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FEBRUARY 2002

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Eaurtako Neska Dantza: why are there so many young widows in America? 
by Lisa Corcostegui

Eaurtako Neska Dantza or the "Girls' Dance from Eaurta," also known as "Axuri Beltza" (because of the lyrics that accompany the dance) has become a staple in the repertoire of many American Basque dance groups.  In the United States it has somehow taken on yet another name: The "Widow's Dance."  

It is hard to say exactly how this strange interpretation evolved and spread through our Basque communities.  Since nothing about the dance itself or the lyrics of the song suggest death or mourning, I believe that it was the misinterpretation of two things that contributed to this American misnomer.  Before I reveal my theory, however, allow me to provide some background about the Old World context of the dance.  

Eaurta is a village in the Salazar Valley of Nafarroa.  By the 1960s a girls' dance from there had been virtually forgotten.  The lyrics remained, as did a few elderly women who had danced it as girls.  Apparently, these women, in their youth,  had borrowed a genre of dance that was only publicly performed by men and had invented a dance to entertain themselves during the hours they spent looking after the cows in the pasture land outside of town.  They sang the music and sometimes also used a small instrument called a muxu gitarra or mouth harp to accompany their steps.

When Juan Antonio Urbeltz conducted fieldwork in Eaurta in the 1960s he interviewed some of the women who recalled having done the dance but realized that the dance could not be reproduced exactly because their memories weren't relaible or their physical condition did not allow them  to perform the movements as they remembered them.  Based on his extensive knowledge of the genre and the guidance of the informants, Urbeltz recreated the dance and incorporated it into the repertoire of his Basque dance company, Argia.  

For Argia's performance of Eaurtako Neska Dantza, Urbeltz choreographed an entrance and exit in which the dancers enter holding hands in a single-file line.  He set this entrance and exit to a melancholy melody for a dramatic and elegant effect.  

Since dances for women are in short supply in the traditional repertoire of Basque folk dance, groups in the Basque Country and others as far away as Latin America and the United States soon adopted the dance to lend more variety to their programs.  

Let us return now to the process in which young cow herders became widowed in America.  As I stated above, I believe there are two main causes.  One is the melancholy music of the entrance and exit of the dance.  It certainly is somber.  However, as soon as the actual dance begins the mood lightens and offers no hint of mourning.  The lyrics which compare a black lamb with a white one, and say that the one who wants to learn to dance must look at the dancer's feet, also indicate no trace of widowhood.  

The second factor that I believe influenced the American misinterpretation of the dance is the costume worn by the dancers.  While we are accustomed to wearing what we please and expressing our individuality through clothing, this was a foreign concept in many parts of the Basque Country a hundred years ago.  Dress was an identity marker for the residents of particular valleys or towns.  Everyone of the same age or marital status dressed the same way.  The colors of trim on a garment often indicated something specific about a person's origin or status.  Black was a dominant color for clothing in the Salazar Valley.  It did not inherently indicate mourning.  The adolescent girls wore the black skirt and black embellished jackets shown in the photos above for special occasions and the first Sunday their banns of marriage were announced at mass.   When this dance became popular among American dance groups,  most Basque-Americans were only familiar with the girl's costume consisting of the red skirt, black vest, etc.  The regional costume of Eaurta stood in stark contrast to the bright red of the traditional nationalist costume.  Lacking knowledge of the context in which the dance developed, and searching for a meaning, dancers here applied  our modern cultural vocabulary in which black equals mourning, and coupled with Urbeltz's solemn prelude, formulated an explanation that made sense to them.  

Communication between the Basque communities of the United States and the Basque Country has improved in leaps and bounds since Eaurtako Neska Dantza first was performed on American soil.  It is now easier to learn about the background of the dances we perform.  By exploring the Old World contexts of  our dances, we can learn  more about our culture and share a more authentic vision of the Basque Country with our audiences.

The Lyrics of Axuri Beltza  

Axuri beltza ona dun baina
xuria berriz hobea
dantzan ikasi nahi duen horrek
nere oinetara begira

Zertan ari haiz bakar dantzatzen
agertzen gorputz erdia
su ilun horrek argitzen badin
ageriko haiz guzia

 

 

 

copyright  Argia
Eaurtako Neska Dantza by Argia

copyright  Argia
Eaurtako Neska Dantza by Argia

copyright  Aunamendi 1974 - from: Como han sido y como son los vascos I p.480
Vintage photo of girls from the Salazar Valley

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copyright L. Corcostegui 2001