The sword is my favorite of all the belly dance props. It’s dramatic, hypnotic, and always popular with audiences. I use my sword for traditional belly dance and also for character and cosplay dance. One of my fantasy dances is a portrayal of the Celtic warrior queen Boudicca, with a chain mail bra and belt, blue spirals on my face, and a spinning sword.
Sword dances have been recorded throughout history and all over the world. In some European styles, such as the Scottish and Morris dances, a soloist moves around a sword, or a group of dancers use their swords to create patterns and formations. The Cossack sword dance incorporates leaps and knee kicks in improvised displays of skill, usually with more vigor than finesse.
Mock-battle dances were common in China and Southeast Asia, combining displays of combat and acrobatics. These dances evolved out of training exercises. The sword also had a magical application in which a shaman would use a sword to banish spirits that were disturbing a household. This custom survives today in the tradition of coin swords hung on the wall to ward off negative energy.
The Arabic sword dance, raqs al-saïf, developed from the men’s sword fighting, but we are not sure when it became part of the women’s dance. A dance with a sabre or dagger probably derived from the desert culture of the Bedouins. Since the Egyptian women’s cane dance mocked the masculine martial art of tahtib, it may be that women began to use the sword as another parody of the male dance.
One famous fictional instance of a sword dance is in the tale of Ali Baba from the Arabian Nights. In this story, the leader of the forty thieves plans to get Ali Baba and his son drunk at a banquet and then murder them. However, the clever slave girl Morgianna recognizes the villain. After dinner she dons a costume and dances for them with a sword (sometimes a dagger) then kills the thief, thus saving her master’s life. In gratitude, Ali Baba’s son marries her.
One of the first visual representations of a sword dancer was by the Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1873. His painting depicts a woman balancing one scimitar on her head while holding another. We are not sure if this was an actual dancer or a staged pose, but this picture later inspired a great deal of imaginative sword dancing in the U.S.
In the 1970’s Rhea of California was one of the first American belly dancers who brought the sword into cabaret belly dancing. The sword dance has now become a standard part of the modern belly dance repertoire, and many troupes have used the sword to create dramatic group choreographies. The sword has also been taken up by tribal dancers.
Belly dancers usually perform with the scimitar, a sword with a curved blade which was used widely throughout the Middle East. This name derived from shamshēr, a Persian word meaning “paw claw.” This type of sword had a curved blade which was very effective for a warrior on horseback, and it also provides a beautiful frame for the dancer’s body. Some dancers wield a ferocious-looking sword that may even have an edge; others prefer more decorative designs.
The signature move of the sword dance is the dancer balancing it on the head, a technique which requires focus and poise. This balancing adds an air of mystery, which can be further enhanced by clean body lines and dramatic pauses.
Dancers may dance with the sword in different ways depending on their own style, personality, and skill. Some perform with sinuous tranquillity, using lush music and serpentine movements to showcase their flexibility. They often hold elegant poses with the sword on their heads, then slither to the floor for rolls, splits, and backbends.
Others embrace the warrior aspect, spinning, leaping, and brandishing the sword. They may dance to more percussive, energetic music and incorporate aspects of martial arts. Their sword might frame vigorous movements of the hips or chest, using the curve of the sword to create dynamic shapes with their torsos and arms. Once the sword is balanced on the head, the dancer may do sharp moves, twists, shimmies, pops and locks, and even traveling steps. Of course, some dancers may combine moods into one performance.
Some dancers play zils with their swords, usually adding the rhythms once the sword is balanced. Some dancers use two or more swords, sometimes beginning with a sword in each hand and dancing to where both are balanced on the body and then they add more swords that a friend brings out to them. Silvia Salamanca of Spain performs an incredible double sword piece where one sword is on her head as she holds the other sword with her foot in a very bold and acrobatic composition. (It helps that she also has a background in modern dance!)
A few words about dancing with the sword – practice with it a lot to get its feel and weight. You may need to build up your arm strength to be able to lift it easily. You want your moves to be fluid, and you don’t want to be straining to hold the sword in place during your poses.
Even if the edge is dull, the sword is a weapon, so treat it as such. For the audience, you want to maintain the illusion of danger, so don’t grab it around the blade. Also be aware of the perimeters of your performance area so you don’t accidentally hit the ceiling, yourself or another person.
Remember that when you’re balancing the sword, you still have to dance, and the challenge of sword dance is continuing the flow of your movements while maintaining the stability of the sword. Most audiences are amazed the first time they see a dancer perform with a sword on her head, but an audience who is familiar with belly dancing will expect to see much more than a balancing bit.
The head is not the only place to rest your sword – other common balance points include the hand, the shoulder, the chest, the hip, the thigh, and the chin. Experiment with all of these places to find the ones that are most compatible with your own body. But be careful not to overdo the balancing in your show – unless you’re doing a circus act, you don’t want to just be doing a series of tricks.
You don’t have to be an acrobat or balance multiple swords to create a beautiful dance. Find some music that has some meaning for you and bring the sword into the context of your dance. When your dance is centered and expressive, even simple moves can mesmerize an audience – you don’t need to resort to gimmicks. Let the sword become part of you, an extension of yourself that moves with you, not something separate from you.
I learned to sword dance bare-headed. I was horrible when I started; at my first workshop my sword dropped every time I tried to move with it. My teacher Serena told me to go home and practice with it until I could put it on my head, travel with it, go down to the floor, do a full roll, and come back up to my feet without losing the sword. Then we would work on choreography. So I took it home and kept dancing with it on my head until it stayed there.
Since then, I have been disappointed to find teachers and online instructionals who tell you to wear some kind of head piece to hold the sword in place, or to wax the balance part of the blade for greater stability. To me, this is cheating. If the sword falls during your performance, then the audience knows that it was real, and that when it was balanced, it was because of your skill and poise, not because of anything holding it in place.
I also recommend having a “plan B’ for your dance in case the balancing doesn’t work out. For example, if you’re outdoors and it’s windy, the sword may be very unstable. So if you’re getting wobbly, take the sword from your head, spin with it, and continue to dance with it like that’s what you meant to do.
Once you’re comfortable with the sword, you can get creative as you incorporate your sword into your style of dance. The sword adds dimension to theatrical characters; you may choose to dance a hero, warrior, magician, monarch or assassin.
Master the sword, and increase the range and power of your dance!