Ibiza History & Culture


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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman


Ball Pagès



 
Historical Information

Welcome to the history page. As promised, this week we explore some of the unsuspected subtleties of ball pagès or traditional Ibicenco folk dancing. This subject, more anthropological in nature than historical, intrudes rather conspicuously on Kirk's domain; however, as an integral part of the village festivities that so frequently our attention, Kirk has given his blessing for the 'intrusion'.

In Ibiza today there are some 20 folk dance groups called collas whose aim is to revive the lapse in the island's indigenous culture. Colla members don the traditionally dress of generations past, produce music with 4 or 5 age-old instruments and follow, literally, in the footsteps that their forebears have traced since time immemorial.

To really understand Ibicenco folk dancing - its origin, its evolution and its role in present-day island society - one must travel back to the Middles Ages (spanning both the Islamic and the Christian cultures) when Ibiza was primarily an agricultural society. Island inhabitants had few distractions apart from the sowing and reaping of farm life and, for centuries, xocotes, or informal fiestas, provided a social framework for human interaction and celebration. Xocotes were generally spontaneous rural gatherings where Ibicencos found joyous release from their drudgery through popular song and dance.

The inevitable encroachment of modern life that came with tourism brought about an abrupt shift from the agrarian-based economy of yore to a fast-paced, business-oriented economy. In the space of 20 years, the island's social structures and daily customs were drastically altered.

Threat To Tradition

By the early 1960s, folklore was on the road to oblivion as go-go dancing, Elvis Presley and The Beatles instituted themselves as icons of modernity, even in a society as remote as Ibiza. The situation quickly became critical as only a few families conserved the ancient knowledge of folk dancing, the craft of carving instruments from wood and the confection of typical apparel.

Interestingly, prior to this state of affairs (in the early 1950s), the Council of Culture had begun to organize folk dance teams to compete at the national and international level. These teams met with great success, consistently winning first and second prizes at folk festivals all over Spain and Europe. However, being made up of relatively few members, this endeavour encompassed only a small slice of the island's native population. Moreover, the teams were of a markedly competitive nature: their sole focus was on off-island performances and not even dress rehearsals were practised in public.

By the mid-1960s, the irony of 'exporting' a virtually extinct culture, while excluding its heirs from the revival, became apparent to all. As spontaneously as flowers bloom in spring, collas began sprouting up in every township across the island. In fact, Santa Eulàlia's principal colla is called es Broll ('The Sprout'), a reference to the rebirth of popular Ibicenco culture.

The very first colla to form was the Aires de sa Talaia of Sant Josep. They organized bi-weekly demonstrations of ball pagès, which, with the collaboration of local tour operators, became quite popular with tourists. Many colla members have followed this precedent and currently stage regular folklore exhibitions in most of the island's towns and villages.

About The Dance

In ball pagès, the roles of men and women are clearly differentiated. The woman is submissive; keeping her arms close to her body and her gaze fixed on the ground - never on her partner. With short, quick steps she traces a pattern of circles around her male counterpart. The man, on the other hand, is not bound by any pre-determined steps. Rather, he tries to demonstrate with jumps and kicks, his strength and masculinity in order to win the favour of the woman. (In traditional Ibicenco courtship, it is the woman who chooses her husband from various suitors.)

The image of the Ibicenco woman in customary dress has been likened to Phoenician terracotta's (i.e. busts of Tanit), whose triangular form and distant air keep men ever questing. The man is often compared to the rooster. Old documents speak of a now extinct Ball des Gall (Dance of the Cock), and, indeed, the red cap, scarf and tassel of the belt are reminiscent of the rooster's crest, wattles and tail feathers.

As previously mentioned the dances were the product of a rural farming society that depended on water for its survival. Due to the preciousness of this element, a fervent water cult had already developed in pre-Christian times. The desire to pay homage to this life-giving liquid gave rise to ritualized dances around wells and springs where supplications for fertile lands and plentiful harvests were offered up to the heavens. The custom of dancing around wells and springs is still prevalent today, although a good deal (but not all) of the superstition has been lost. Island ancients also danced to render homage to the moon and the stars and to celebrate weddings.

Underlying Influences

Ibicenco music, even more than the dance itself, it undeniably Arabic in character. Song lyrics are barely intelligible as syllables are cut short, the words no more than a murmur in an archaic and haunting melody. The Catalan Conquest in 1235 brought about the Christianization of many of these rituals, although the pagan origin of the dances is still palpable beneath the veneer of medieval European trappings.

Instruments

The base of Ibicenco music is wind and percussion. All instruments are made and played exclusively by men, and, curiously, there are no string instruments. Formerly, its player handcrafted each instrument, and great pride was taken in the carving of decorative motifs on the drum and castanets. Today, however, only a very few elderly craftsmen remain who remember the age-old technique of instrument making. In light of this decline, the Island Council is investigating the possibility of creating workshops in which the old masters might pass down their skills to younger apprentices.

At present, ball pagès generates high enthusiasm among Ibicencos of all ages. Colla organizers are pleased to see the resurrection of island culture. Their only misgiving is that folk music and dance, one a living part of popular culture, has become somewhat frozen in its evolution. Sadly, ball pagès is no longer the spontaneous, intrinsic expression of joy that it once was; instead, it has been relegated to the status of an extracurricular activity, a hobby of sorts.

Xicu Bufí and Antonio Marí, both of whom helped in the research of this article and both experts in the field, expressed the common conviction that the glamour and spectacle inherent in staged productions of ball pagès actually rob it of its true beauty, which is simple, unassuming and deeply rooted in nature.

Common Dances

What follows is a brief description of six of the most common dances still performed today:

1) sa Curta (the short dance) is so called because it is of short duration. It was danced by community elders in initiate festivities and to give permission for other to start dancing. It is a slow dance.

2) sa Llarga (the long dance) is the opposite of sa Curta. The young people show their energy with a much faster rhythm.

3) sa Filera (the line dance) involves one man and three women in a row. It seems to have been a wedding dance in which her two maids of honour accompany the bride. The rhythm is the same as sa Llarga.

4) ses Dos Balladores (the two dancing ladies) is another variation of sa Llarga in which the man courts two women alternately without deciding upon either. In the end, he kneels down between the two female dancers.

5) es Canvi de Parella (the change of partners) is also based on sa Llarga. Two male dancers position themselves so as to be able to change partners without interrupting the symmetrical circles of the female dancers.

6) ses Nou Rodades (the dance of the nine circles) is perhaps the most beautiful and impressive of the dances and is the culminating dance at nuptial festivals. The newlyweds trace several circles, separating and then rejoining at a central point where they touch forearms and elbows. After the sixth circle, the bride shows her wedding rings (24 in all) given to her by the groom.

The Instruments Used

1) es Tambor (the drum) is made from the trunk of a fig tree that is hollowed out with fire and fitted with a rabbit skin.

2) sa Flauta (the flute) is made from a branch of oleander and has three holes.

3) s'Espasi (the sword) is the only metallic piece in island music and adds a certain stridency of sound.

4) ses Castanyoles (the castanets) is probably the most unusual feature of Ibicenco music due to their large size and the sound they make (like horses' hooves). Made from the root of the juniper tree, they are used by the man, not the woman as in Andalusia.

5) sa Xeremia is a wind instrument made from reeds that was used mostly by shepherds. In the British Museum in London there is an identical item, the Egyptian maid.

Closing

So there you have the basics of Ibicenco folk dancing, a rich element of island culture that, thankfully, has been preserved, even if only on stage. There is ample opportunity to see this colourful, ancient dance, as it is a fixed feature at all patron saint's fiestas. It is also is performed regularly in many towns and villages, though you'll have to check with the Town Halls to find out the exact days and times. See you next week when we'll discuss . . . something or other!

 

All Pictures © Gary Hardy (Fiesta de Sant Llorenç de Balàfia 10th August 1992)

Emily Kaufman

emilykaufman@liveibiza.com