Evolution of Costumes in Traditional Basque Dance
By Ane Albisu, author of ATONDU
In dance, and in the dances that are traditional in our case, the costumes play a tremendously important role. Movement, insofar as it constitutes corporal expression, unites with what the dancer wears and an overall evaluation of its result can be made. Moreover, it is the first thing that draws one's attention, in other words, it is what establishes the dancer's appearance.
We could say that when costumes and dancers achieve a kind of symbiosis, what we have before our eyes turns into genuine artistic expression. On the one hand, because the dancer adds movement to what he or she is wearing, and on the other, because the costume makes the dancer him- or herself feel special.
Moreover, the costume and garments generally worn in traditional dances can have symbolic meaning: the color red, men appearing in skirts, conical hats, masks, etc.
"I am of the opinion that little attention has been given to the field of dances on our cultural scene, at least not to the extent that one can find in other parts of the world."
However, in our dances the wearing of costume regarded as traditional has not been compulsory. Yet today we have tended to link the concepts of traditional costume with traditional dance, because our perspective of dance tends to be mainly directed towards the stage. What is more, throughout the 20th century dance served to make known a number of types of costumes and clothing that were on the point of disappearing, even though in many cases this clothing was not specifically used for dance. On other occasions, by contrast, they have been presented as having undergone a transformation.
Over the last one hundred years the fields of culture linked to our traditions, and in particular those relating to costume have not received the attention they deserved. The information about them that has been handed down to us has taken different routes which have frequently not been the most appropriate ones. This is why all the types of costumes we have seen, and go on seeing cannot simply be stuffed all together into one bag, because a considerable muddle exists. For example, it was not so long ago that I saw a linen shirt in a wardrobe department classified as garment for traditional dance. It is true that nowadays this is generally the use made of it, but we know very well that at one time shirts of this kind were not used exclusively for dance. They were a part of our everyday clothing, and what is more, similar garments can be found all over Europe. So, we need to distinguish between what, as far as we know, traditional garments were used for at one time, and what they are used for today.
What this example sets out to show is that our knowledge about traditional clothing is in general very limited. Firstly, because this branch of culture has not been given the importance it deserved. Secondly, the continuation of tradition was broken long ago in the Basque Country. And finally, and linked to the first reason, because the interpretation and use of the scarce data available has not always been conducted appropriately. Some of the criteria used have not always had a solid foundation, because they were established by people who knew little about popular culture. The result has not been the one we would have liked for the following reasons: on some occasions, as a result of negligence –because of the failure to attach importance to the subject- on other occasions, as a result of evil intentions (during the Franco dictatorship [1936-76], for example), and on most occasions, due to ignorance.
Another factor is that the use of traditional costumes and garments has changed a lot over the years. The origins of many of the elements used for dance over the last one hundred years can be found in the clothing that made up everyday garments. The latter, as well as those used solely for this purpose, have evolved, and we will be attempting to summarize all this here.
"And linked to dance, as far as the costumes are concerned, they have not only been particularly neglected and forgotten, they have not been given the importance they deserved."
To focus on the subject I will be dividing it into two parts: the dances that are performed in the places where they originated and the ones performed on stage.
In fact, traditional dances tend to be performed by specific peoples and groups on certain days, in other words, for special celebrations. But these very dances, and often, their adaptations, tend to be done in certain other situations as well, outside the place where they originated and in a totally different environment, in other words, as a display or show. In this case, the basis of the dance itself changes, and consequently, the costumes may also undergo changes or adaptations. However, it is often difficult to draw the line, because it has tended to be the dance company of the place where the dance is performed that goes elsewhere to put on their dance as a display or show.
So one can suspect that the evolution in costume has taken different directions. But the most profound changes that we will be highlighting are without doubt in the cases in which traditional dances are performed as a display or show in theatres and on stage.
"Many regard [Basque costumes] as something trivial, but it is this precise attitude that I regard as very trivial. Our clothing is an important part of our personality and is on a par with language and all other forms of expression. So let us give it the place it deserves in our culture."
Costumes worn when the dance is performed in the place where it originated
If we take as the basis the Classification of Dances made by Juan Antonio Urbeltz, we will be able to get a general view of what the costumes and garments used in our dances are like.
Dances performed by Men and Women in an Open Environment and solo performances done in the same way. (Branlia [dance in three parts from Zuberoa], Ingurutxoak [circle dances], Soka Dantzak [rope dances], Jauziak [high jumps], etc.)
In order to perform these dances, clothing made in the imitation of the everyday clothing that we Basques wore during the 19th century and mostly belonging to the agricultural environment is used. But even if this kind of clothing also has distinguishing features of ours (the way in which the scarf is worn, the beret, or laced leather sandals -"abarkak"– etc.), it was very similar to what was used all over Europe at that time. As they have been linked to time, they have also become traditional. So, the most outstanding features of that time have been preserved, and as they are for performing dances in a festive atmosphere, special adornments (ribbons, colored scarves) were added to them.
The women in long skirts, blouses or bodices, aprons, and headscarves decorate their hair by braiding it and adorning it with ribbons. Whereas the men wear long trousers, a shirt, a waistcoat (US=vest) and often a beret decorated with ribbons. Their footwear, on the other hand, usually consists of laced leather sandals or espadrilles ("abarketak") or, on occasions, leather shoes.
What we have described here is very general. As some of these dances on occasions belong to Carnival or "Inauteriak", they are also performed in the special Carnival costumes. On other occasions, as in the dances of the Pyrenean valleys, the local costume has been preserved right up to the present day, and this is what they wear.
However, we could say that they were performed in Sunday best as a general rule, and from the 20th century onwards it just so happened that 19th century clothing was preserved for these dances.
Ezpata dantzak [Sword Dances] (Zumarraga, Durango, Lesaka…)
As these dances are performed exclusively by men, what is used for this purpose is basically what we can call Ritual White Costume: white shirt, trousers, and espadrilles. The dancers then add a beret, a red belt and sash, and they often wear bells (sewn to a piece of cloth or leather), scapularies, and bands or sashes of different colors across their chests.
Other group dances (Zinta Dantzak [ribbon dances], Brokel Dantzak [shield dances], Dances from Araba and the banks of the River Ebro in Navarre, Dances from Otsagi in Navarre, from Lanestosa in Bizkaia, etc.)
These are dances that have mostly been performed by men. The costumes they wear are principally white trousers and shirts, but they also wear colored ribbons and scarves, bells, skirts, special hats, etc. on top.
Inauteriak [Carnival] (Betelu, Lizartza, Luzaide, Lapurdi, Zuberoa…)
During Carnival, apart from dances, other performances are put on. During Carnival, and if we go around our region, we will see different kinds of costumes. On the one hand, we will have the ones called fancy dress. But there are others that only dancers wear. These will be the ones that we will have to include in the overview we are giving. Describing Carnival dancers' costumes will not be as easy for us as in the previous sections. In these cases the dancers, too, somehow wear the Carnival features in their costumes; variations exist between one place and another and this is determined by what the dancers have to do.
Group dances are performed during some of the Carnival activities, just as in any other festivity. In order to perform them, we will see costumes that have a lot in common with the ones described earlier. In the town of Lizartza in Gipuzkoa, for example, they wear white garments underneath, and a cape on top.
But in other cases dancers are participants in Carnival performances and each one wears the costume corresponding to his or her character, as in the Maskarada or Masquerades of Zuberoa (Soule): Txerreroa, Zamaltzaina, Kantiniersa…
There are also those that go out in processions, in a succession made up of dancers and other characters. We can find the clearest examples in Lapurdi (Labourd) and Baxenafarroa (Lower Navarre).
In the costumes of the dancers during Carnival we can see ribbons, bells, colored scarves, crossed sashes and in particular, highly decorated hats. Most of them wear white garments as a base.
Other characters, on the other hand, wear military-type costumes if we consider the upper part of the body: jackets or dress coats. On their feet, however, they wear espadrilles decorated with ribbons and embroidery. The use of jewelry is also very widespread: on the shirt fronts of the Luzaide dancers, on the gaiters of the dancers of Zuberoa (Soule).
Costumes in the Pyrenean Valleys
Unlike in other parts of the Basque Country, traditional costumes have been preserved right up until today in the Aezkoa, Zaraitzu (Salazar) and Erronkari (Roncal) valleys. These are not specifically dance costumes, even though they have also been used for the purpose. They have special features and there are clear links between them and the costumes we can find around the Mediterranean.
It is a well-known fact that women have not played leading roles in the panorama of our traditional dances. But we have been left with some examples in Eaurta or in Lekeitio for instance. But as a general rule the woman has always appeared alongside the man in our dances.
So the costumes they use are mainly based on everyday clothing. Nevertheless, special elements are emphasized: capes, ribbons...
Skirts became shorter as a result of fashion.
When dance groups –in other words, of the type we are familiar with today– began to emerge, women also started to perform men's dances and the costume known as the poxpolin began to be worn for the purpose. The features of this costume are similar to those that can be found in the areas on the shores of the Cantabrian Sea or Bay of Biscay: red skirt, black petticoat, white blouse, white headscarf, black apron and on their feet laced leather sandals with woolen socks, or white espadrilles decorated with red ribbons.
Nevertheless, numerous changes took place throughout the 20th century. For example, in the length of the skirt and apron as well as in the quality and colors of the fabrics. Furthermore, the red skirts were interspersed with green ones. There was also a widespread trend to make the knickerbockers visible with their red ribbons underneath the skirt and petticoat. But if one looks at the trend in certain dance groups, this development has been less pronounced over the last few years and attempts to return to the basics have been seen. Once could say that as far as design is concerned, there is a growing trend to revert to the old models.
On the other hand, women participated in dance, as pointed out already, in costumes based on 19th century clothing, and, in the Farming and Fishing costumes, too, even if they were not used exclusively for dance.
Costumes worn on stage
It will prove more difficult to transfer the above classification to the stage, because we will be coming across different determining factors.
Indeed, the nature of the display or show has to be borne in mind. Even though on occasions the dance can be seen as it is with the usual costumes, there are other practices, too. They include displays or shows in which a combination of dances from different places are performed, ones that have a special atmosphere and specific staging, ones that include creative works, etc.
So if traditional dances have been presented and are being presented in many ways, the costumes worn by the dancers, too, are consistent with this. That is why we cannot regard all the costumes that appear in a display or show as traditional. Although some take their inspiration from these traditional costumes, creative works exist, too.
That is why ever since displays or shows based on traditional dances during the first quarter of the 20th century began to become popular, the costumes used during them were characterized by the look that the costumes used by many dance groups had. This has led to a profound change in the sphere of our traditional costumes.
Indeed, even if the dances and costumes shown on stage were based on traditional dance and costumes, their appearance began to change, not only with respect to the color and quality of the fabrics, but also in their design. That is why traditional costumes developed along two different routes. One is the costumes of the dancers who performed local dances undoubtedly being influenced by the economy, social situation, fashion, religion etc. We could say that we would regard this development as natural. The other route is that of dance companies drawing up lists of dances to be performed in theatres and on stage; by the first half of the 20th century the costumes presented under the name of traditional Basque costumes had little in common with the basic costumes, initially because of the adaptations made, later on because of the economic situation, and in the end because of the lack of information and references –in which we have to include politics (the violent influence of the Franco era, as pointed out already).
The costumes of local dancers have changed more slowly over the years.
Specific models emerged, and so up until today the evolution has been different depending on the Groups. Many have copied from each other without knowing which clothes formed the basis. And there is no denying that the copying of what has been copied has, in the end, brought about a profound transformation.
In the 1960s under the influence of the research conducted by J. A. Urbeltz, it was possible to revive costumes and clothing that were on the point of being lost, and present them to the public. After that, a movement arose linked to this trend, and it continues solidly even today.
Nevertheless, I am of the opinion that little attention has been given to the field of dances on our cultural scene, at least not to the extent that one can find in other parts of the world. And linked to dance, as far as the costumes are concerned, they have not only been particularly neglected and forgotten, they have not been given the importance they deserved. This is why the research conducted into them has received little help and encouragement. Many regard them as something trivial, but it is this precise attitude that I regard as very trivial. Our clothing is an important part of our personality and is on a par with language and all other forms of expression. So let us give it the place it deserves in our culture.
After the Spanish Civil War [1936-39], as our culture endured violent prohibition in many fields, it sought a way out to the best of its ability. One of them was through dance costumes. Even if the "Ikurrina" [the Basque red, white and green flag] was banned, its colors were used in the costumes, as well as other symbols.
1. Masquerades: popular theatre staged in the streets of the villages of Zuberoa (Soule). The whole community participates in a pre-carnival, light-hearted performance in a holiday atmosphere. Accompanied by music, dance and mime, the characters give short, satirical speeches or "funtzioak".
2. Txerreroa: figure that carries a stick with a horse's tail at one end; Zamaltzaina: horse; Kantiniersa: woman who used to provide soldiers with refreshment in the 19th century.