Sword Dancing Around the Bonfire: First Day in Villanueva De Los Cruces

The story really continues in the small town of Villanueva de los Cruces on the 2oth of January, during the festival of San Sebastian where there was to be sword dancing. I spent all night on the bus from Madrid to Sevilla to Huelva to Villanueva Cruces (Population 350) with my friend Ariela, and we arrived in the town around two in the afternoon. The bus dropped us off on the main street in the town where carnival games had been set up and it seemed that most of the local population was having an afternoon drink. We set out to try to figure out A: What was going on with the dancing and festival and all that, and B: Where we were going to stay that night!

What is this pile of sticks for?

I had probably walked into this one with the less of contact in advance than any other sword dance. That is to say, there was none and I knew next to nothing about the festival. None of my Spanish or Basque contacts new anyone in the town, even people who lived 15 miles away. I had no information about the festival except the date. First fellow we asked was an old man who apporached us as we were looking at the carnival rides. My mind felt a bit rusty being thrown back into spanish mode with no transition, and he had a fairly thick accent, but I eventually communicated that I was here to study the dance and wanted to know who was in charge of the festival. He took us down a few back streets until we bumped into a women and the four of us had another conversation which sent us back to the bar on the main street where the leader was having a drink. We found him and I started to explain our situation and immediately another man came over and told us “you don’t want to talk to him, talk to me!” I explained my project and asked if he knew a place where we might stay. Questions about the dance and traditions were put aside for the moment as the bar (and much of the town) was thrown into activity trying to find us a place to sleep that night.

The whole bar was soon talking about where we were going to stay; most were helpful and many phone calls were made to friends and others. One man got annoyed and said that we couldn’t expect to find a place to stay in a small town and the others all told him off and said he was being “typical Spanish.” During all the ruckus we managed to get some delicious Spanish olives (I’ve missed them so!) and a bit of food, as we hadn’t eaten all day. Finally, we were told that there were some mattresses in the Adult Community Center near the library that we could spend the night in. We me the librarian who showed us the bathrooms and our beds and told us to come back at 6 for the key, the festivities would start at 8.

We dumped our stuff and set out to explore the town a bit and get oriented. We ended up wandering down old coal railroad tracks to a railroad bridge and then to a river! I think Huelva is a beautiful place, and it was really cool to see how it had changed since I was last there in October! There was some nut that Tomás had me try when I was here last that was absolutely ineadible. I found it this time and it turned out to be quite tasty. Apparently the best jamon comes from pigs in that region which are fed on this nut, yum! After a while we made our way back to town and just caught sight of a man carrying a bundle of sword-like objects, we quickly followed him to the Hermandad, eager to see the swords and find out more. As it turned out it was a total false alarm, as the objects turned out to be fireworks. I guess those are exciting too…

We took our place by the side of the hall as the preperations got nearer to starting. I started talking to one women who turned out to be the “Person of the Year” for the town. She told me about the plan for the festival, including what we had suspected but didn’t really want to believe: The huge pile of trees right next to the houses in the center of the town was to be set on fire. The ceremonies were starting so she ran off and the procession entered. Three young girls in traditional outfits came down the center isle of the hall, which had around 300 people in it, a large part of the town.

There were three older girls dressed up like they were going to a beauty pageant (they were) escorted by three men. They were followed by a number of women holding staves with crosses and finally the sword dancers. Well to be accurate, they weren’t swords at all, but garrotes, metal rods with a curve at the end for a handle.

The dance was fairly simple with a few figures repeated several times. The dancer at the end of the line held a shorter sword which he alternately scraped along the ground and hit against the swords in the “tunnel” figure. After the dance one of the girls was imediately crowned “Queen of the Festival” and we were thrown into endless speechs. The longest was by the women we had met, who jumped between stories of hope, to tales of drunk driving, and then thanked everyone she had ever met (and some she hadn’t met) as well as God, San Sebastian, and ended with “this prize really belongs to you all.” Judging from the audience’s reaction they were as please as we were when she finally drew to a close and sung some flamenco to conclude.

Some little girls in the audience were already learning how to dance along! Then the fun started! We went out into the street following everyone else heading towards the the pile of wood. Nothing was going on when I arrived, so we ducked into a bar and got some dinner. Just then we heard the sound of the drums signaling the sword dance and ran out again in time to see the dancers coming up the street.


They danced around the pile as it was being lit and almost imediately the crowd around  the bonfire had to back up several meters. The fire was so hot that you couldn’t stand within 6 meters without discomfort. The dancers hastily finished up as the fireworks were being shot off and then the party started in earnest!

We finished up our dinner and hung around for a while, but eventually headed off to bed. Too much traveling! The sounds of fiesta continued late into the night…


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
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One Response to Sword Dancing Around the Bonfire: First Day in Villanueva De Los Cruces

  1. Nancy Knight says:

    Fun to see Ariela in your post! and what a fire!!!

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