Guns, Garrotes, Swords, and Firewater: Sword Dancing at the Fiesta de San Sebastian

I awoke in a panic to hear music playing in the street outside, “Damn, the sword dancing must have started already!” I grabbed my gear and ran out into the street, just barely remembering to put on pants and shoes in my hurry to see what was going on! What I found was not exactly sword dancing:

Hordes of young people were staggering around in the streets, still dancing to the brass band that woke me up, having partied and drunk all night.  Also present were many of the sword dancers. The leader, the middle-aged man who had found us a place to stay the night before told me, “Of course I stayed out all night! If I didn’t stay and party, how would I be able to lead the group!” There was a big brass band playing for the occasion, playing popular songs from this semi-traditional repetoire that seems to exist in Spain. It wasn’t the pop music of the night before, nor was it the traditional music sometimes played, but everyone loved it. If I had thought a second longer in my morning confusion I would have remembered that the sword dance is done primarily to a drum, and certainly with no brass band, but here I was and everyone was having fun.

Having fun primarily dancing to the same eight or nine songs and then sitting down in the middle of the road. This might have been due to the amount being imbibed. The whole throng went up and down the streets of the town greeted by people in their PJs from their balconies and doorsteps. Also present were the Cabezudos, which I guess translates to “head-guys,” who ran around with their oversized paper-maiche heads. In the past, we were told, they used to carry fishing poles to “fish for children and young women.” An older man told me later that they sometimes held animal bladders on sticks to hit people with. In any case, it seemed like they had given up on the children, but they were still after the young women, including Ela. Sometimes they were surprised when the girls fought back!

Many thanks to Ariela Knight who took many of the photos in this post

The dancing continued for most of the morning, during which we followed everyone around and talked with anyone who interested (and sober enough) to talk to us.  The main friend we made was a young man named Sebastian, who had actually taken the little bus to the town with us. I told him about how I was doing a Watson Fellowship on sword dancing, which he thought was pretty cool. He spoke some English and insisted on giving us aguardiente (Fire-water), a Anise-flavored liquor traditional in the town (and other places with different recipes). It is a clear liquid that is mixed with water, at which point it becomes a milky white.

Not my favorite flavor, and we hadn’t had breakfast, but we struggled through, filming and taking pictures while on the hunt for food.

Sebastian told us that while the town normally has a population of around 350 people, during the fiesta all the young people who have left to go work in the cities come back, so that currently there were nearly 700 people! There was a break in the music playing and falling over, and everyone went into the bar for more drinking and singing! Sebastian pulled out a guitar from somewhere and played while an old man led some of the others in serenading the company. I finally decided that I was just too hungry to function and went back to the library to break into my emergency stash of food. Revived slightly, we went and caught the last moments of informal dancing before the sword dancers came.

Everyone made their way down into the center of town again where the sword dancers finally made their appearance and led the procession to the church in the center of town where everyone went in and had mass (well I guess a lot of the younger folks went and took a nap!)

It reminded me of the sword dance and mass I saw in Fenestrelle, with the sword dancers sitting in the place of honor at the front, while a few rebellious ones hung around outside. There were songs and religioney things and a collection and communion and we stood in the back to watch. Oh, and the smallest sword dancer of the town! He tramped up and down the isle of the church waving his garrote (I have been referring to them as sword dancers, but to be precise they are dancing with garrotes. The dancers however claim that it is effectively the same thing and on occasion refered to the dance as a “sword dance.”) After the completion of Mass, everyone exited the church with the sword dancers bearing San Sebastian, the patron saint of the town on an elaborately carved litter festooned with pillars of flowers.

The litter was apparently really heavy, as pretty soon the sword dancers switched out and  started dancing, with the rest of the crowd taking turns supporting the saint. The dance started with the dancers forming up in a line that was zig-zagged to from two rows. The step is a heavy, outward-swinging motion that actually is similar to the manner in which the litter is carried. The figures consist of different kinds of tunnels, with the final sword dancer scraping their garrote along the ground or hitting the swords overhead. The dancers occasionally stretched out into a single file line, and then curled back into the zig-zag pattern to process. They paraded around town, joined by the girls in traditional dress, the beauty pagent girls to go up and down just about every street, stopping at some houses of important people, or those who were sick or to old to come out and see the celebrations.

The party headed up to the top of the town where the Saint was brought to the hermitage that overlooks the little village. The dancers circled around the litter and then we headed back down into the town along the beautiful, palm tree-lined trail.

There was an exciting moment when crossing the bridge, where the sword dancers could get across fine, but the litter was just a little bit wider than the bridge. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take pictures, just video. Basically everyone crowded underneath and they went across the little metal bridge anyway.

Oh by the way, did I mention they like to fire off guns?

Because they do. Throughout the procession there would be men on the balconies firing off weapons, temporarily deafening anyone nearby. Sometimes one of the dancers would leave the dance (the numbers ranged from 7-11, but usually 9 sword dancers) to go run into their house, grab a gun and fire it off a bit. Goodness. Anyhow, we returned to the church where they plopped San Seb. down in the doorway and declared that they wouldn’t unblock the door until they got money.

This was accomplished by auctioning off the four red pillars of carnations from the litter which went for upwards of 150 euros! Then it was time to auction off bouquets of flowers, which were also expensive. Finally they moved the patron inside and everyone went back to drinking and partying. We were picked up by Tomás, the man from Puebla de Guzman from whom I had learned about sword dancing last year. He kindly drove us to the bus station in his town (since there were no buses until evening the next day) and I got to catch up a little bit. It was really nice re-encountering people and places that I had seen before and we stopped by to briefly see his family before taking the bus to Huelva. Unfortunately, this turned into an extended visit when I realized that in our haste to leave, I had left my computer in the library! Forgetting things has to be the worst feeling ever, and we took a bus back to Tomás, who very kindly helped us recover it and let us spend the night at his house. We taught his kids card games and had a lovely dinner before bed. Tomorrow: Seville (revisited)


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
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2 Responses to Guns, Garrotes, Swords, and Firewater: Sword Dancing at the Fiesta de San Sebastian

  1. Looks like a fun party. I could use a shot of aguardiente about now.

  2. Nancy Knight says:

    Love your posts and so fun to see Ariela in there! 🙂

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