Sword dances are recorded throughout world history. There are various traditions of solo and mock-battle (Pyrrhic) sword dances from China, England, Greece, India, Japan, Korea, the Middle East, Pakistan, and Scotland.
Sword-dance forms have remained quite popular in Kathiawar region in India since ancient times. The Rajput Sword Dance and the Mer Dandiya depict battle. The dances often are thrilling depictions of bravery in former battles.
In other regions such as the Himalayas, popular dances, such as the Choliya from the Kumaon region of India and the khukri dances from Nepal are also prominent, while all known linked ("hilt-and-point") sword dances are from Europe.
Female sword dancing (Raks al sayf) was not widespread in the Middle East. Men in Egypt performed a dance called el ard, a martial dance involving upraised swords, but women were not widely known to use swords as props during their dancing in public. However, paintings and engravings by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (who visited Egypt in the 18th century) show sword dancers balancing sabers on their heads. Sword dancing (Raqs al Saïf) is widespread in Iran, Pakistan-India, and Turkey.
Raks al sayf evolved out of sword fighting between men, in both Egypt and Turkey. There was even a time when sword dancing was banned by the sultan during Ottoman rule, as it was believed that dancers, who took swords from soldiers and pretended to "kill" them at the end of the performances, collected the swords to begin a resistance against the army. These swords were never returned. A Word on Sword Dancing by Jheri St James
General sword dance forms include:
- solo dancers around swords – such as the traditional Scottish sword dances. This general form also encompasses non-sword dances such as the bacca pipes jig in Cotswold morris dance,
- mock-battle dances, including many stick dances from non-sword traditions, and such common continental dances as Bouffons or Mattachins as described by Thoinot Arbeau in 1588.
- hilt-and-point sword dances – where the dancers are linked together by their swords in a chain. These form the basis for rapper sword and long sword forms,
- the Choliya sword dance of the Kumaon region of the hills of the Indian state of Uttarakhand, which started partly due to their long martial tradition and also to give protection to marriage processions. It was also held to be auspicious and, according to Hindu tradition, helpful in warding off evil spirits. It has a very beautiful and graceful form and has techniques which give it the status of a martial art.
Sword Dance in China
Many believe that sword dancing evolved from the early Chinese art of wu shu. The simple martial art became a military training technique with swords and spears and then turned into an elaborate acrobatic dance. Sword dancing, often called jian wu, was one of four Chinese classical dances that were used in the famous Chinese opera. Each of these dances was very meaningful within the opera performances and they often were used for plot descriptions and characterization. Sword dancing also found a use in Chinese culture through communicating with the supernatural; sword dancing was done in an effort to communicate feelings to the dead spirits that may be disrupting a household.
- Styles of Chinese Sword Dancing
There are quite a few styles within the actual art of sword dancing. The first style of sword dancing focuses on relaxation and flexibility while the other style focuses on speed and strength. Besides there are different styles of sword dancing, there are also different types of swords and weapons used during each dance. A long sword is usually wielded with slower dramatic movements during a solo performance while shorter, scimitars are used at a very high pace during a sword dance between two or more people. Each style requires certain movements that require the dancer to be acrobatic and these skills shown by the dancers often entertained the crowd to a great extent.
Mock battle sword dances are found worldwide, varying from the Greek Xiphism, the Saltatio Armatum of the ancient Romans, through Turkish, Persian and Middle Eastern traditions to Japanese mock battle dances. Some European sword dances, such as Moreshka from the island of Korčula in Croatia, include both hilt-and-point and mock battle sequences.
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Hilt-and-point sword dances are, or were, performed all over Europe. These are particularly concentrated in an area corresponding to the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire at around 1400-1500, and many of these traditional dances are still performed in England, Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, North Italy, France, Flanders, and the Iberian Peninsula, with a particular concentration in Basque Country.
Sword dances performed by the guilds of Smiths and Cutlers in Nuremberg are recorded from 1350. 16th century records of sword dances survive from all over Germany. Depictions of dances survive from Zürich (1578) and Nuremberg (1600). In Scotland a dance was recorded as being performed in 1285, but this was found in a document from 1440.
An important concentration of traditional sword dances can be found on the Italian side of the western Alps. Main sites are Giaglione, Venaus and S. Giorio in the Susa valley, where the so-called "Spadonari" (sword -holders) dance is still now performed between the end of January and the beginning of February. This dance is also connected with the rebirth of nature and vegetation.
Hilt-and-point sword dances traditional to England include rapper sword and long sword, although both of these are now also performed by revival teams outside their traditional areas, including teams in most of the English-speaking world. English sword dancing has also been brought to the New World, initially as part of the "morris revival" of the 1970s and 1980s. Teams are now extant in most major metropolitan areas in North America. The New York Sword Ale is an annual gathering over Presidents' Day weekend that brings together over a dozen sword teams form the east coast and around the world.
The Sword and Shield Dance of Bursa represents the Ottoman conquest of the city. It is performed by men only, dressed in early Ottoman battle dress, who dance to the sound of clashing swords and shields without music.
- Four Scottish Dances
- Long Sword dance
- Stick dance (African-American)
- Weapon dance
- Parikaoba Georgian folk dance
- Rugovo (sword dance)
- Stephen D Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe: A History, London: Hisarlik Press (1997).
- Cohen, Selma Jean (1998). "China". The International Encyclopedia of Dance 1: 382–386. Retrieved 14 Oct 2012.
- Pong, David (2009). "Dance". Encyclopedia of Modern China 1: 382–386. Retrieved 14 Oct 2012.
- Sprenger, Guido (2010), "From Power to Value: Ranked Titles in an Egalitarian Society, Laos", The Journal of Asian Studies (ABI/INFORM Complete) 69: 403–425
- Rapper Online - information on the rapper sword dance
- Overview of hilt-and-point sword dances (from Rapper Online; includes photos, videos and links)
- Feature Bavarian Sword Dance (Schwerttanz Traunstein, YouTube)
- Giaglione, Italy,sword dance
- Star Of Swords -Firsthand accounts on European Sword Dance from France, Italy, Spain, Basque Country and England
- Sword dances in Croatia