The sardana is a circle dance, with the dancers looking inwards. Following the music of the cobla, an indeterminate number of alternate men and women join hands and point the short and long steps that they all know with their feet.
There is still confusion over the origin of the sardana, although now there is considerable consensus that the contrapàs and the short sardana are the most likely forerunners.
The sardana became a fashionable dance in the Empordà, Rosselló and Selva regions at the end of the 19th century but with political connotations. It was adopted by republicans in response to the Carlists, who remained faithful to the contrapàs. The real impulse, though, came from Pep Ventura, who modified the dance itself and the cobla, notably adding a new wind instrument, the tenora.
Ventura's popularity was decisive in spreading the sardana round Old Catalonia. At the same time, from Barcelona City Council, Francesc Cambó pushed for the 1902 La Mercè festival to be the festa major of all Catalonia, which led to the dance spreading to New Catalonia. That was when the idea of the sardana as a national dance really took shape.
The emotional link between the people and the sardana as a symbol of identity was very explicit under the repressive dictatorships of Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco. If it was an expression of liberty and Catalan identity, that was also an excuse to persecute and repress its activists.
Today it is the most widespread dance in Catalonia. Festa major programmes usually include a ballada, a public outdoor session at a central point during the festival. It is also worth pointing out the large number of aplecs, sardana group gatherings, that are held, some of which are renowned and have a long tradition.
In fact, there are two types of sardana associations. One is dedicated to promoting the sardana in general, and their activity focuses on various aspects of the dance. They organise ballades, concerts and courses, and some have sizeable archives that include scores and historical information. The other kind are the colles sardanistes, which are geared towards competing in the various competitions and excel in performing the dance.