Dance of the Swords

The study and practice of sword wielding has been developing for over 4,000 years and continues to fascinate. Its mastery demands a great deal of a person’s physical and spiritual capacity.  Like any sport, mastering the art of wielding the sword requires extensive physical training which also trains one’s perceptions and reactions, allowing for quick responses to any situation – a valuable skill for self-defense. Finally, one of the most important aspects of the art of the sword frequently quoted in ancient sources seems to be its moral value, as the practitioner would need to learn patience, perseverance, and humility, enhancing one’s physical and spiritual life, thus placing the practice firmly between the realms of spirituality and defense.

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Bedouin wedding series. Woman dancing with sword. (c. 1900)

Sword dancing has found its place in many different cultures. In Asia, the sword dance is often used for plot descriptions and characterization in Chinese opera. In Pakistan and Nepal, military dances are still commonly performed for weddings and other occasions. In India, the Paika Akhada (“warrior school”) previously used to train Odisha warriors, is performed in the streets during festivals. Sword dances are also performed all over Europe, particularly in areas corresponding to the boundaries of what used to be the Holy Roman Empire.

As the ancient Greeks were very effective in collecting and adapting the best from surrounding cultures, it was likely that the Greeks inherited their strong dancing tradition from Crete which was conquered by Greece around 1500 BCE. For the ancient Greeks, wine-making, music and dance were activities which marked a civilized and educated person. Therefore, learning to dance was considered a necessary part of any education which favored an appreciation of beauty, and it would have been normal for children to learn to dance at a very young age. The art of dance is frequently mentioned in the Homeric poems. In the Odyssey, the suitors of Penelope amuse themselves with music and dancing and Odysseus himself is entertained at the court of Alcinous with the exhibitions of very skillful dancers. However, as with many of the terms familiar to us today, it is important to understand that the definition of “dance” for the ancients may have been slightly different from our current interpretation. For the ancient Greeks, the term “dance” included all expressions and actions of the body that suggest ideas. These ideas ranged from acrobatic performances, mimetic action to even marching. Therefore, the definition of dance encompassed a broader range than aesthetic or symbolic movements that are more familiar to us today. This philosophy, combined with lively imaginations, paved the way for the use of many subjects for various kinds of dances – including combat.

The invention of military dances was attributed to Athena.  Plato, in Laws, mentions the sword-dance of the Kouretes in Krete, the Dioskouroi in Lakedaimon and in Athens, identifying them as features of cults of the Kouretes, Dioskuroi and Athena. “Our Virgin-Lady Parthenos Athena, gladdened by the pastime of the dance, deemed it not seemly to sport with empty hands, but rather to tread the measure vested in full panoply. These examples would well become the boys and girls to copy, and so cultivate the favor of the goddess, alike for service in war and for use at festivals.”

To celebrate Athena during festivals dedicated to her worship, Athenians would perform the Pyrrhic dance. It was a male coming-of-age initiation ritual linked to a warrior victory celebration. Plato describes it as rapid movements of the body in which the body avoided missiles and blows from weapons, as well as a way of attacking the enemy. The dance became the most famous war dance in ancient Greece as well as the national dance of Sparta, and persisted there long after Greece became a province of the Roman Empire and similar war dances had died out in other cities – thus the dance was possibly the first and the last of the war dances of the ancient Greeks.

Boy in White Long Sleeve Shirt Holding a Cardboard Sword

There are several stories that accounted for the name of the pyrrhic dance. The dance is said to have been first performed by Athena herself in a celebration of her fellow Olympians’ victory over the titans. Therefore, the purpose of this dance by the Athenians was that of imitation and the pleasing of the goddess. Another story connected the dance with the son of the hero Achilles, Pyrrhus – also known as Neoptolemus.

According to the legend, after Achilles was killed in battle at Troy, Pyrrhus came to Troy to take his father’s place, and his greatest exploit was killing Eurypylus, leader of a force of Hittites that had come to help the Trojans. After he slew Eurypylus, he performed an exultant victory dance, and from his dance the pyrrhic took its name. A spiritual dance of a military nature was also found in ancient Rome. Bellicrepa Saltatio was said to have been instituted by Romulus, after he had carried off the Sabine virgins, in order that a like misfortune might not befall his state.

In Asia, a similar purpose was also served by Onikenbai (Devil Sword Dance) in Japan, a 1,000-year-old dance that has been performed in the city of Kitakami in northeastern Japan. Children in Kitakami rehearse this dance from an early age and are taught that the oni (devils) are not fearsome ogres but powerful beings who protect local residents. The dance was also traditionally believed as a way of offering comfort to ancestral spirits, but it later evolved as a dance performed by soldiers before their departure for, or upon their return from battle.

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Oni Kenbai, Japan. Yoshi Canopus, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other dances of this nature include Hinakokenbai (girls’ sword dance) and Yoroikenbai (armor sword dance). These dances are dedicated to ancestors to comfort their spirits at the occasion of Ura-Bon, a Buddhist service in the middle of July, to drive away evil spirits and enemies, remembrance of local ruling families, enlightenment of masses and many others.

In China, the straight sword, also known as “the King of Weapons”, was first mentioned in China’s oldest written records as the weapon most associated with Tai Chi and Daoism. As the straight sword is used to deflect and redirect blows before delivering a slash or stab of its own, the nature of the sword lends itself to the principles of Tai Chi. Due to its ascetics and high level of difficulty in mastering it, the straight sword became a weapon of choice for famous generals and scholars.

The straight sword also has a particular connection with Daoist religion. As it is considered the weapon to use to banish evil spirits, the straight sword was always used in exorcism ceremonies. The Wudang Tai Chi sword, in particular, is often paired with Shaolin staff as the two symbols of Chinese martial arts. The Wudang Sword symbolizes the internal nature of life and the Shaolin Staff represents the external.

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Girls at the summer camp of Pie IX Boulevard in Montreal learning sword dance.

Military dances developed until they were common among the ancient Greek, as well as in neighboring countries between the tenth and seventh centuries BCE. The importance of military dances in this time period related more to the training and practice of war. In this case, the practical purpose of dancing was to prepare the soldiers for warfare. These dances were particularly useful as warriors often fought in single combat, and nimble feet made the difference between dodging the enemy’s spear and being impaled by it. In Homer’s Iliad, the Trojan Prince Hector tells the Greek hero Ajax that he is not frightened by him, for he knows the steps of the “deadly dance of Ares,” the god of war.

Among the most common military dances performed at festivals were Podism, which included quick movements of the feet to train for hand to hand combat, Xiphism – a mock battle where groups of boys would practice fighting in a dancelike fashion, Homos – high leaps and vaulting to leap over high logs, boulders and to scale walls and fortresses and Tetracomos – a stately group formation with shields for protection.

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Turkish Military WWI. Men dancing with swords in celebration. c. 1914 – 1918

Dancing was utilized as training for war, especially in the Doric states, and was believed to have contributed very much to the success of the Dorians in wars, as it enabled them to perform their maneuvers simultaneously and in order. However, the nature of war had changed by the middle of the seventh century BCE. Battles became contests between two battle lines of heavily-armed infantrymen called the hoplites, and a “good” hoplite should not dodge or dance. Instead, he stood firmly in his place in the battle line and shoved the enemy that faced him with his shield before thrusting at him with his spear. Military dances gradually moved from being a training for war to a competition for an audience. Dance ceased to be an important part of military training, except in Sparta, which maintained its militaristic traditions long after it ceased to be a military power.

By the third century CE, Pyrrhic dances were staged for Roman tourists. Pyrrhic dancers sometimes performed in Rome to amuse the crowd in the public games as a prelude to the deadlier entertainments offered by gladiatorial games and wild beast fights. Julius Caesar staged Pyrrhic dancing at Rome. The dance was proven to be so popular that emperors Caligula, Nero, and Hadrian also called for this dance in their times. The North African rhetorician and philosopher, Apuleius of Madauros (c.123 – c. 190 CE), in his novel Metamorphoses, described a typical dance entertainment staged in the amphitheater at Corinth in his own day which was opened by a Pyrrhic dance, performed by beautifully costumed boys and girls, before the main entertainment which included a murderess being mauled by a lion.

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Base with dedication for a (lost) statue of winners of a Pyrrhic dance around 375 BC. Pentelic marble

The Ghillie Callum is the ancient dance of war of the Scottish Gael and is said to date back to King Malcolm Canmore. Tradition says that the original Ghillie Callum was a Celtic prince who was a hero who fought against one of MacBeth’s Chiefs at the Battle of Dunsinane in 1054. According to legends, which are similar to first dance of Pyrrhus in ancient Greece, the Ghillie Callum crossed his own bloody claymore (the two-handed broadsword of Scotland) over the sword of the defeated Chief and danced over them both in exultation. This dance became a tradition among the highland warriors.

In subsequent battles, clansman would cross their swords and dance around them in the same way. It was believed that if they could complete the dance without touching the swords, it was a good omen that they would be victorious in the coming battle.

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“Lady Gongsun Performing the Sword-dance” by Ren Yi (1840-1896), Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Undated, hanging scroll, ink on paper

Sword dances in China, known as Jian Wu, began as a military training exercise with swords and spears which evolved into an elaborate acrobatic dance. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) saw publication of Jixiao Xinshu (“A New Treatise on Disciplined Service”) by General Qi Jiguang (1528-1587).  The book also included an excerpt of Yu Dayou’s (1503-1580) treatise on weapons call the Jianjing (“Sword Classic”) which exemplified concepts such as softness, listening, and sticking that are associated with Tai Chi.

In the Chinese sword dance, single, double or dagger swords may be used. The single sword usually has tassels that can be as long as one meter (three feet), which adds another dimension to the performance. The postures of the dancers in performances can be roughly divided into the “standing sword” and “moving sword”. The “standing sword” is characterized by swift movements and statue-like standing position, and the “moving sword” is focused on even and tenacious movements, like that of floating clouds and flowing water.

After the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 CE), the sword played a less important role as a weapon and was more commonly used in dance. In the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), sword dances became more popular and involved fairly high skillsets. The poet Du Fu of the Tang Dynasty recalled a dance scene in his poem On Seeing a Pupil of Madame Gongsun Dance the Sword – mentioning that great cursive script calligraphers Zhang Xu and Huai Su of the Tang Dynasty achieved significant progress in their calligraphy skills after seeing Madame Gongsun’s Sword Dance.

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