American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 26, Number 3
December, 2006

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 AMN Article  

Hans von der Au's and Bernhard von Peinen's
Deutscher Schwerttanz -- German Sword Dance

Stephen D. Corrsin

Cover Page to Au's Deutscher Scwerttanz

One of the most widespread and dramatic styles of folk dance performance in Europe over the past six hundred years has been sword dancing. I am specifically referring to the linked styles - often called "hilt and point" or "chain" sword dances - which were first reported in the late Middle Ages, and are still practiced in a number of countries. Records and descriptions of sword dances can be found in present-day Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Sweden, and Denmark, as well as, of course, Britain.
By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when collectors and scholars were transcribing folk music and dance across practically all of Europe, sword dancing could be found in a number of countries. This included, in the decades leading up to World War I, in northeastern England, Austria (Upper Austria and the Salzkammergut), southern Bohemia, parts of Moravia and Slovakia, northwestern Italy, and northern Spain. It could also be found in a few isolated locations, in individual towns or villages in southeastern France, southern Germany, and in the Shetlands. While in some cases it could be seen as a "living tradition" (whatever that means: I will not get into that argument!), in many places it represented a consciously historical show and demonstration of local pride, in fancy dress - more like street theatre or holiday pageants than anything else, sometimes an effective way to separate tourists, officials, or enthuasiasts from their pounds, lira, marks, francs, etc.

In this series of articles -- if the editors of the Newsletter permit (N.b.: We do! Ed.) -- I plan to provide information on a number of the detailed, dance-manual level accounts of sword dances from the European continent. I will start with several German descriptions. In this first report, I will describe one of the most detailed, and also, from its context, the most outrageous. (With regard to copyright concerns, and considering the vintage of many of the German publications, if any old Nazis want to get in touch with me to discuss the matter, I'll be happy to oblige. Here in the US.) My goal is to acquaint English-speaking dancers, in North America and Britain, with these continental European styles, and thereby to make available additional sword dance material and ideas for performance. Of course, anyone who has attended the wonderful series of "Sword Dance Spectaculars" in Scarborough and Whitby, England, has seen some of these dances, or their close analogs, first hand.

While sword dances have been documented in the German-speaking lands since the fifteenth century, the earliest "danceable" accounts were printed only in the 1930s, in Austria and Germany. The dancing in the interwar years was often inspired by the German and Austrian youth movement, the Jugendbewegung, which played such an important role in the general folk music revival in those countries - often as the Jugendmusikbewegung, the "youth music movement." The movement typically got its material from older German sources, as well as from Cecil Sharp's Sword Dances of Northern England and from EFDSS teachers - including Rolf Gardiner, who was deeply involved in the German youth movement.

In 1935, the music publisher Barenreiter published a 16 page pamphlet (in black letter or "Gothic" printing), entitled Deutscher Schwerttanz - German Sword Dance. The author was Hans von der Au (1892-1955), who was an important folk dance teacher for many years. A dance group which he helped to found after the war, in Erbach, Hesse, named for him as the Hans-von-der-Au Trachtengruppe, provides a short biography and photos on its Web page ( The introduction was written by Bernhard von Peinen, who was also co-author of a popular general dance manual, Tanzen und Springen, which first appeared in 1935 and was republished after the war, probably in bowdlerized (de-Nazified) form.

To quote from my book, Sword Dancing in Europe: A History: "It is chilling to read the introduction to Au's and Peinen's pamphlet [Deutscher Schwerttanz]. It suggests that the Nazi Party's paramilitary sections, the SA (Sturmabteilung, or Storm Troops) and the SS (Schutzstaffel, or Defense Corps), should take up sword dancing. The lead dancer would hold, at least, the rank of Sturmfuhrer (captain), and the dancers would wear parts of their military uniforms. These bizarre suggestions were printed shortly after Hitler used the SS to butcher the SA leadership, on the night of 30 June 1934, a grisly event which became known as the 'Great Blood Purge' and the 'Night of the Long Knives.' The authors sugget that a dance performance should end with the dancers stating their devotion to Fuhrer, Volk, und Reich, and with a great Sieg Heil! from all, performers and audience alike."

Night of the Long Knives - sounds like longsword, doesn't it? So much for the context. I have been unable to learn whether this dance was ever performed according to Au's instructions. The dance itself is a particularly complex performance, from the city of Hermannstadt, now called Sibiu, in the Romanian province of Transylvania. Hermannstadt had been one of the historically German Siebenburgen, settled in the Middle Ages to help upgrade the economy and urban development of this eastern region. References to the sword dance of Hermannstadt begin to appear at the end of the sixteenth century, and continue as a dance of the skinners' or furriers' guild well into the nineteenth century. The last special occasion on which the guild danced was a visit by Franz Josef, Habsburg emperor of Austria (to which empire Transylvania belonged), in 1852. In the latter part of the century, it was also performed by the Turnverein, or local gymnastics society -- typically a highly nationalistic undertaking. In 1896, Otto Wittstock published the following, brief description, which with other accounts became the basis for Au's highly detailed dance manual version. Wittstock gives a taste of the performance:

The sword dance is performed by thirteen dancers, among whom one does not take part directly in the dance; the so-called Hanswurst ["sausage Hans," the typical fool in such performances] strives to entertain the spectators through imitating in parody the actual dancers. The dress of the dancers is the following: half boots with gold fringes, on which small bells hang, tight white britches, over them black velvet, loose trousers decorated with gold, reaching halfway down the leg, a black velvet, tightly cut jacket with a narrow belt and a blue silk scarf around the chest, white collar, blue velvet beret with a white feather on top. The twelfth dancer has more small bells than the other eleven. The Hanswurst wears the usual multicolored harlequin's clothing. All dancers carry sharp swords in their hands - the Hanswurst has instead the usual wand...

The sword dance is danced in the following way:

  1. All go around in a circle once to the measure, stand in a line and salute with the swords.
  2. The snake movement. During which they hand in the garlands. [They had been carrying garlands on the sword points.]
  3. Each gives to the others the sword points to hold, during which the last gives up his sword and the declamation star is made.
  4. The swords are again let go and the last dancer also takes his sword, during which the cap is made.
  5. The city coat of arms.
  6. The last dancer again gives up his sword.
  7. Each again gives to the others the sword points to hold.
  8. The doubled city coat of arms.
  9. Cutting off at the feet and striking.
  10. The doubled bridge.
  11. The cartwheel.
  12. The swords are laid around the neck of the first dancer.
  13. Cutting off at the feet and striking.
  14. The wheel again.
  15. Cutting off at the head and feet.
  16. Going through the middle.
  17. Cutting off at the feet and striking.
  18. The swords are let go again, the last dancer gets his sword, and the second fool must also enter with a sword, during which the waves are made.
  19. They stand in two facing lines, with their swords at their sides, and on the third beat the swords are struck together and the festive dance is begun.
  20. They stand in line and cross the swords.
  21. They dance again in a circle and dance to the measure, and while going around the swords are lowered.


This list has the distinct feel of an aide-memoire, but Wittstock, and later Au, provide much more detail. In "City coat of arms," for example, pairs of dancers place their swords crossed at knee height, dance with them, and then lift them over their heads. In "Doubled city coat of arms," they do the same by fours. The repeated figure "Cutting off at the feet and striking" consists of the following, according to Wittstock:

[T]he first dancer turns suddenly around and dances towards the others with his sword [point, presumably] held at the ground in front of them. He strikes his sword in front of each dancer, while the other jumps over it and then turns around the same way and follows the first dancer, so that the last dancer has to jump over eleven swords...

As for the rest of the dance, some of the figures are familiar (such as rounds), and some appear to be unique. Others are reminiscent of certain other figures which appear in central Europe. Both linking and non-linking elements appear.

Next installment: Walter Jaide, Deutsche Schwerttanze (German Sword Dances), 1936.

Stephen D. Corrsin
scorrsin at

 AMN, Vol. 26, No. 3, December 2006  ISSN: 1074-2689