Dance and music have always been more than just a form of entertainment in Brittany. They are also one of the most powerful expressions of identity in a country that has frequently been hostile to efforts to sustain Breton individuality.
In the largely agricultural society, dances frequently reflected collective activities that were part of the routine of daily life. For example, beating the earth floor of a new or repaired house or treading down the ground to prepare a threshing floor. The most typical dance pattern is a circle and, as in society, it only works properly if all the dancers are in the correct place. The individual plays a small but vital role in the success of the endeavour.
Of course dances were also held to celebrate traditional social events such as weddings and as part of religious festivals. And while themes are common across Brittany, traditional dances do vary by geographical region with each ‘pays’ having a different variety of a more widely spread dance type.
The second half of the 20th century saw the start of a strong Breton dance revival that continues to this day. The main expression of this is the fest-noz, or night festival, and the fest deiz (day festival). Since the reinvigoration of the fest-noz in the 1950s, people have gathered in large numbers to perform circle dances from dusk to dawn, accompanied by traditional acoustic instruments such as the accordion, and the biniou (a kind of bagpipe) and the bombarde (similar to the oboe).
Around a thousand fest-noz take place each year, with hundreds or even thousands of participants. In 2012, UNESCO inscribed the event into its ‘List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’, saying, “The Fest-Noz is characterized by an intense camaraderie among the singers, musicians and dancers, significant social and intergenerational diversity, and openness to others. Today, the Fest-Noz is at the centre of an intense ferment of musical experiences and has spawned a veritable cultural economy.”
Find out about other Celtic Dancing: