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Cultural phenomenon

Boise's Oinkari Basque dancers: from summer of 60 to Jaialdi 2010

Igor Lansorena

Boise, Idaho

The Oinkari Basque dancers from Boise, one of the most visible parts of Idaho's Basque-American heritage, are planning their 50th anniversary celebrations.

  • Two Oinkari dancers on the Basque block. Photo: Igor Lansorena

    Two Oinkari dancers on the Basque block. Photo: Igor Lansorena

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When Al Erquiaga and six other Boise Basques started the Oinkari Basque dancers in Boise back in 1960, they had no idea that they would grow into what they are now. Nearly half a century later, they are one of the most visible parts of Idaho's Basque-American heritage and are planning a year packed with events to celebrate their 50th aniversary in 2010.

About seventy dancers currently form the group and more than 800 have performed for the Oinkaris over the years, not only in Boise and Idaho but in many other places all over the United States, Canada, Argentina and of course, the Basque Country.

Oinkaris are invited to dance at all kinds of conventions, parties, festivals and even some weddings but the most remarkable events are always in their hometown: the San Inazio festival, at the end of July, and the Shepherds' Ball at Christmas, explain group members Jill Aldape and Jasone Lejardi in an exclusive interview for eitb.com.

Back in 1960, seven Boise Basques met the Oinkari dancers from Donostia-San Sebastian when visiting the Basque Country for the first time. They became friends, learned the dances and went touring with them during that summer. Back in Boise, they decided to form the Oinkari dancers in appreciation of the lovely summer they had spent in Donostia.

Since then, they have come back to the Basque Country three times, in 1985, 2003 and 2006. It is one of those performances in the Basque Country that Jill remembers with most affection: "The performance in Gernika, we were really very well received, people really felt emotional when they saw us and the ikurriñas, and after that, there was an article in a newspaper, I think it was Egunkaria, which said the Oinkaris took a lot of credit because we were well rehearsed, well practiced with the traditional steps, and were on a par with all the dance groups from the Basque Country. I remember feeling really good about that".

Jasone agrees with Jill, but if she had to pick a totally different one, she would choose a performance during the Basque festival Jaialdi 2005 at the Morrison Center in Boise. "I just remember feeling really prepared," Jasone says.

Tradition and innovation

"As far as dancing in the Basque Country, every performance that we do there is meaningful", Jasone says. However, they also find it daunting.

For Jill, who is also the lead singer of the Basque-American band "Amuma Says No", her biggest fear is moving away from the traditional dances into a new kind of dance that has nothing to do with the tradition. "Especially when I was a dance instructor, we went over there (to the Basque Country) and my biggest fear was if we were doing something wrong, and people would say, what the hell are they doing calling this Basque dance when it does not have anything to do with the tradition," Jill recounts.

"But so far we have good friends that help us, from Añorga, from Galkadao, from all over the Basque Country," she adds.

Despite their wish to stick to tradition, Oinkaris also try to be innovative and come up with new dances. "Some (sic) of the things that we do, the jota berri for example, is a dance that is kind of a new choreography, and it is not a traditional dance, but it actually is one of the oldest ones that this group does, that the dancers who formed the Oinkari Basque dancers from Boise started. They just took a jota and rechoreographed it," Jill explains.

"There is always a measure of fear when you dance in the Basque Country but it also means a lot," Jill says. "And I think that we put more pressure on ourselves than they do on us," Jasone adds.

For the future, Jill expects to keep tradition and innovation going, but in separate ways. "My biggest concern is that the younger dancers do not care enough to be really thoughtful. I just hope for the future Oinkari Basque dancers that they keep tradition. There is opportunity to be creative but (they) must know the distinction between what is creative, an interpretive form of a Basque dance and when it is a piece of the culture," Jill explains.

50th anniversary

To celebrate the 50th anniversary, Oinkaris are planning a kick-off event on July 30th that will bring together dancers from all five decades. A DVD and memory book marking the last fifty years will also put together all kinds of stories from over the years: the road trips by bus; costumes; stages; the funny times.

Love for the Basque culture and dancing, the essential things that put together the Oinkaris almost 50 years ago, still remain but there are other things that have changed along the years.

During this time, Oinkaris have become increasingly famous all over. "We do get to go to more places; a lot of people that were in the group 20 years say "you go everywhere, how do you have the money for this?"" Jasone explains.

To raise money for their trips, Oinkaris do fundraisers, sell txorizo or solomo sandwiches at festivals, do garage sales as well as receiving contributions each time they perform at corporate events.

Anther thing that has changed in all these years is the connection of the dancers with the Basque Country. In 1960, the family connections were much closer. Now, the ties are much more remote. "Nowadays, many of the dancers are very Americanized and do not have that direct contact. It is the evolution of our time. Fewer and fewer dancers have immediate familial contact with the Basque Country," Jill explains.

For the Oinkaris, after celebrating their 50th anniversary the challenge will be to keep going for another 50 years or more. "I hope it is still there for my kids and grandkids, because it is such an important part of this Basque community," Jill says.

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