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New London festival celebrates Basque culture

New London — Under dozens of tiny Basque flags, visitors sipped wine and ate paella as they watched the Gauden Bat Basque dancers perform the Cortez dance, from one of the southernmost Basque towns.

After performing a dance that celebrates a plentiful fish harvest and after dancing the Aurresku, a traditional dance done in honor of an authority, they were on their penultimate dance.

Dressed in red and white traditional clothing, each of the four boys and four girls held two sticks they tapped together as they weaved amongst each other. They had come to New London from Chino, Calif., to perform.

"Because there's so many different Basque clubs in different areas, that's how we're able to travel," said Nancy Petrissans, mother of one of the dancers. In this case, it was the Chino Basque Club hooking up with the New England Basque Club.

The latter held Basque Fest New London, its largest event to date, at Parade Plaza on Saturday, drawing hundreds of attendees from near and far. The event included dancing, live accordion music, small plates called pintxos, a tug of war and rural Basque sports, including wood-chopping.

Basques are an indigenous ethnic group in northern Spain and southern France that shares a common language and culture.

"We don't feel like we're Spanish, we don't feel like we're French, and we want to preserve our culture," said Roberto Guerenabarrena, founding president of the New England Basque Club. "And I think it's a nice thing that we have our pride and we want to share."

The reason Saturday's festival ended up in New London is largely thanks to two people who aren't even Basque: Charlotte Hennigan and Fred Argilagos, co-owners of Thames River Greenery.

"I think they were Basque in another life," Guerenabarrena said of the couple.

Hennigan explained that the physical therapist she was seeing while in recovery from cancer, Jon Aramendi, is president of the New England Basque Club. He would talk about going to Basque festivals elsewhere in the country.

Hennigan was envious, as she and her husband loved their trip to Basque Country a decade ago and carry Basque wines in their store.

When the topic of a New England event came up, Hennigan asked offhandedly, "Why don't you have it in New London?" The idea stuck.

He said New London was the perfect place, because of its relatively central location in New England, and because of the commonality of whaling in Basque and New London history. He added that Mayor Michael Passero and others at City Hall were very accommodating.

The festival began at noon on Saturday with a small parade from City Hall to Parade Plaza. Passero presented Iker Goiria Etxebarria, foreign relations director for the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, with the city coin, bearing the whale tail on one side and the city seal on the other. Etxebarria presented Passero with a zapia, a Basque traditional kerchief.

Passero then enjoyed the dance performances — zapia on his neck, wine in one hand and a Basque sausage dish called txistorra in the other. He expects the event to be an annual occurrence in New London.

Other small plates served included dishes of braised cod with peppers, sheep cheese with Iberian ham and albacore tuna with sweet onions and leek.

Tommy Reinhardt, 22, said he made the two-hour drive from Westport with his parents because he studied abroad in Barcelona about a year ago and will be a teaching assistant in Madrid in the fall. He had never been to New London before but said he will probably return next year.

Kiaya Memeo Sabala, 28, flew out from Nevada with other members of Ardi Baltza, the Basque dance group she founded in 2013. Her family came from Basque Country to the United States in 1904 to do sheepherding, and she has been dancing since age 3.

"It's a part of you," she said of being Basque. "You have to perpetuate it. You have to keep tradition going but you can't be afraid of change."


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