Bretagne (Brittany in English) in Northwestern France has one of the most striking regional cultures in France. You’ll see the white and black striped flag of Bretagne flying just about everywhere here, and street signs are in both French and Breton. This strong regional identity and celebrated Celtic culture means that Bretagne is a great place to see traditional music and dance. You won’t see this in any other parts of the world!
Near the end of the 4th century, Celtic people migrated across the sea from Great Britain and settled in Brittany which became known as La Petite Bretagne to distinguish it from Great Britain.
Today Breiz (Bretagne in the Breton language) is considered one of the Celtic nations along with Scotland, Ireland, The Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall and sometimes Galicia and Asturias in Northwestern Spain. These areas share a similar Celtic language and culture. For example, you can find bagpipe music in all those places–yep, even in Spain. You might also notice that there are a lot more redheads here than in other places in France!
I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Cercle Celtique organization in Rennes to learn about Breton culture firsthand. The organization teaches Breton and Gallo languages and the dance, music, songs, and traditions of Bretagne. Here you can hear bagpipes, accordion and other distinct instruments in the oboe family like the bombard. If you want to learn to play the bagpipes, the Breton binioù kozh is distinctly different from the bagpipes played in Scotland, as it has less pipes. It looked like a lot of work to get enough air to make those sounds!
Breton music has seen a huge revival in the last few decades. It’s popular among all ages and has found inspiration in Celtic music in Ireland and Scotland and other genres. There is even a branch that is Celtic rock music!
A distinct feature of traditional Breton dress is the white coiffe that women wore on their heads. Made of linen or cotton, this headdress can have many different forms. Some are more like a cap and others are a vertical cylinder that can be more than a foot tall. You could tell which village a woman was from just by looking at her coiffe. Sometimes the coiffes communicated other information like age or if a woman was married or not. Coiffes went out of style around World War II, so while no one in Brittany wears coiffes on a daily basis anymore, they are very popular during festivals and special events that celebrate Breton culture. They are certainly uniquely Breton!
Other traditional clothing is often black, although colorful embroidery is common and was a source of pride. Wooden clogs were often worn by villagers to protect their feet from the wet fields or rocky shores. They are a bit hard to dance in though!
Much like the music, Breton dancing has also seen a revival since the 1950’s. Many of the dances are done in a circle or a snaking chain. These dances often come from as far back as the middle ages, when couple dances were seen as inappropriate. Dancers usually link arms or even pinky fingers! This makes it easy for beginners to jump in and learn and they are very popular at festivals where anyone can join. It’s common to see dances for couples or sets of couples for performances.
Watch a dance done in the streets in Quimper at the Festival de Cornouaille below. They also give lessons during this festival!
Fest Noz Festival
If you want a taste of Breton music and dance, the place to be is a Fest Noz, or night festival. Happening all over Brittany, a Fest Noz is a celebration of traditional music, dance and more. At the Fest Noz in Parc Thabor in Rennes kids can try their hand at traditional wooden games somewhat similar to lawn bowling and shuffleboard.
There are also demonstrations of gouren, a Breton form of wrestling where two opponents try to throw each other to the ground by grappling with a special white shirt.
You’ll have the opportunity to have traditional Breton gallettes and drink cidre (low-alcohol cider). Gallettes are savory buckwheat crepes, and they make good finger food for a festival. Order a gallette-saucisse, a grilled sausage wrapped in a gallette, and you’ll have a full meal!
Musicians play on stage and hundreds of people jump in to dance. Trained dancers perform, and some of the dances even have a story-telling aspect or teach a lesson. Many of the dancers are older adults, but the Fest Noz is truly a celebration for all ages.
Check out the video below to see scenes from the Fest Noz!