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The American Morris Newsletter

July, 2007 -- Volume 27, Number 2


Dancing with Swords in the DVRA Part 3
Continental European Sword Dances

Dr. Anthony G. Barrand

In June 1979, I was in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England to witness and experience the annual ceremony of the election of the Mayor of Ock Street. The ceremonial "Mayor" is always a member of the Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers (ATMD). I wrote "witness and experience" because, although I had written to them in advance saying I would be visiting on a film expedition, the men of the ATMD refused permission for me to film their dancing. Fortunately, although I was not allowed to record the event, we can see what the final seating of the elected "Mayor" looks like because Ivor Allsop (Archivist and a former Squire of the Morris Ring) filmed the ceremony in 2000, the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Abingdon team.

In 1979, though, I decided to film everything else. It happened that the ATMD had invited the Volkskunstgroep Boerke Naas ("Farmer Naas Folk Arts Group") dancers from Abingdon's Flemish "twin" town of Sint-Niklaas. I first saw their flag waving displays, with specially balanced flags, then Zevenster (literally "seven-pointed star"), a sword dance for seven, similar to, but interestingly different from, anything I knew.

Immediately there were, for me, new ideas: music consisting of two different phrase lengths that gradually speeds up, and a wrap-around "lock" like nothing to be found in English sword dancing. But if that was different, I was thrilled with their Trawantel. Involving a stick like a broom handle (a "stave"?) and a bicycle-wheel-sized hoop through which the dancers, in turn, slid headfirst and feet-first.

These two dances excited me, so I wrote out notations for both and taught them at Pinewoods and other dance camps connected to the Country Dance and Song Society of America (CDSS). In 1996, at the first Sword Spectacular in Scarborough, Yorkshire, it was my good fortune to meet Renault von Craenenbroeck and take a workshop in the Trawantel dance from him. He had collected this dance (and, I gather, the Boerke Naas seven-sword dance). Renaat used the Trawantel dance as an introduction for beginners on his own team, Lange Wapper. Although Trevor Stone had described the dancing of Lange Wapper in his excellent newsletter or "broadsheet", Rattle up, My Boys , the Scarborough gathering was my first chance to see them. This clip ends with poor sound quality (my, then, brand-new 8mm Camera was a sporadic dud) but it shows the dance Renaat invented (based on local ideas and information) for ten men with the man himself as Captain and flag waver.

At the third Spectacular in 2000, at the Bandstand in Whitby, Renaat can be seen standing on an English-style back-lock made by eight dancers of Lange Wapper, and almost being blown to Norway with his flag. Tragically, Renaat died in 2001 but his Lange Wapper continues on, shown here in 2002 in their home city of Antwerp ending the dance with a new Captain carrying the flag.

How many of these Continental dances are there in the DVRA?

My task, here, is only to alert readers to the resources on Continental sword dancing in the DVRA. To understand the historical and cultural differences and similarities between the English-style dancing and the European forms, everyone-I mean EVERYONE-should buy and read Dr. Steve Corrsin's outstanding book, Sword Dancing in Europe: A History.


Sword Locations in Europe, 1995
Map from Page 260 of
Sword Dancing in Europe: A History (1997)

But you don't need to look further than the body of knowledge of British dances represented by Ivor Allsop's collation of notations to find atypical dances. Steve Corrsin included the map of Figure 1 in his book. Rapper sword is represented by the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and dancing with longer, relatively inflexible swords is shown in more or less approximate locations for the rest of England and "continental" Europe. The one exception, practically halfway between Scotland and Norway is the technically "British" dance from Papa Stour in Shetland.  This performance is by the Pinewoods Morris Men onstage at the Christmas Revels in Cambridge, MA. The map shows starkly that Flanders (Belgium) is geographically somewhat closer to the longsword dance customs of Yorkshire in England than is the puzzling dance from the Shetland Islands that was first reported by Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott. I say "technically" British because, until oil was discovered in the northern regions of the North Sea, English kids such as me barely acknowledged these distant islands as being a part of the British Isles. Windswept and isolated, they were not a place one went for summer holidays.


Map showing location of Papa Stour off mainland Shetland

How did this dance get onto this little island, and is the dance English, Scottish or even Norwegian? From the standard English longsword perspective, it does have unusual features: an odd number of dancers (seven-the rest are six or eight); figures that create the impression of entering and emerging from a tunnel; and a loom-like figure involving stepping forward and back over a sword. Steve Corrsin sums up part of the debate and could have included Norway in his conclusion:


Of course, there may indeed be some sort of direct connection, as yet unknown, between the Papa Stour dance and English dances, or seventeenth-century Scottish dances. But until such connections are proved, the Papa Stour dance and its history deserve to be discussed separately, rather than swallowed up in the larger history of British dances…

This was the first sword dance I ever learned, in 1974 at Pinewoods Camp of the Country Dance and Song Society. Cast at the time as just another sword dance, it now seems as if it is best understood as not being typical of the English longsword type. Patrick (Pat) Shuldham-Shaw brought several indispensable things to Pinewoods that year. They included an introduction to his remarkable social dance inventions, lessons in his compositions of rounds (notably "I sat next to the Duchess at tea" and "To stop the train in cases of emergency"), and an education for John Roberts and myself in the subtleties to be experienced in a collection of about a dozen single-malt whiskeys. Oh yes, and he taught the Papa Stour dance based on his personal observations. I've added the Pinewoods version to the DVRA only recently and it stirred up memories of Pat's teaching. It has become best known on the U.S. east coast, however, through the interpretation since the 1980s of Half Moon Sword on Elliott St. in Brattleboro at the Marlboro Morris Ale.

The "loom" figure at Papa Stour has the same qualities as the Trawantel movement that results in the hoop being in the middle of the set, but one has to beware of looking for ideas about origins or linkages one figure at a time. In fact, as Trevor Stone wrote in 1988-89 after visiting Slovakia:

Whilst an English sword dancer may recognize most of the moves, he would also be struck by the differences.

What kinds of difference will I see in Continental dances?

1. Dances from Renaat van Craenenbroeck. Renaat was inspired by the paintings of Peter Bruegel the Elder (1525?-1569), notably "The Fair of St. George's Day" (ca. 1560)


Peter Bruegel the Elder
The Fair of St. George's Day
Detail from engraving by H. Cook

In addition to the Antwerp Sword Dance (is it called that?) for his own Lange Wapper team, Renaat composed two of his distinctive dances for other Belgian teams, Danseurs de Quevaucamps and Nele (for six men).  He also crossed the national border to make up a dance for the French team: In de Kring from Dunkerque (for eight men plus a Conductor).

The Nele dance is a little different in that it more closely resembles an English dance with accordion accompaniment. The others, however, have recognizable items in common: side snare drum as the prime musical theme and formal presentation qualities with a short stepping sequence and uniform ways of introducing swords and moving from one figure to another. Most importantly, they all involve the lifting of a dancer bearing a flag to shoulder height on a platform of the swords. Note that this "platform" may or may not resemble an English sword lock. and the dance does not end with a "beheading".

Flag waving is a display form often used by Belgian teams in particular, for example, Boerke Naas (as we saw above) and Nele but is not unique to that country. The German sword dance group from Baden-Württemburg also uses this feature, as well as a dramatic way of wreaking justice on the fool.

2. Hanging the Fool Baden-Würtemmburg is one of several European teams to incorporate not just flag waving and a speech made from the sword platform but also the dramatic "hanging" of the fool who is so wonderfully irritating that his fate seems justly deserved. It is one of the greatest exhibitions of fooling one could hope to see. From the start, he dances off-rhythm with loud bells, he goes across the line of movement of the set, and he parodies the actions of the dancers. Notice that the manner of wrapping the swords around the neck of the Fool, one at a time, is reminiscent of the Boerke Naas seven-sword dance. In both cases, the whole group circles around the centre, each dancer placing his sword in a strategic position. The Boerke Naas pattern I figured put from watching the film; the Baden hanging arrangement is wonderfully concealed.

The dance of the Italian team, Il Bagnasco, also features twelve dancers, carrying sabers, with the dramatic hanging of the fool and has the speech making on the sword platform. Most unusually, however, Il Bagnasco have a component of "maypole" dancing with ribbons woven onto the pole.

3. Sword dancing from the Basque Country I got an email last fall (2006) from Oier Araolaza, a Basque sword dancer. He thanked me for the DVRA but pointed out, correctly, that it would be better "…if some Basque dancing videos were there!" I had tried to get some film of Basque dancing at the 1996 Sword Spectacular. Attending that event were the men and women from Markina-Xemein in the province of Biscay in the Basque Country, northern Spain. My, then, new 8mm video camera was only working sporadically and the only surviving performance was a dance for eight women with sickles, Digital-dantza (sickle dance).

Oier then sent me a DVD of, in essence, a Basque sword ale: Ezpata-dantza jaialdia (sword dance festival), held in Deibar, Basque Country in Spain. A variety of teams performed, some local and some from Belgium and France. Complementing the "sickle-dance" I had seen in 1996 was a witch dance for young girls carrying broomsticks, Sarian zunzun a new dance (for 8) based on old information and re-choreographed by Mikel Sarriegi.

The Basque men's sword dances, however, are uniformly dignified and spectacular, often incorporating the distinctive high, straight-legged kicks. The Gure-Kai dance group from Deba (Basque Country) perform Debako San Roke dantza (sword dance in honor of San Roque), with eleven dancers joined by makilak ("swords" that are sticks approximately one-meter in length). The set includes a buruzain (captain or leader) who also executes a solo display with two "small swords" (short sticks decorated with ribbons). The Legazpiko ezpata-dantza (Sword dance of Legazpia), is danced by Sustraia dantza taldea from Legazpia, Spain (Basque Country) involves thirteen men with ten linked dancers (including a buruzain) and three soloists who perform a zortzik with handkerchiefs. As they dance, the buruzain is treated to an element familiar from other European sword dances: he stands and is hoisted on a gathering of the swords. The Aurtzaka dance group from Beasain (Basque Country) performs the Loinazko San Martinen ezpata-dantza (Sword dance of San Martin of Loinaz) dancing with handkerchiefs, and add an element familiar from other European teams: flag waving. The "home team" from Eibar, Kezka Dantza Taldea performs Arrateko Amaren ezspata-dantza (The sword dance of the Lady of Arrate) with a large group (24 dancers each carrying a makilak, a buruzain, and four soloists) and add a number of these feature seen on Basque other teams: the linked dancers move in files under a sword; the soloists dance with handkerchiefs and the astonishingly high kicks; and they hoist the buruzain on the swords while he makes many of the same handkerchief gestures as the soloists.

The importance of the performances by the buruzain and the soloists can be seen plainly in the "Sword dance of Antigua" (12 dancers) Irrintzi dantza taldea, also from the Basque Country). The eight dancers holding swords primarily march on, led by the buruzain, watch the impressive solo displays, and march off. In contrast, the ten linked dancers of the Zerutxu dantza taldea from Markina (Basque Country) have complex patterns with their buruzain in the Xemeingo ezpata-dantza (Sword dance of Xemeingo) complemented by the four soloists. The buruzain is hoisted to shoulder height on the swords and matches the soloists with two short swords.

Non-Basque teams included Dansgroep Lange Wapper from Antwerp, Belgium, performing their spectacular dance for ten men plus a captain but also showing their "Old Men's Dance"  (for six in Dutch-style clogs) and a women's dance (for six plus a Captain). These two dances for six show some marks of influence from English sword dances and presentation style (for example, the costumes and the lock), while also having some features commonly found in Renaat's compositions (for example, the gesturing with swords in sequence and stepping combinations by individuals).

Also present were In de Kring from Dunkerque, France (performing their dance, referred to above, created by Renaat van Craenenbroeck)

4. Spanish serpentine sword dance I found it interesting that a non-Basque Spanish sword team was invited to the Eibar festival. Of course, they w ere from the autonomous region of Cantabria, neighbors to the west of the Basque Country. Danzantes de Ruiloba performed the Danza de la Virgen de Ruiloba (Dance of the Lady of Ruiloba). It has a distinctive form with all the figures danced with fourteen men and boys linked in one open-ended line, like a serpentine. The dance is reminiscent of that by the Italian group Il Bagnasco, consisting of a series of "tunnels" (as at Papa Stour) and sequences in turn over and under the swords. In many ways, my favorite part is when they form an arch with their swords (much like an honor guard) and invite a group of women and then representatives from other teams to walk back and forth under it.

5. Oh, yes, and they dance with swords too. Finally, I have to point out Komna , a team from Czechoslovakia. They appear, at first, to be an unlikely team to include a sword dance. Don't be fooled, however, by the Straw Man character, the social dancing, and the brass band playing (and singing) "Roll out the Barrel". Their presentation is a village festival. There are four men in black, military-like uniforms carrying real swords and adding their dance to the celebration with no attempt to isolate it from the melee.

Many of us have got a single-minded impression of sword dancing. Watch these European teams! There are new ideas to be borrowed and used and real care and pride applied to decisions about how the dance should be performed.