Monday, August 25, 2014

Folk Dance Traditions: The cossiers

In 1962, Mallorca welcomed an English dance group. It was called Thurrock International Folk Dance. Alas, this group no longer appears to exist, and one wonders whether its rather grand title didn't perhaps disguise a dance troupe altogether less grand. With all due respect, Thurrock, lying as it does on the Thames Estuary, is not the first place which comes to mind when one thinks of folk-dance traditions. Nevertheless, the group was given a warm welcome in Mallorca. It had been in touch with José María Oliver, a name that may be familiar to those who were around in the heyday of the Casa Oliver in Palma. The building was important in the history of tourism in Palma. It was one of the establishments which formed, along with the likes of Tagomago and Son Amar, the Palma de Noche excursion. It attracted international artists - genuine ones rather than those from Thurrock - and was known for its music and of course its dance. It ceased to be in 1990.

José María had long had an association with folk-dance traditions on the island. Two years after Casa Oliver closed, he was awarded the Belgian Order of the Crown. His relationship with Belgium had also gone back to 1962, when he had arranged for the Folkloric Group to perform for disabled visitors from Belgium in Santa Ponsa. He was, therefore, just the man that Thurrock International Folk Dance was looking for. It wished to get to know the folk-dance traditions of Mallorca, and José María threw a reception in the group's honour at Casa Oliver and made sure that its members got in free to various shows.

What Thurrock International Folk Dance did with the knowledge it gleaned is unknown. It was doubtless interested in Mallorcan folk dance, but - and I hope I am not doing its memory an injustice - it is just possible that it was one of those groups who managed to come to Mallorca as a "closed" group and who therefore got package travel prices lower than normal airfares. When it came in 1962, folk dance, as with anything traditional in Mallorca, was under threat. This was right at the time when mass tourism and migration to the coasts from the countryside were starting to do their best (or worst) to undermine traditions.

Nevertheless, around this time there were specific efforts to attract tourists to these traditions. The town of Algaida produced a short leaflet. It featured four dancers waving what look like hankies and a fifth dancer dressed as a demon. They were the town's cossiers.

Documentary evidence of the existence of these folk dancers dates back to Sóller in 1544. Many towns came to have cossier troupes, but the number of towns dwindled. Today, there are, in addition to Palma, only five - Manacor, Alaró, Pollensa, Algaida and its immediate neighbour, Montuïri - and of these, the latter two are the only towns where the cossier tradition has been virtually unbroken for centuries (Algaida had a short break not long after it produced its leaflet, but the tradition was swiftly revived in 1973).

The gaps in the tradition have been very much longer elsewhere. In Pollensa, for instance, it was some fifty years before the cossiers were brought back to life at the annual La Patrona fiestas, having previously been a feature of the June Sant Pere fiesta in Puerto Pollensa, something which had come to a halt at the end of the 1920s. The cossiers are now very much a part of the celebrations on the day of La Patrona, but their tradition in Pollensa is nothing like as strong as it is in Algaida or especially in Montuïri.

Written evidence of the cossiers in Montuïri can be found from the 1820s, though the tradition there is much older. And it is this nearly two-hundred-year-old evidence which acts as the template for cossiers elsewhere. Three pairs of men, the lady and the devil, a collision of good and bad, which provides further evidence to suggest that the cossiers' dances are rooted in ancient paganism that passed through Catalan tradition before being transplanted in Mallorca. And these dances are defined. There is, for instance, the "flower of myrtle" dance, the "Master John" dance and also the "midnight" dance.

This latter dance had, in effect, been lost for more than sixty years. But it has been revived. At the Sant Bartomeu celebrations in Montuïri last weekend, they danced the "midnight" dance.

Would Thurrock International Folk Dance have witnessed the cossiers? Possibly so. And would the "flower of myrtle" have been danced somewhere in Essex as a consequence? Who knows? But there is one connection between the Mallorcan cossiers and English folk dance. Morris Dancers also have set dances, and some (those without the sticks) are not that far removed from those of the cossiers. It is said that Morris dance comes from Moorish dance in Spain.

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