and canals in the center.

Around the inside of the building there were murals representing each of the provinces in Spain. We decided to take some pictures of the ones that each of us had visited which led to hilarity. We visited the bull ring (where bullfights are still held, I didn’t realize this!) and stunning gothic cathedral in the center while hopping from bar to cafe to restaurant, snacking in the typical Andalusian manner. We finally got a proper lunch just over the bridge on the west side of the river. 

Kawthar and I left the Austrians to shop in the center and took the walk back to the apartment. By this time it was just about time for me to catch my train to Madrid, so we walked to the train station and parted ways (I almost got a lift on her motorcycle, but the backpack and banjo posed a difficulty). I went in and got my ticket and made it to Marin well rested and happy by the next day.

Oh wait, that isn’t what happened at all. What happened was this: I went in to get my ticket only to find that the train had already left. Apparently when one of the people I had met in Pueblo de Guzman was helping me figure out my route, we had copied the time of the train as 8:30. We had forgotten to select the 1 that preceded it, making it 18:30, 2 hours before! AHHHRRGGHH! Well, the next train was completely sold out, even to such tactics as buying a ticket somewhere else or even just sneaking on. There wasn’t another train to Pontevedra until tomorrow afternoon, by which time I would have missed the sword dance. I decided that was not an option, sword dancing is sort of the point of this whole trip! After all the pleading and other tactics failed I sat down on my bag, phone in hand to try to organize an alternate route. Now, my spanish is certainly getting better, but navigating travel websites in a language you aren’t fluent in to figure out how to travel 1250 in the next 11 hours is a rather difficult task. Finally I had a plan that I thought would work. I would take a late train to Madrid, hope that public transport was still open, go sleep in the airport, and then take an early flight to Vigo, a city half an hour south of marin where I hoped I could hitchhike up to the dancing. That’s pretty much what happened. On the train I phoned Oier (the sword dancer in Basque country, remember?) who kindly agreed to use his credit card to buy me a ticket and I would pay him back, since my American one seemed not to work. I squeaked in just under the line of the metro closing, and arrived in the airport in Madrid around 1 or 2 in the morning (it starts to blur together). There wasn’t much for it but to try to get some sleep, so I stashed all my stuff in a little nook behind a soda machine, made myself a little bed of my sleeping bag, and curled up in my silk sleep sack. I should mention by the way that sleep sacks are amazing. As I go along on this trip I find that piece by piece I become friends with different bits of my gear. My banjo was the first, that was easy, but this trip through spain sure made me glad I brought the sack. Anyway, I got a few hours of sleep that ended when the security personnel poked at me in the early morning to say that the airport was opening and that I should get packed up. My counter wasn’t opened yet so I played more banjo (maybe I should stop writing this and you can just assume that whenever I have down time I’m either reading or writing about sword dancing or playing banjo. That’s just about the long and short of it). When finally the check in did open I stood in line for half and hour only to discover that my ticket had been cancelled! Why do these problems come in waves? It was too early to call Oier, so I went to the ticket counter and asked them. They said that the online booking company had canceled the reservation, and that I no longer had a ticket. Luckily there were a few left. Unluckily they cost 20 euros more than before. Well, I had come this far and that certainly wasn’t going to stop me. I made the flight, and got a bit more sleep which did wonders to decrease the grumpiness that was sneaking over me. There had just been some sort of fight or similar incident near the airport, which dashed my hopes of hitchhiking when the police wouldn’t let anyone leave the grounds of the airport on foot. I bit the bullet and caught a cab to take me into town.

All my annoyance melted away when I arrived to find lots of children in blue (girls) and red (boys) outfits on the steps of the town hall. I had the name of the leader and we had exchanged a few emails, but I had no idea what he looked like. There were dozens of men wearing medals and various other symbols and I realized that I had just missed the induction of the new members into the Hermanidad (like a fraternity or society). Darn! I found Fernando, my contact, who explained that there was to be a short break and then the dancing would start in a few hours. In the meantime he would take me to my hotel where I could wash up and take a nap. The hotel was a small establishment on top of a bar and I collapsed into bed as soon as he had gone.

What felt like a few seconds later my alarm rattled me back to real life, so i gathered my cameras and notebooks together to go out to the site of the first dance. I should explain that the group is made up of several teams, children, dancers in their late teens to early 30s, and an older set. The groups dance roughly the same dance, but with variations in a few figures. They would dance in various combinations at three different venues, the first being near a park in the center of the town. This was the one of the best attendance I had seen yet at a sword event (barring Arrate, which had lots of other stuff going on). It was so packed that I was afraid of not being able to see anything. Determined to get good video of this dance that I had traveled for 30 hours straight  (with a Sevilla break i guess) to see, I wiggled my way up onto a narrow window sill seven feet up the side of a bank. My feet could barely fit on stone and the glass angled outward forcing me to maintain a rather precarious balance, but the view was great! The dancers came down the hill led by clergy and four men holding a figure of San Miguel (whose day it was).

There are at least sword dances done on or in reference to the day of San Miguel, which starts me wondering. Could it be simply because St Michael is usually depicted with a sword? Maybe…

The children’s group did their dance first, which consisted of many figure that are led by a dancer not connected to the others who holds a tambourine trailing ribbons. It is the beats on the tambourine that indicate when new moves should begin. The music is mainly a type of bagpipe, along with varied percussion, including seashells scraped together. The footwork is clearly a set step, but many dancers end up on opposite feet or just abandoning it all together at more difficult stages.

There are two lines of dancers, one female and one male, with a leader at the front who connects them and can be of either sex. Many of the figures are variations on the bridge figure seen above, but there is also figures with one line weaving through the others (like in Italy) and forming different shapes with the group including a star, a chalice and a cross.

The children danced in the first location and then the procession formed up again and moved down the road to nearer to the port, where all three teams danced. One very interesting thing to note is that the swords are not free, as in other dances; instead they are tied together in a chain with rope, leaving only the leaders’ of each line with disconnected swords. The swords are actually not held on the hilt at all, but held (usually in one hand) by a little loop tied in the rope between swords. This also leads to a bit of a “crack the whip” effect at the ends of lines, which was certainly played up even more so once the “formal” performances of the morning were over. The crowd continued to swell for this performance, as it was probably the largest of the three venues and all the teams danced. 

At this stand I was able to pick out some of the differences in the different groups, modifications to the dance made to accommodate age and ability There was also the exciting event of these small figures on bicycles that had been constructed out of cloth and metal frames and then stuck with fireworks. I was unable to get a clear explanation of this part of the event, but a rocket would go off, spinning the wheels of the bicycle faster and faster and then all of a sudden there would be three explosions and the groin, chest and head of the doll would explode in rapid succession. Why not? Everyone loved it and then the parade set off once again with all of its members and the public crowding arround. The last performance was done in a very crowded street next to the old church of the town. Everyone was packed in tight and the dancers had to squish in diagonally in order to do some of the larger figures.

The cross that ends the dance

One figure in particular posed a bit of a difficulty, a maneuver where both lines go underneath and through the liter carrying the figure of San Miguel at the same time. The issue was that the crowd had forced the litter to just about on the steps of the church, so the dancers had to almost climb the steps to get through it! They performed this last dance twice and then everyone started to get ready for the party! This turned out to be a pub crawl of sorts (I just accidentally wrote swords, freudian slip I suppose) where the dancers went from bar to bar, sang, danced, played music and were rewarded with free drinks from the proprietors. This went on for several hours and I got a chance to meet the members of the team and learn more about the dancing and people’s’ experiences with the group. Oh and of course we had to take a group photo! The photo was actually taken in the middle of some song so everyone was just sort of singing and clapping along!

After the pub crawl was done we went back to a restaurant a little ways outside the town where there was a feast. I was interviewed for a Galician TV show called A Mochilla do Viaxeiro (A Traveler’s Backpack? A Travel Backpack? It’s in Galician, which while similar to spanish, I can’t quite swear to the meaning) about my trip (make sure to check out my “In the News” page on the blog) and was even inducted into the Hermanidad, with certificate and medal to prove it! I had a great time chatting with the team, who were very friendly and had a delicious meal with more giant spicy shrimp than I quite know what to do with. It felt a little like a New Orleans crawdad boil. After the meal we went and did a bit more informal and slightly inebriated dancing and they even threw me into one of the dances, where I received lots of cheers and a few cries of “Boston!” or “America!” I managed to stumble my way through the dance without getting too lost! At the end there is a section where there are various toasts or cheers (the proper word is eluding me) usually to San Miguel, the town, etc. to which everyone replies “Viva!” During this dance, the cheers were to America. Glad I can be a good representative for my country 🙂 Here is the video for your entertainment!

I pretty much went straight back to bed after the festivities were over, as I had a 13 hour bus ride back to Eibar the next day and was getting up at five to catch the taxi. Before I leave you for tonight I will include one more picture of the youngest dancer learning the tambourine part from the captain of the team. For me it is a nice reminder that even in these towns no one knows about, traditions are being passed on to the next generation.

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About Jeremy Carter-Gordon

My blog of a year studying point-and-hilt sword dancing on a Watson Fellowship. Enjoy reading, tell me your thoughts and leave me a comment, or visit my website at JeremyCarterGordon.com
This entry was posted in Exploring, Spain, Sword Dance, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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