Thursday, August 6, 2020
Black Sheep Evokes the Mystery of Basque Folklore
Kiaya Memeo leads the dancers out at the Sheep Folk Fair in Rebecca McKercher Park in Hailey.
Sunday, October 14, 2018


They wear black wool around their girth and coyote heads and gazelle horns on their heads.

And they howl at the moon—in the light of the afternoon sun.

They’re the Black Sheep—Basque dancers with a twist.

The young dancers dress as white sheep because, as Kiaya Memeo says, “We all started out white sheep.”

They take traditional Basque dancing back a notch to ancient Basque mythology, all the while endowing their dance with a contemporary flair.

“My Dad likes to say, ‘There were rocks, then Basques, and fire came after that,” said dancer Franci Mendive Wilkinson. “I really like that our dances focus on storytelling, which is a big part of the Basque tradition.”

The Black Sheep, also known as the Ruby Mountain Ardi Baltza Basque dancers, made their debut at the 22nd annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival on Saturday, dancing to raucous applause at the Sheep Folk Fair in Hailey.

At the head was Kiaya Memeo, who founded the group in 2012 to showcase Basque stories through dance.

Children take part in a stick dance.

An employee of the Basque deli in Elko, she donned the traditional red and black of Basque dancers at age 3. And she and her fellow dancers looked up to Boise’s Oinkari Basque dancers, whom they considered the elite among American Basque dancers.

But she became enchanted by Basque mythology while researching her heritage. And soon she was forging a new way of dance colored by headdresses boasting ram’s horns, flowers, feathers and twigs.

“We showcase many different pieces of Basque history from the World War II bombing of Gernika to Basque mythology and the ancients’ way of asking for protection over their flocks. We expose our audiences to underlying stories or characters, like the Joaldunak, a traditional character dressed in sheepskins who shook cowbells to warn people about the arrival of the carnivals.”

Memeo’s favorite dance is named “Kantuz,” which means “to sing.”

This dance showcases Basque mythology.

“That’s where we howl at the moon--anyone in agriculture understands that the moon has a lot to tell you,” she said.

Another dance embraces a legend that those who jump on a glass of wine without spilling the wine will reap a good harvest.

The Black Sheep end with a witch dance—not celebration of evil witches but of medicine women who held the wisdom of the centuries near to their hearts.

“Basques are very superstitious,” Memeo said. “The largest witch trial during  the Spanish Inquisition took place in the Basque country. Neighbor turned on neighbor. Some burned, but we don’t forget.”

This dance reminds viewers of the witch inquisition that took part on Basque soil in the 1600s.

Memeo’s dancers, who range in age from 3 to 30-plus, drive as much as four hours to Lamoille, Nev., population 105, to learn to dance.

And that dance has taken them to The Basque Cultural Center’s Cultural Day in San Francisco, Boise’s Jaialdi and even the Smithsonian Folk Festival in Washington, D.C.

They were invited to the Trailing of the Sheep Festival after one of the Festival’s board members saw them perform in Gooding. And today they will mark another milestone on their headdresses when they dance down Ketchum’s Main Street in front of 1,500 sheep.

“We were delighted to be asked, as we’ve heard a lot about the festival,” said Memeo. “This event means a lot to our group, as many of our families have a history in the sheep industry.”


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