It wasn’t on the scale of the festivals we’d just experienced in Perpignan, but we were delighted to return from the city to our little village of Ceret to find the French Catalan community out in full force on Place Picasso doing a folk dance known as the sardana.
On the drive to Ceret last week, Sasha, the manager of our holiday rental here, had said that the locals loved to get out and do the Catalan circle dance at every opportunity, yet we didn’t actually expect to get a chance to see the sardanistas, as the dancers are called, in action.
When we heard the sound of the trumpets from our courtyard, we threw on our coats and went to investigate.
The main street of Ceret had been closed to traffic, and the tables and chairs on Bar El Pablo’s terrace – empty for most of our stay so far – were crammed with cheerful locals chatting over beers as they listened to the band and watched their friends do the traditional dance.
Originally from Spain’s Empordà region, and dating back to the 16th century, the dance is said to have become hugely popular among Catalans in the early 19th century, during the Renaixença, a period of rebirth for Catalan nationalism.
It appears that Ceret is currently experiencing its own small Catalan renaissance, and the locals’ eagerness to perform the dance is just one example of evidence of the community’s increasing pride in their Catalan heritage.
There are a couple of different types of sardana, a short and a longer version, and the dance circles vary in size. We saw some circles started just by four people, two couples, but then opened out to allow more people to join in, expanding the circle.
Within each circle men and women alternated, partners staying together apparently, unless children joined in, which they seemed keen to do. Some of the larger circles of older people looked like they’d been dancing together their whole lives.
When the music stopped they all mingled together happily, and as soon as it started again, they immediately reformed into the same groups.
The dance is performed to the cheery music of an 11-piece band called a cobla. The musicians play typical Catalan instruments, comprised of ten wind instruments, including a small flute and two instruments from the oboe family, trumpets, fiscorns (a type of saxhorn) and a trombone, as well as a double bass, and small drum called a tamborí.
The musical pieces the band plays are called sardanes, and are usually in two sections repeated in different ways to form the complete dance. The beat, like the dance, is fairly slow, but that didn’t stop the locals from getting excited when they played a piece they obviously loved.
When the bandleader made a speech that signalled their last song, the dancers noisily protested, cheering and clapping them on to encourage them to play more.
We’re not certain whether they were dancing to celebrate Easter or simply the fact the sun was shining, but they were certainly having fun, fun it was clear they didn’t want to end.
Ceret holds an annual Festival de Sardanes every July. This year, the 53rd festival begins on 23 July with a dance in Place Picasso, and continues for three days with dances taking place at various squares around town.