The region of the Landes is a huge plain located in the South West of France. This territory is surrounded by the Atlantic ocean on the West, by the banks of the Adour river on the South and by those of the Garonne river on the North East. Today, it hosts the largest forest of Europe, mainly constituted of pine trees planted in the middle of the 19th century by Napoleon III.
The first stilts appeared long before the forest. At that time, the Landes were a huge muddy country, very flat, where vegetation was only made of weeds and brushwood. The only inhabitants of that land were the sheppards.
They used the stilts in order to find their way through the vegetation, to avoid to get their feet wet in the marshland, and above all to be able to keep an eye on their sheep from far away.
The first evidence of the existence of stilts date back in the early 18th century. But when were they invented ? Were they invented by the sheppards from the Landes ? Or brought back from the Flemish who used to use it from the Middle Age ? These are questions we can’t aswer with certainty.
Stilts in the Landes
They are made of two wooden pieces :
– the “escasse” (which means “leg” in regional dialect), from which comes the current name (“échasse” in French)
– the “paouse pé” (which means “foot rest” in regional dialect), set on the “escasse”. Usually, a stilt is between 90 cm and 1 m 20 height.
The stilts are attached to the legs with two leather straps
Past and Present
The use of stilts by shepherds for working purposes gradually began to disappear between the mid 19th and early 20th Century. The introduction of trees to create forest areas ultimately drained the marshes but also resulted in the disappearance of pastures, sheep and therefore the shepherds on their stilts. This is when shepherds began using stilts to play and perform dances with their fellow villagers.
In 1889 the first group of dancers on stilts formed in Arcachon, led by Sylvain Dornon. Their first dance was named ‘Lou Quadrihl dous Tchancats’ meaning ‘Stilt walkers dance’. Sylvain Dornon also led the epic march between Paris and Moscow in 1891. The stilt walkers covered an incredible 2850 km in 58 days.
Today, 21 traditional dance groups still exist in The Landes region and are working to retain the dance culture of their ancestors. Many participate in events and races which together form ‘Le Challenge de la Fédération des Groupes Folklorique Landais’ the equivalent to a stilt walking Olympics! Others follow in Syvain Dornon’s footsteps by walking hundreds of kilometres for their enjoyment.