A Basque Carnival: No Sword Dancing, But Perhaps Some Swords!

After a brief hitch-hiking experience I was able to get out of the town and back into less rural surroundings. By a few days later I was in Madrid pondering where I wanted to head next. One of the (very few) requirements of the Watson Fellowship is that I write them a few pages every quarter to tell them how my sword dancing is going. In the halfway report I wrote that this particular stretch of time was challenging because until the end of  February (when I will probably be in Croatia) I didn’t know of sword dances that were going on and I was having trouble finding my direction project-wise. I needed a sign, and it came in the form of a few text messages from my old friend Oier. The next day I jumped on the bus and was bound for the Basque Country! I was quickly settled back at the university (indeed in the same room, complete with the same broken shower curtain!) and getting to go to practices with Kezka. The team found out I was coming back and we had a dinner the first night. It was the first in a year-long competition of a game called “who-can-make-the-best-garlic-soup.” Should be an interesting year for them! Also, this time in Basque country I managed to go to the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, which was amazing!

A few days into the visit, Arantza and Eire took me to a carnival a few hours away that was a joint celebration of three towns (but we mostly stayed in Zubieta, south and east from San Sebastian) and while there wouldn’t be sword dancing, they promised it would be a fun time! We walked around the idyllic farms and woods between the towns while waiting for the party to start and I was surprised to see how much it reminded me of Ireland, with green moss covering everything, even in the winter. By then the preparations were in full swing!

There were to be many parts of the carnival, but one of the central parts were these dancers with huge bells on their backs, sheepskins strapped around their waists and tall, colorful hats who would dance from town to town. Of course, most of it was just mayhem!

The first hint of this total madness I got (it came in increasing stages) were children imprisoned in cages, pulled by people dressed in sheepskins and tattercloaks.

There were all sorts of characters dressed up for the occasion, and the real tumalt of the day had yet to begin! Most of the costumes were somehow agriculturally related, with farm implements, food, skins of animals, and work boots. Oh, and there were even tractors!

This tractor turned out to be full of little demons who all rolled out the back as soon as it pulled into the main square and start pelting the bystanders with eggs, sawdust, and fruit!

I spent my time dodging the little demons while trying to take photos of them, little knowing that there were greater terrors in store! The crowd got into it, running away from the handfulls of dust and other projectiles. Next up was a fellow running around WITH A RUNING LAWNMOWER! Who thought that was a good idea? Not only that, but he would charge directly into the crowd, leaving people to jump out of the way to either side and run screaming. The safety hazards that were so obvious left me wondering about the differences in litigation practices between here and in the United States. Maybe in certain southern states pushing a running lawnmower at people is considered good sport, but I have a feeling that most places that game would end up with the cops (hopefully before the ambulance!)

Yes folks, that would be a dead badger! This kindly women was nursing it back to health which involved feeding it and smearing some sort of cream all over its butt. Charming. Anyway, the dancers were just about ready to start doing their thing, so attention briefly shifted off of the craziness to watch them start their dance. I say briefly as it is never a good idea to completely turn your back on crazies with lawnmowers! 

The dance consisted of two lines of dancers tramping up and down the square with bells ringing and long brushes in their hands. They wove back and forth, turning the set inside out when reversing directions, and then heading out of town, over the bridge, and on to the next village. 

The set seemed to be organized from tallest to smallest, ending with a bunch of young kids! While the adults kept time with their bells by bouncing on every step to jangle them, the kids had to take several steps to catch up, leading to a few extra jingles!

There were around thirty dancers in all, each with bells, hat and brush. They were lead by a man holding a horn made out of, well, a horn! The bells were strapped on around the sheepskin very tightly. Watching them get ready looked like the pictures one sees of ladies in waiting fastening a corset onto a girl. Two men would grab each side of the rope and pull in opposite directions to tighten the bells before tying it on.  Didn’t look very comfortable, but no one’s bells fell off! Better than can be said about some morris teams! After they had gone a bunch of tractor-pulled carts arrived to hand out food, drink and other yummy things!

Great decorations too! After eating (it’s Basque country, we are always eating!) we headed down the road to where the party was continuing.  

Another menace of the carnival were masked figures dragging tree branches and trying to hit you with sheep skins. Yuck! Fortunately being tied to trees slowed them down significantly.


While the whole day was a bit drizzly, a rainstorm hit halfway down the road and a bunch of folks took cover in the porch of a a nearby house. We had to wait for the other towns to come to us anyway. While we were waiting a bunch of the men started to sing and play music, so I joined them. One had a word sheet, and so I got to sing along which was great fun. We all huddled under the umbrellas, drank wine and made music until the dancers and costumed folks from the other town caught up to us. They marched along the river and made it to the town.

By now there were closer to 100 dancers in all, but the other towns had brought even crazier contraptions with them! Scantily clad figures streaked with dirt hurled mud (i hope it was mud) from wheelbarrows, while two dog-headed beasts whizzed by on a motorcycle, tearing through the crowds with no hands on any sort of steering device. A donkey was in the process of being shoed by two blacksmiths while being suspended from a wooden stand on a moving trailer.

Probably the most ridiculous contraption was this old red car that carried three chained figures in cages. I was somewhat surprised the truck could even move without the extra weight, and even more amazed at the faith the prisioners put in it, going over the little bridge into the town and precariously dangling over the edge in the process!

At the end of the procession came the “fire department” freely spraying foam at anyone who came too near! It turned out that umbrellas were a good thing to have that day.

We finally had had enough food and craziness for one day and made our way home, rather wet, but mostly having escaped the monsters (Eire did get attacked by one mudslinger).

Next up: I teach rapper dancing and raise a ruckus of my own. Basque Carnivals Part II!

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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
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One Response to A Basque Carnival: No Sword Dancing, But Perhaps Some Swords!

  1. Pingback: Zubietako inauteriak AEBetako dantzari baten begietan - Sustatu.com

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