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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Fiestas of El Palmar Baile de las Libreas

Dusty Bin's Canarian Cousin

When someone talks of one of the oldest folk dances on the island of Tenerife, unique to the village of El Palmar, possibly originating in the 17th Century, then explains at length how important it is and how it needs to be preserved, what I really expected was something solemn demanding of serious respect. However, the Baile de las Libreas (Livery Dance) turns out to be a satirical piece turned entertainment for kids of all ages.

It consists of three pairs of dancers, all male, three of whom are dressed as women, plus figures representing male and female devils. The whole symbolizes the struggle between good and evil and the dancers dance, jumping and gyrating with exaggerated movements, to the sound of the "tajaraste" (pipes and drums) around the streets of the village, eventually setting fire to the devil figures in order to purify and drive away evil.

Men dress for the male and (unconvincing) female parts, in granny's recycled chintz curtains.

Many different theories exist over exactly when, how and why this dance originated, but it seems that a combination of elements fused at some unknown point in history. The "tajaraste", most likely originates with the pre-conquest aboriginal inhabitants of the islands and was combined with Christian events as a means to attract more people.

The dancers who dress as women have powdered faces and wear veils, from which may come the custom of masks at carnival and, the presence of devils in religious processions seems to have been an island obsession, as is written in the records of the tribunals of the Inquisition. One can understand having the male dancers dress up as women, as this was the accepted custom of the era. Cross-dressing has a long history in theatre, for instance, even in the English Renaissance, because it just wasn't done for women to perform.

However, these costumes - that look like they've been made out of chintz curtains - are more Pantomime Dame and nobody is fooled: this is comedy and these are men in skirts.

The dance itself, though reasonably strange, with its sarcastically exaggerated steps, is hardly the high spot of the entertainment. We are told that they set light to the devil figures as a purification and to drive away evil - though we must say that "going to hell" does not seem half as daunting if the devil looks like Dusty Bin's Canarian cousin.

The devil set on fire. About a meter from the audience.

What this meant, in reality, was that they lit a column of fireworks that are attached to the back of the figures. They then run round the plaza, which fills with smoke, pointing their backs to the audience - the more so just as the fireworks are about to go bang - at a distance that would have fire safety officers giving birth to whole litters of kittens.

The night-time procession of the Icon of the Virgin de la Consolación

It's all seriously weird. The more so as this "pantomime" takes place immediately before a solemn mass and a procession of the Virgin de la Consolación through the village, accompanied by the village band and yet more fireworks.

Mobile fireworks follow the procession.

There are constant bangs and, the already slow procession is constantly held up as Catherine wheels are set on tripods in the middle of the street - while spectators look on mere feet away - or when fireworks rain down from flat roofs and balconies.

The Grand Finale was a huge fireworks display when the procession reaches the main road that is closed for the duration. Once the Icon was safely back inside the church (after a little intervention with a broom to extract the streamers decorating the plaza that got caught up in her canopy), on came the band for the Monumental Verbena (Open air dance) with the Orchestra de Arturo Castillo (or Arthur Castle's Orchestra, if you really must anglicize it) from Garachico. The many kids, who had come for the fireworks and who ran around the plaza throughout the open-air mass, were still doing so at 2 am.