Harmony, Brotherhood, Democracy – La Sardana and Catalonia’s unique national identity by Zach Conneally - Profesor/a de inglés - Barcelona

Zach Conneally

Profesor/a de inglés


Harmony, Brotherhood, Democracy – La Sardana and Catalonia’s unique national identity

Harmony, Brotherhood, Democracy – La Sardana and Catalonia’s unique national identity


“We Catalans are peaches, and Spain wants us to be oranges”, ("What happened to Catalonia? One year on from the referendum - BBC News", 2019). That is the sentiment held by many Catalans, occupiers of the region or as others would say the nation of Catalonia. Located in the northeast of Spain and a portion of France, Catalonia differentiates itself from both countries, the former in particular. This minority have been faced with many challenges in the past but have still managed to prevail, hanging onto their own distinct ethnic identity. Anyone who thinks Catalonia should be worried about their push for independence should only look at their past to have their confidence restored. Catalonia, the reason for 21% of Spain’s annual GDP ("Catalonia Facts & Figures | Catalonia is a competitive economy to invest in", 2019), was the first region to be industrialised; their socioeconomic prowess is unrivalled by any other region in Spain, even Madrid. It is also worth noting that 73.2% (5.35 million) of Catalonia’s natives speak Catalan ("Census reveals 73% speak Catalan in Catalonia, 95% understand it, 56% can write it", 2019), the language unique to the region and the key component of Catalonia’s identity. Catalan may be a key component of Catalan identity but it is not the sole as others exist, lending to a distinct identity regardless of the lack of autonomy; the most important being the sardana. Coined by scholars as the “national dance of Catalonia” (Fabregas i Barri & Fabregat, 1979), the sardana can be seen as a fundamental key agent in constructing and defining what the Catalan national identity really is. This paper aims to explore Catalan national identity, in particular examining the role the sardana has played in the shaping and continued development of what Catalonia is today. The theory of Social Identity will also be employed to explore the relationship between Catalonia and Spain and the effects this has caused on the Catalan national identity.

Anyone who has been to Catalonia or to the capital of Barcelona can attest to the popularity of the sardana. It is danced in squares or at events such as aplecs, it is also sprawled across walls, a big feature in street art or immortalised in works of art by the great Pablo Picasso. Visit any gift shop in Catalonia and you are guaranteed to be bombarded with wall to wall figurines and postcards, all dedicated to depicting this ethnic symbolic dance. Although, through changing times and the growing popularity of nightclubs and the likes, less and less people can be seen at social gatherings centred on the dance of the sardana. However, symbols of identity like the sardana are not measured by the amounts of people at aplecs each week but by their uniqueness, distinctiveness and emotional salience (Brandes, 1990). Based on these aspects, the sardana far outweighs any other symbols of Catalan identity, excluding perhaps the iconography of their national flag, la Quatre Barres (the four stripes).

However, some argue the validity of the sardana as an agent of Catalan national identity as it does not follow the traditional route of how folklore is passed on. Traditional folk dances are passed on informally usually at social gatherings, celebrations or religious events. The sardana, on the other hand, is taught through classes that are subsidized by the Catalan government (el Generalitat) at public schools, or at one of the hundreds of dance schools which are all aimed at the mass education and diffusion of the sardana. In addition to this, folklore is subject to change and evolve over time to remain relevant and reflect the social circumstances of the times. Contrary to this, the sardana has remained rigid for over a century. Only two variances of the sardana exist today, differing just by the position of the hands (raised or lowered) in the steps known as curts (shorts). This differing of hand position has had the districts of where each variant was developed at odds for decades. If these differing styles can produce such prolonged arguments then it can be said for sure that the sardana cannot be termed as folklore.

While the sardana cannot be classed as a folk dance it cannot be categorised as pop-culture either. For a song or dance to be considered as pop-culture a clear origin needs to exist, for example, a composer or a choreographer. While the modern sardana dance has had large influences from Josep Maria ‘Pep’ Ventura and the genre of music itself has been released with identifiers for over a century, the beginnings of both of which are undoubtedly unattainable. In line with this, symbols of pop-culture only ever acquire fleeting relevance, starting from a humble beginning, picking up traction, hitting a plateau and forgotten about as quickly as it began. The modern sardana on the other hand dates back as far as 1850 and exists to this day completely unchanged. Hence, for these reasons it still remains unclear as to what the sardana can be classified as.

However, there may be one possible explanation as to why the sardana combines aspects of both folklore and pop-culture; and that is because it is an ‘invented tradition’, (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983). Invented traditions are a particular society’s attempt to stabilize social anchors. This stabilization allows for the invention of traditions, especially in times of intense socioeconomic or political change. Lending itself perfectly to the sardana, many variations existed until the Industrial Revolution of Catalonia in the mid-19th century. It was during this time that Pep Ventura, as mentioned above, became relevant with his unique interpretation of the Sardana, which included an 11 instrument cobla (an arrangement of instruments, wind in particular), culminating in Barcelona and disseminating to other cities and villages where it still remains prominent to this day, unlike other iterations and dances which have ceased to keep up through the changing times.

At this stage in the paper it must be asked: What features of the sardana appeal so much to the Catalans? The sardana genre of music in itself is largely popular and famous, and Catalans are well known throughout Spain and much of Eastern Europe for their musical capabilities. Hence, it is no surprise that sardana music is a great source of pride for the Catalans. As for the dance, it captures the values Catalans govern themselves on – Harmonía, Germanor y Democracía (Harmony, Brotherhood and Democracy). The dance is all inclusive and does not discriminate between man and woman, rich and poor, and young and old (Brandes, 1990), all are welcome to dance in the unbroken circle. The circle is also of significance, a symbol of unbreakable unity with Catalans dancing in unison without a need for one dancer to outshine another. In essence, anyone is welcome to join the circle as long as they know the steps, respect the other members and most importantly, can count a beat. This counting is a reflection of the time when the sardana came to prominence as a symbol of Catalan national identity, mirroring the precise counting needed by the Catalans to prosper during an industrial revolution.

In this line of thinking, learning the sardana is not unlike learning Catalan. Anyone determined to learn the sardana is in every sense capable of doing so and the same can determination can be applied to learning Catalan. Through learning Catalan and one of its most important ethnic markers such as the sardana all that is required to be Catalan is identifying with the people and incorporating its national identity as one’s own. It is this categorisation of Catalan national identity that differs from the rest of the world. Catalan identity is not necessarily something you are given at birth like in most other countries – it can be earned. The Catalans take the anthropological approach to identity, separating race and culture. Hence, this is why Catalonia is so fearful of cultural suppression. If you take away the culture of the Catalan people you take away their identity.

It is in this anthropological view of national identity that lies the conflict between Spain and Catalonia and thus the social identity theory as such. The Spanish do not view the Catalans as a distinct nation and thus have used the Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1989) to create an ingroup-outgroup dynamic between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. This can be seen most predominantly in recent history during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. During this time Franco labelled Catalonia as the ‘outgroup’ of Spain and discriminated the region throughout his 35 year rule. Under this dictatorship Catalans had their national identity supressed – speaking Catalan was forbidden and so too was dancing the sardana. In more recent times the Catalans were fearful of losing their identity during the 2017 political crisis in Spain. After an unsuccessful attempt to distance themselves from Spain, Catalonia had their autonomy suspended for seven months (Mason, 2019). This distancing was in retaliation to the 2010 amendment to the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. In this amendment, the Spanish Constitutional Court struck down 14 and curtailed 27 of the statute’s 233 articles (Calamur, 2019). This repeal of Catalan autonomy was seen as a huge blow to Catalan identity and prompted the vote of independence to occur.

In conclusion, the sardana has a rich history, starting as localised folk dances in the 16th century, developing and changing over the decades until being standardised in the 1850s. The sardana reflects the resilience of the Catalan people remaining solid in the face of adversity, it is a key agent in the formation of the Catalan national identity. Though it is not technically considered folklore and not quite pop-culture, the sardana is viewed as an invented tradition, a symbol given a mysterious background aimed at validating the roots of a nation or group. Due to Catalonia using an anthropological approach to define themselves it can be seen why there is such an importance for these traditions to exist. As obvious as it may seem the sardana would not stand as such an important marker of the national identity if it did not reflect the values of the Catalan people, an unbroken circle of unity containing men and women of the nation cooperating without discrimination. Hence, the Catalan people can pride themselves as an opening and inviting nation, welcoming anyone regardless of their descent as long as they are willing to adopt and respect their national identity.

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