Pigs Bladders, Italians and Horny Bears: Rapper Sword Dancing and a Basque Carnival!

The day after the carnival in Zubieta I had the pleasure of traveling to Donostia (That would be San Sebastian in Spanish) to teach rapper to a group there. I took a bus from Eibar and got to look around the city for a few hours before meeting with Iñaki, who took me to the rehersal space. We had 11 people, so after teaching the stepping, the future sword dancers took turns switching in and out of two groups as I taught the figures.

We got through a huge amount of material in just a few hours and by the end we were able to put together a mini sword dance, which was lots of fun. I’m always amazed when a group of flat beginners are able to pick up the dancing so quickly without anyone in the set who really knows what they are doing.

That night I spent with Arantza’s daughter and her boyfriend in San Sebastian and spent much of the next day exploring and visiting museums in the city before heading to Eibar.

There was a lot of excitement that Saturday, as this was the carnival in Eibar! I had been practicing with Kezka, the dance group, since I had come back, and they had found me a costume so I could go out and dance with them!

In addition to the hideous mask and better part of a sheep strapped over my shoulder, I had a belt of bells, big blue overalls and shirt, and a pig’s bladder on a string tied to a stick. We aren’t talking about fake things here either, this had been taken out of an animal and had its fair share of meat still attached! This was (of course) for hitting people and scaring children! We all met at 7:30 in the morning, got kitted up and headed to the market square where we ran through the food stalls, menacing men, women and children with pitchforks, sticks, bladders, and brooms! We performed our dances, sang and crowded into vans to drive up the mountain and start the day in ernest.

Most of the group were Koko-dantzaria, dressed in white trimmed with red shawls and flowers, and carrying two short wooden sticks. This was a similar outfit to the one the dancers at the Arrate sword dance wore, but with the addition of the shawls, flowers and masks (it is carnival after all!) In the above picture you can also see the Aixerixak, the two dancers covered in fox skins and carrying a fox on a pole between them. They are covered in blackface and run around as a unit throughout the festival.We started near to Arrate and made our way down the valley on foot, as it had started to snow that morning and the vans couldn’t make it down the slick, narrow roads. The plan was to perform at each farmhouse in the valley, and we walked until we got the the first one

Upon nearing to it, we stopped and set off a rocket that would explode over the house with a loud bang that reverberated in the snowy valley. Then the musicians would sound their horns and the music would start up as we paraded and danced to the door of the house. The dancers (with sticks) would proceed in formation, but most of the other character would run around freely.  Above you can see a Burburixua carrying a pitchfork to clatter on the ground and at the feet of bystanders. They would charge at the inhabitants of the farm as we got closer, scaring and delighting kids and adults alike! Below is the Harza or bear, an important figure in carnival. In Basque mythology, humans decended from bears!  Instead of Groundhogs Day, the bear is the one who worries about winter, and when he gets up, he starts dancing in carnival! The basque bear has horns and I was later told that the february crescent moon is an upwards pointing crescent, the same shape as the his horns! I was also told that after all that sleep the bear was horny!

When we arrived at the house we did a partner dance, with all sorts of wild combinations of men, women, foxes, bears, priests, bushes, cross-dressing brides and whores, and other such things. We finished with a song talking about how it was carnival and we had gotten all dressed up in disguise and asking for food, drink, and money. Koko-moko zaria bete moko/Gibel, gibel, afarittarako/Dirua baneuka, patrikarako. The Mamarrua, dressed in burlap from head to toe and holding horse-hair brushes, would bring forward baskets to be filled with food. The obliging hosts would either give groceries, money, or bring out trays of ham, cheese, bread, and sausages and drink for us to feast on!

This was quite common and we ate well throughout the day. Good thing too, because we were doing tons of walking and everyone got rather tired! After we were done and had collected our loot, we sang the second half of the song and went on our merry way, sticks clacking, bells jangling, music playing and everyone jumping around! At some houses we did a special dance called which was danced with five couples: the bear and whore, the priest and women, the Koko-buruzagia (captain), a blacksmith and widow, and an old man and his masculine young bride. The dancing starts about 25 seconds in and the Koko-moko song is at 6:05. Earlier in the day we had split into two groups so we could cover more houses in the time we had. At around 2:30 we met up with them and performed jointly at a few houses, which just made things go wild! While the rest of the group had lunch I went back to the university and had a short nap, as I had not gotten nearly enough sleep and was thoroughly wiped out! We reconverged in the evening and got ready for part two: Carnival in town!

We gathered en masse in the center as crowds started to form. We had gained a brass band and a few extra members who had gotten off work and set about attracting a crowd and menacing small children. As I looked around I could see hordes of kids running this way and that, pursued by a masked figure waving some implement of terror. The music started up and we all danced wildly in the streets, joined by onlookers, but when it stopped or switched into something else the deamons were unleashed and we rushed down the streets in pursuit! We stopped every few minutes to repeat the performances of the day on the packed streets, complete with the circle dance, which had become more sexual and rowdy as the night went on. 

We have also been joined by a Italian dance group from the town of Rocca Grimalda, a few hours away from the sword dancers in Bagnasco! They perform their carnival dances in alternation with the Basque ones, which mostly involve couples dancing, including many dances that I remembered! Altogether, it was a good deal more civilized than Euskera customs!

After we had all danced ourselves into exhaustion we took off the costumes, showered, and met up around 10:30 in the cider hall I visited last time. We ate lots of food and drank lots of cider and actually got to talk to the Italians! At one point a man grabbed out his fiddle and started to play some dance tunes. The Italian group tried to teach a circassian circle dance, but were thwarted by lack of space and people falling over. The Basque dances seemed to go over well, and we even danced a familiar seeming line dance, to a familiar seeming tune!

It was a lot of fun, complete with more falling over and trying to comunicate in Spantalian. A bunch of they younger Basque and Italian dancers decided to go out to the clubs, and we danced the night away. I finally left at five in the morning and the party was still going strong! Tomorrow (in real time, not blog time) I’m traveling to Italy with Kezka to do the other half of the 2012 carnival exchange! From there I will stay in Italy seeking out more carnivals for a few days before taking a ferry to Croatia to watch another carnival with sword dancing!

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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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5 Responses to Pigs Bladders, Italians and Horny Bears: Rapper Sword Dancing and a Basque Carnival!

  1. gorlitski says:

    Wow, Wow, Wow, Wow, Wow! Great post! Cool stuff!

  2. Jeremy, this is just AWESOME! I recently came across your blog in a search of the Koko Dantzak as I was aware that they were going to be in Rocca Grimalda for Carnevale. Wish we could make it out to Rocca Grimalda this weekend for carnevale but with the predicted snowfall, I’m afraid the distance (I live further north near Lake Como) is going to be a deterrent as there’s no telling how the roads will be.

    You’ve got a fantastic site focusing on sword dancing in Europe. My husband and I have been to Piemonte to see the sword dancers of Giaglione in Alta Val di Susa. Really cool thing to witness as it’s such a different look at this country’s traditions. Keep up the excellent work and I hope you blog about Rocca Grimalda!

    • Hi Rowena,
      Thanks! I’m hoping that we have no problem getting there, as it is a 12 hour bus ride, oy! I’m hoping to get to giaglione at some point, You should check out dances in Bagnasco and fenestrelle as well! you can find them under my italy tab. I’ll definitely be blogging on Rocca grimalda, thanks for stopping by!

  3. Pingback: Venice I: What’s Carnival Really Like? « Ex Urbe

  4. Pingback: Koko-dantzak 2012 - Kezka Dantza Taldea

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