Never heard of International Dance Day? I have to confess I hadn’t, though it was first introduced worldwide in 1982. And now, this Saturday, 29th April, it’s coming round again so it is perhaps not surprising that the main cultural events in Andorra this week also revolve around dance.
Some 35 years ago, The International Dance Council persuaded UNESCO to introduce this special day because, although dance has been part of human culture since the beginning of time, dance, especially traditional folkdance, is often left off the list of cultural events sponsored by governments or local councils; though definitely not here in Andorra where almost every parish supports it’s own group.
Andorrans have always searched for ways to preserve their ancestral traditions. When I arrived here in 1982, five sixth of the population were immigrants (sic). OK, mostly Catalans sharing a similar culture but nonetheless Andorran customs and traditions could easily have been swamped. But, way back in 1950, Andorra’s oldest folkloric group, the Esbart Santa Anna, was formed in what is today the parish of Escaldes-Engordany. It was specifically created to maintain the traditions of the centuries-old dances performed on special occasions and during local village Festes..
Today the Esbart Santa Anna has 70 members divided into four dance sections: Children A and B, teenagers and adults with José de Udaeta as castanet teacher and Jordi Tudó overseeing the whole.
In 1951 a second dance group, Esbart Andorrà, was formed, this time in Sant Julià de Lòria by three Barcelonan refugees fleeing the franquistes. They, too, wished to maintain traditions, Catalan ones that were being so brutally suppressed across the border by Franco where it was illegal to teach in Catalan, publish books in Catalan, or to speak the language outside the home. Franco presumably didn’t realise that many organisms grow stronger whilst maturing in the dark. (The husband of one of my dearest Catalan friends, Maria Teresa Planàs, was threatened with imprisonment if she continued to use spoken Catalan phrases in a radio series in which she was singing duets of traditional mountain folksongs.)
In 1963, the Esbart Andorrà was disbanded but soon revived under the new title of Esbart Laurèdia. Today it flourishes with some 100 members divided, as with the other folkdance groups, into four categories ensuring that the traditions are passed down through the families to the littlest members of society.
Now almost every parish has it’s own dance group: the Esbart Dansaire d’Andorra la Vella, the Esbart Sant Romà of Encamp and, most recently the Esbart de les Valls del Nord of Ordino and La Massana.
I love their folkdance performances: all the intricate, gaily-coloured, costumes, changed for each dance, but maintaining the traditional, espadrille-style footwear held on – or occasionally not held on – by long black ribbons crisscrossing up the calves. Strident Catalan instruments, designed to carry clearly outdoors, accompany the lively dances that often involve circles breaking up into complex line formations.
In 1992 one group, the Esbart Sant Romà, added contemporary dance to their repertoire and they have since travelled far and wide with their excellent performances. They danced in New York for the 50th Anniversary of the UN. In the Concurs International de Dansa in Italy they came second in the Folkloric dance section and also won the city prize.
In recent years Mans Unides Andorra has organised an aplec, or gathering, of all the country’s Esbarts to dance in aid of the charity’s projects in developing countries. Always popular, you need to arrive at the auditorium early to be sure of a good seat.
My own personal experience with the Andorran dance tradition came last summer when I felt honoured, and humbled, by having the Esbart de les Valls del Nord dance for me on the occasion of my presentation as La Massana Citizen of 2016.
This coming Saturday there will be much dancing in the streets of Andorra when different groups, including some from Spain and Portugal, will celebrate the 2017 International Dance Day. (Check with PICK OF THE WEEK for the times and locations of the open air performances.)