Franco and the golden ages of the sardana

The sardana was encouraged by the Francoist state and suffered its greatest difficulties during the period of revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist and Stalinist control

It is still widely believed, both here and abroad, that Franco banned or discouraged the sardana, the cultural form constructed and dubbed Catalonia’s national dance by assiduous C19th inventors of tradition. Of the contemporary evidence I have come across, none of it supports this view. On the contrary, I am left with the impression that the Francoist state actually encouraged the sardana as an acceptable form of bourgeois regionalism of the type espoused by conservatives like Josep Pla. Additionally, my evidence suggests that the sardana suffered its greatest difficulties during the period of revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist and Stalinist control (1936-9).

Claims of suppression

In Barcelona

Yesterday I conducted a straw poll of seven Catalans aged 25-35, all of whom said they had been taught at school that the sardana was banned and actively suppressed by Franco. Although I haven’t yet trawled the bookshops for literary evidence, I get the impression that it to be more subtle. For example, on TV Catalunya’s site in a reference which I assume to be from Mas & Solench’s La sardana it is said that “The [Francoist] repression … affected the sardana, with various degrees of intensity.” And in M Isabel Pijoan i Picas’ text for the sardana A una terra, dansa bella, premiered in Barcelona in the Ciutadella Park on November 9th, 2003 as a highpoint of a National Homage by Catalunya to the Sardanisme of the Years 1940-50, the threat is presented in vague terms as something emanating from elsewhere:

We remember our parents
and their ancestors,
oppressed by repressions,
yearning for liberties.
When the enemy furious
wanted to erase the character
Of the Catalan homeland
I resurged, quiet
and radiant,
the sardana.


In English texts, however, the assertions are less modest and are felt to be so self-evident that no source is required. Here is a sample of quotes:

  • Franco even banned one of the Catalans’ joyful expressions of national unity, the sardana, a public circle dance. (Lonely Planet)
  • [T]he sardana was discouraged, at least in the early years of the dictatorship. (Eamonn Rodgers, Encyclopedia of Contemporary Spanish Culture)
  • By decree, the use of Catalan in official documents, the publication of books, journals, or newspapers in Catalan, even dancing the sardana, again became crimes, as they had been under Primo de Rivera. (Temma Kaplan, Red City, Blue Period: Social Movements in Picasso’s Barcelona)
  • The custom of dancing the sardana survived until 1939, when Franco decreed the suppression of all vestiges of Catalán [sic] culture, including the language and the sardana. Not until the dictator’s death in 1975 did Catalonia once again become a country within a country [this is also incorrect]. Dancing the sardana was an immediate symbol of liberation. (Charles N Barnard’s A Ramble Through Barcelona. In Lucy McCauley (ed), Travelers’ Tales Spain: True Stories.)
  • The sardana, your native dance,/Banned for many years (Cyrus Cassells, Liberty, in his anthology Soul Make a Path Through Shouting)
  • The end of the war in 1939 brought with it a return to highly centralised government, with General Franco doing everything in his power to obliterate regional differences. He banned regional languages, abolished regional laws, dismantled regional institutions and even outlawed things as inoffensive as the sardana, a Catalan regional dance. (The Elastic Nation or When Is A Category Not A Category? by Lynn Williams (Spanish lecturer, University of Exeter))
  • The sardana was prohibited during the Franco era. It became, like the language, a symbol of Catalan autonomy (Germany network, ARD, reporting on the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics)

(Robert Hughes in his Barcelona doesn’t seem to mention Franco banning the sardana, but does say that it was suppressed by dictator (1923-30) Primo de Rivera. This claim is to be found in a number of other sources and seems to be the result of confusion: in 1924 Losada, the local civil governor, did proscribe one sardana, La Santa Espina, on the grounds of incitement to separatism, but I have found no evidence of a general ban. The Lliga Sardanista de Catalunya was formed in 1929, so whatever happened can’t have been particularly thorough.)

Evidence to the contrary


The chart below is a summary of sardana premieres hacked from the Federació Sardanista de Catalunya’s wonderful online database. It suggests two golden ages, one during the late 40s and one lasting from 1970 until now, and a very bleak period from 1936-9:

And here are figures from another part of the FSC’s site listing existing and extinguished coblas (coblas are the sardana’s sub-Verdian dancebands). It confirms the picture of hard times during the Civil War followed by a flowering in the early 40s with a large peace bonus in 1945:

Blue = new bands. Red = bands closed down.
The objection will be made that people had better things to do during the war than play in bands, but that doesn’t explain why bands deregistered–after all, participation in British brass bands dropped during WWII, but they remained in existence. The natural suspicion is that the acting authorities encouraged bands to close down, and that after the war either no impediment was placed in their way by the Francoist government, or, as I suspect, they were sometimes encouraged to form.


  • The only manifestation of Catalan identity tolerated was the sardana, it being considered a regional dance and as such an example of the “richness of Spanish folklore.” For this reason, during the first years of Francoism all ceremonies and all festivals ended with performances of sardanas. This applied to both the celebration of the anniversary of the liberation of the town, January 27, and to the festa major which, in Badalona, was celebrated August 15. Specifically, during the 1939 festa major on August 15-18 there were nine sardana performances in various parts of the town. In particular, on the 18th there was an performance of sardanas and folkloristic dances organised by the Círculo Artístico Español. (Josep M.Solé i Sabaté & Joan Villaroya, Cronologia de la Repressió de la Llengua i la Cultura Catalanes)
  • Homenaje de Cataluña liberada a su Caudillo Franco, published in Barcelona in late 1939, contains a visual poem by Carles Sindreu entitled La Sardana en la Aldea (The Sardana in the Village). The Spanish text translates roughly as: Peace in the sky,/sun in the square,/and a noble crowd embracing. Sindreu seems to have worked for the union for a couple of months in 1937 and gone into copywriting after the war, and he published a couple of sardanas in 1958 for choir, La sardana dels infants and La sardana dels pastors.
  • Ricardo León in a novel published in 1941 and dominated by the long shadow of the horrors of 1936, Cristo en los infiernos, alludes with contempt but without venom to those dancers who thought to oppose might “with zorcicos and sardanas, sickles of the reapers [a reference to a semi-mythologised C17th war] and the wooden swords of the espatadantzaris.” (Remember that books still had to make it past the censors at this point in time.)
  • Julio Caro Baroja’s 1946 Los Pueblos de España contains a sympathetic account of the dance and its social function citing authorities like Amades, Pujol and Capmany.
  • After the war, bit by bit, sardanista groups begin to reappear and the music of the sardana begins to be felt again in the streets. In 1950 the Organisation for Popular Dance (Obra del Ballet Popular) was formed formally with the objective of coordinating the promotional entities and the Congresses for Sardanista Studies (Jornades d’Estudis Sardanistes) were established (1959), the Universal Day of the Sardana (1960) and Prizes for Sardanista Merit. (Federació Sardanista de Catalunya)

So what happened?

We all know that Franco was a bloody dictator. What I’d like to know is how so many people who were in a position to know and tell the truth have been able to act for so long to transfer to Franco guilt for cultural destruction that on this evidence seems to belong to the motley collection of forces opposed to him. I’d also like to know why they did so, as well as the extent to which other areas of cultural policy have been subject to misleading reinterpretation.

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  1. There’s a lot of good stuff (principally academic papers) appearing at the moment, but in general (and in my undoubted ignorance) I sense a reluctance on the part of the profs to bother the holy cows of Civil War and Francoist historiography.
    The hypothesis that Franco believed that sufficient exposure to coblas would cure people of the sardana craze is attractive and as yet unrefuted.
    My impression is that the language wasn’t oppressed anything like as aggressively as we are told. For example, in the 1940s Catalan novels by a wide range of authors seem to have been being published in Barcelona, I’ve seen adverts from a bookseller specialising in Catalan literature based just off Plaça Catalunya at that time, there was professional and amateur theatre in Catalan, and some schools were writing large chunks of their yearbooks in Catalan. That’s not what the history books say but it does seem to have the advantage of being the truth.

  2. So why would people be slapped on the face in the streets of BCN for not using “God’s Own Language2 ie Spanish in public. It happened to a relative of mine, whose Spanish skills were obviously too poor to match Policia Armada standards in the 1940s…Catalan people were shit scared and represseion was wholesale, you could use your jonb at the drop of a hat if some grass filed a complaint against you, particularly if you happened to be a teacher trained under the Republic, etc.
    There’s plenty of off-line academic biblography regarding the restricted and restrictive use of Catalan for printing purposes after the war, all of it of course dealing with harmless, often religious stuff, albeit with ridiculous print-runs that were virtually inaccessible to the genbeal public, in othe words, a whitewash “just in case”.
    BTW, what’s your -rather sloppily- “hidden” agenda actually Trevor? what are you trying to prove? that the Catalans have only got themselves to blame for the sorry state of their language and culture perhaps, and that Franco, Anzar and that regular source of inspiration, Libertad Digital, were and are all, neutral, liberal, market-driven fair players?

  3. David, I’ll come back to the language issue another day when I’ve found and read Francesc Ferrer’s La Persecució Política de la Llengua Catalana. Feel free to tell me if there’s anything else you think I should be looking at.
    Of course there was repression – there are plenty more stories of the type you mention in your first para and there is no reason to disbelieve them – but I suspect from reading stuff like Jaume Fabre’s fine 2002 doctoral thesis re the transition in 1939 that there was much less than we are generally told and that, for example, Catalanism in general was not targeted while Catalan separatism definitely was. I haven’t got a hidden agenda, but I would like to know on the basis of historical evidence whether my suspicions are correct or not.

  4. Purely anecdotal, but I was talking to my great-uncle over the festive period, who was in Barcelona in 1951ish. He spoke some Spanish and was surprised to find people openly criticising the regime when he asked about how things were. When he asked “Aren’t you afraid to say these things?” he was told, “oh it’s fine to criticise – just as long as you don’t try to do anything about it.”

  5. I have no evidence, but I suspect that the sudden closure of so many coblas in 36 was a consequence of the general assault by the CNT-FAI militias and death squads on traditional culture.

  6. Perhaps Montserrat Guibernau’s new book ‘Catalan Nationalism: Francoism, Transition and Democracy’ might have something to say about this. She’s at the UK OU and her book is due out in hardback this month at a mere £60 from Routledge (Taylor and Francis: 0415322405). I have no interest in promoting it but she is a leading figure (not a ‘prof’, though, I think) in this particular grove of academe. Based on Guibernau’s previous work I would expect her book to be pro-nationalist and herself to be critical of your position, Trevor. But as the reactions to polemics by the likes of Trevor-Roper on the Scottish case and to Michael Hechter’s ‘Internal Colonialism’ thesis on Celtic pan-nationalism show, there’s nothing like noising up nationalist academics with something contentious to stimulate a bit of historiographical ground-clearing.

  7. Thanks Pete, I’ll look out for it, although from what I’ve seen of her so far she tends to concentrate on theory, the big picture, and loads of other stuff repugnant to revisionist raincoats like me.
    BTW, last night in a bookshop round the corner I found the Ferrer book in a first edition signed by the great man. Unfortunately the proprietor wanted 30EUR. Can anyone give me a better price?

  8. My impression is also that Catalan was not nearly as discriminated against as we are told. Book publishing in Catalan resumed in 1940 at the Montserrat monastery–acceptably Catholic, agreed, but in Catalan. At secondhand bookstores you can find plenty of books in Catalan published during the years of the Franco regime. Stanley Payne’s book The Spanish Revolution lists five books published in Catalan in its bibliography that were published during the Franco regime. Lluis Llach and Els Setze Judges and those people were all going strong in Catalan beginning in the early Sixties; there was no shortage of avant-garde stuff in the theaters in Catalan at that time.
    What fascinates me is that every time somebody like Trevor or me challenges a Catalanist myth, we are immediately accused of having a hidden pro-Spain agenda. Nationalists can’t believe that you might oppose their reasoning without having some sort of external hidden motivation. conspiracy cranks, the lot of ’em.

  9. It’s true that there was a language repression right after the war, but there was a serious political repression in every other respect, so the language issue would be a comparatively less serious, if still humilliating, matter.
    According to figures I checked up once for Basque language publishing, the legal deposit listed two titles in 1947 (interestingly, the same date that Montserrat mentioned) growing upwards to over 600 by 1965.
    I believe by the mid 60s censorship was based on content not language. My Tintin and Asterix comic books, bought at the late sixties listed about 20 languages the comics were being published in, including Basque and Catalan. The latter by the same well known Barcelona publisher (Ed. Juventud for Tintin, and Ed. Bruguera for Asterix IIRC) that did the Castillian edition. Too bad I didn’t keep them. They would be valuable collector’s items today.

  10. John I’m amazed that anybody could accuse you of having a hidden pro-Spain agenda. For what I know, you wear your pro-Spain agenda in your sleeve. What I don’t get is why aren’t you proud of doing so. One of the main subjects of your blog is the debunking of any Catalan nationalists myths, no matter how irrelevant or how ridiculed by Catalans themselves these myths are. On the other hand, though, you don’t seem to be able to find any Spanish nationalism myths worth debunking, which makes blatantly clear that you’re not that neutral foreigner who dislikes any form of nationalism you claim to be. What’s wrong with being a Spanish nationalist? What’s so terrible about honestly accepting that you’re one of them?

  11. JotaEle: I think what’s interesting about the language repression – and I’m still half way through my reading list – is that foreigners are told by bodies like the Generalitat that it was total, and that this was of huge importance, while here people tend to quietly agree among themselves that it wasn’t.
    Robert: I don’t know him, but I suspect that John’s more of a contrarian than a Spanish nationalist and that if he lived in Avila he’d have half a dozen neo-Falangists breathing down his neck.

  12. The sources you have are totally wrong. The franquist dictadure promoted regional dances as acceptable expressions of the “indisoluble” unity of Spain. But mixing this with reports of catalan not being persecuted is very very far from the truth.
    The situation of catalan in Franco’s Spain varied along the years. In the years of the Civil War and during the Second World War, the acceptance of catalan was minimal and all the education and public services were forced to used the spanish.
    The situation changed slowly as the years passed, but education in catalan, the normal use of this language in the administration, the first newspaper in catalan and the first radio in catalan arrived after Franco’s death. If you try to say Franco wasn’t so bad with catalan, you’ll find few people in Catalonia who agrees with you. Including non-separatists catalonians.

  13. Hold on, I never said that. What I said was that I didn’t know but that I was going to find out. When you find out that people have been spreading what looks like a deliberate untruth about one area of Catalan cultural life, you naturally become suspicious about what they have told you about other areas.

  14. La Santa Espina was also banned during the first year’s of Franco’s dictatorship. I’ll have to check with my dad to get the exact year the ban was lifted (he was there the fist time a “cobla” was allowed to play it again in Badalona) but he’s in his early 70s so I reckon we are talking late 1940s here.

  15. That would be very interesting. I know if I were a paranoid fascist dictator it would be one of the first things I would ban, but the text is actually pretty innocent. I guess it’s not what you sing but the way you sing it, as Civil Governor Losada observes here.
    (I recently almost became conductor of a cobla that shall remain nameless. They invited me along for a chat and I had a great time, but I think the shared conclusion was this wasn’t a relationship that would last.)

  16. John Chappell, apparently you’ve got as much sense of humour left in you as a 1960’s Dixieland kangaroo court passing judgement on a Black Civil Rights activist…if you try to read -and I mean read, not rewrite- what I wrote above about “hidden agendas” you’ll find it disproves your rantings about what you term “conspiracy-obsessed Catalanistes”. BTW, not all those who disagraee with Spanish Nationalist Mythology need necessarily be “Catalanistes”, for all I know they could just as well be Tibetans fed up with latter-day Neoconfucianism, they call it “globalisation” these days.
    Trevor, mate, so much cobla-carousing of late seems to have played havoc with your good sense. Mind you, I myself couldn’t tell a tenora from a flabiol and the mere thought of a strident sardana makes my blood freeze…However, stating that John Chappell, a self-confessed militant sympathiser of the PP (I’m not making it up, it’s plastered all over his blog for anybody to see) is “more of a contrarian than a Spanish Nationalist” is at least a bit rich and at most bloody biased, since he’s getting extra brownie points on account of his “alien, non-ethnic” origins…don’t you think?

  17. This is boring, off-topic and will probably get me blasted, but I think it’s important to understand that the PP and Spanish nationalism are not the same thing. There are plenty of people here who regard themselves as Catalan nationalists and vote CiU in the regional elections but who then vote PP in the nationals to – as they see it – keep out the Reds. Yes, there is an important strain of flag-waving Spanish nationalism in the PP, but there are also those in the party who find that side of things embarrassing (did you see Aznar trying to say ¡Viva España! to a room full of soldiers in Iraq?) and are more interested in completing its transformation to a centrist grouping with a liberal economic bent. If they succeed, and if they simultaneously get rid of some of the cretins in the local party, then there’s no reason why the PP shouldn’t do very much better in Catalunya.

  18. And come to that they’ll dish you up a cushy job as a foreign affairs analyst of choice…oh come on, you’re peddling the same kind of bilge as your Iberiannotes pal, “the PP as the Natural Party of the Right in Catalonia”
    where have I heard this before, wasn’t it Mr Ibarra, one of PSOE’s Official Spanish Nationalists, saying the same on the evening news just a while ago? “let’s chuck all those-below-5%-Basques-and-Catalans out of the Spanish Parliament for the sake of normality?
    Well, dream on. I’m afraid the history of the last 150 years unfortunately contradicts such lofty ideals. Budget-conscious and conservative as they may be, most centre-right-minded Catalans still cling to the notion that entrusting Catalan affairs to a mainstream Spanish party is tantamount to committing national harakiri. As you must have realised by keeping an eye on local affairs, Spanish Nationalism, both Left and Right-wing, is alive and well and expecting to live still a great many years in best health, nothing by way of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” over here that I’d know of.
    If other countries would rather settle for a more constructive solution, why then expect the Catalans to humour the Spaniards and dissapear once and for all from history without causing a regrettable disturbance?

  19. I’d be interested to hear how you get on with the business of books. I have often heard it said (without attribution) that the occupiers either burnt or pulped all Catalan library books when they took over. Are there any books in Catalan from pre-39 in the library service’s collection? (If pulping did occur, then there may be a fairly simple explanation. Orwell already notes shortages of everything in 37 and Sima Lieberman (Growth and Crisis in the Spanish Economy: 1940-93) says that Spain was not self-sufficient in paper products in the early 40s. What do you do? Pulp books you don’t need.)

  20. I will lend you La persecució if you email me. I would be interested if you find public writing in Catalan before the end of the war in Europe because the first big developments I know about are due to Editorial Aymà (later Proa, then Enciclopèdia Catalana) in around 1947.

  21. You may not have read Lluís Subirana Catalanisme i sardanisme. It says that the first sardanas after the war were danced in Olot on februari 14 1939 and that dances were only banned if the local governor was in a bad mood. But Subirana makes the same mistake as all the other historians here by quoting Josep Benet and saying that this was cultural genocide by Franco. He also says he can’t find any evidence about 36-39, which can’t be true. It is embarrassing to me that historians here prefer to believe ideology than facts.

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  23. John: I know something about Ricardo León, a incredibly bad writer before in the pre-war times. After it he was made “académico”… I keep the letters he wrote in 1941 to my father, then a young journalist. What a intellectual misery!
    By the way, the leftist writer Gálvez, who saved the León’s life in the war, never was helped by him before being shooted…

  24. I vividly remember growing up in the seventies in premia de mar and seeing coblas sardanistes dancing away on sundays as well as the general public, it must be said that it was regarded as a tad rancid back then and us children used to take the mickey, ’cause it looked silly, on “festas” days there were sardanas and then off to the beach for ron cremat and barbequed sardines accompanied by tipsy men dressed in striped white and blue tops (very cote d’azur look but in a “pagès” way) singing “habaneres”. Catalan was spoken freely by everyone that was “catalanoparlant” in the village, the obvious signs of fascist repression being that it was not taught at school or used for shop signage which brings me to the present age with a sick feeling of deja-vu, isn’t this what’s happening again? With the added plus that nowadays they fine you (just ’cause they cannot take you to the police station and give you a couple of “ostias”, not pc these days ). In short , I never noticed such crimes against our catalonian culture back then, maybe I was too young and naive to notice…..but I certainly went to the “group d’esplai”, was taught to play catalan songs with my recorder and witnessed catalan children bullying “charnegos” on the playground banning them from playing with anyone because they were not pure catalans….. some food for thought…

  25. One of the reasons why the sardana was encouraged by the facists was because it is a very chaste dance, unlike the American dances that arrived in the 1940’s.

  26. Haha, hadn’t thought of that! Another reason for the promotion of traditionalist regionalism after the war was to combat international working class homogeneity (or whatever). Hence the Campaña de austeridad y modestia in La Rioja in 1939: “La historia y la geografía de España que, juntamente con el principio de la unidad esencial imponen el de la diversidad regional, habían multiplicado las características de la indumentaria de cada provincia, en la cual dejaban su huella diversas contingencias históricas e influencias venidas por los más distintos caminos. Hoy, España es una de las naciones en que el indumentario típico ha desaparecido de una manera más radical ante la invasión del tipo obrero que, con distintas variantes prevalece en toda Europa, y que no se distingue, ciertamente, por su buen gusto ni por su vistosidad. En tanto que en Bretaña y en Normandía, en el Tiroi y en las llanuras húngaras y alemanas, os frecuente, en los días de fiesta, poder contemplar los atuendos bizarros y multicolores de los campesinos, en nuestra España van quedando relegados a exhibiciones eruditas, faltas de espontaneidad. Hoy, que ha sido derrotado el marxismo, luchemos también contra el marxismo en la indumentaria y revaloricemos la alegría triunfal de aquellas galas con las cuales nuestras campesinas se presentaban en las romería como grandes señoras.”

  27. A touch late but…
    Why would anyone assume that there was any more linear a relationship between the creation of laws and their enforcement in Franco’s Spain than there is now?

  28. Catalonian History must do the same as English History and show the truth: how the Catalonians have always been victimes of the Spanish. Who cares about the sardana

  29. Most Catalan history professors seem to agree that their subject is a branch of the nationalist-socialist propaganda machine, but no one’s going to take you seriously anywhere else, except maybe in Aberystwyth and Cork

  30. BTW, I seem to remember Manuel Ortínez (Una vida entre burgesos) mention that he saw Josep Pla weep as he listened to separatist number La santa espina in public in 1950

  31. Trevor #22 wrote:
    “This is boring, off-topic and will probably get me blasted, but I think it’s important to understand that the PP and Spanish nationalism are not the same thing.”
    Trevor, you seem a bright guy but sometimes you make me wonder…Check these two links:
    Now try to tell us that the PP is not the quintessential Spanish nationalist party.

  32. Ten years ago half of CiU’s rural mayors were ex-members of the División Azul, but no one would have accused them of being Spanish nationalists. Galician separatism is the foster child of none other than Manuel Fraga. Etc etc.

  33. #41 “Ten years ago half of CiU’s rural mayors were ex-members of the División Azul, but no one would have accused them of being Spanish nationalists. Galician separatism is the foster child of none other than Manuel Fraga. Etc etc.”
    Are you following on Iberian Notes and just posting lies and slurs? Can you substantiate the nonsense you just wrote. I expected more of you….
    Get help before you get old…

  34. Falangist CiU mayors: My favourite is Primitivo Forastero I’ll find some more for you if you want. I don’t know why you’re so surprised – totalitarian views often transcend mere flags, as Hitler and Stalin once discovered. I’m sure you remember hyper-nationalist Joan Laporta’s brother in law, who he brought onto the board of Barça despite knowing of his links with the Francisco Franco Foundation.
    2) Fraga turned Galicia into a nationalist, caciquist fief in the same way Jordi Pujol did with Catalonia, controlling the regional media with a system of carrots and sticks and distributing large quantities of pork to anyone who jumped on his bandwagon. Like Pujol, he presided over the destruction (via massive and often illegal speculative construction) of vast areas of the coast and the interior. The separatists learnt from him and are now applying his system with relish.

  35. I don’t think any Spanish historians have taken her seriously for 20-odd years. In line with the rejection of dogmatic Marxist interpretation in general, a guy called Álvarez Junco destroyed her work on the 1892 rising in Jerez. Much of the Barcelona book is too silly for words.

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