In terms of international displays of culture, the enthralling spectacle of Catalan dance and music is definitely one of the highlights.
It’s a tradition which captures the spirit of Catalunya and can be traced back to the 17th century and beyond and is promoted by many community associations both in France and Spain.
One such association is Els Dansaires Catalans de Thuir created in 1958, and located just west of Perpignan in the Pyrénées-Orientales region.
With around 30 members, it is led by its President, Jeannine Farran (65) who has been dancing since she was just eight years old and who has a talent for innovative choreographies.
Born in Port Vendres, Jeannine, who was also the association’s treasurer for several years and is a dressmaker, says her aim and that of her fellow dancers is to “transmit and perpetuate a proud Catalan culture and tradition for future generations to enjoy.” She teaches with her daughter, Florence; Jocelyne, the association’s most senior member; and Fanny Pla, an historian and tourism guide in Villefranche de Conflent.
As well as performing in village festivals and ceremonies of various kinds such as weddings, the association also organises regular classes – ‘infantils’ for those children aged between 4 and 8; ‘juvenils,’ for those aged between 8 and 13; and ‘cos de ball,’ for teenagers and adults. They practice in a gymnasium in Thuir, also well-known for producing a liqueur called Byrrh, an aromatised wine apéritif made of red wine, mistelle, and quinine.
Dressed in traditional costumes, members perform such dances as the popular sardana, a symbol of Catalan pride and identity. People join hands together and dance in circles, with small precise steps. The circle goes slowly round and round as more people join to make it bigger.
The dancers are often accompanied by a ‘cobla,’ a small group of musicians featuring a selection of instruments including the tenora, tible, flabiol trumpet, fiscorn, trombone, and three-string contrabass.
Association members also perform dances such as the contrapas and others from regions including northern and southern Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon and even the Balearic Islands, wearing costumes called comarques representing these different areas. Performers also use sticks called ‘ball de bastions,’ a reference to combat with swords.
Fanny (32), who has danced since she was four after following in the footsteps of her older sister, said for some performances the dancers may also play castanets, which adds extra spice to the experience. She also said dances can include what are known as ‘jotas,’ which she describes as being “more physical,” adding “you have to have a heart in good health to perform them.”
Like Jeannine, Fanny has a passion for the dances and loves teaching them to others. “We are not professionals, we practise and teach in our free time. It demands time and patience but it is satisfying working with children and seeing them progress. I’m proud when they succeed and I can see them evolve as both dancers and as individuals.”