Sword and Balancing Dances
Sword Dances of the Middle East
Dancing with swords and other weaponry is common throughout the Middle East and is used most often to show off the performer’s skill with their weapon. Sword and daggar dances are usually performed by men. Weapons are held aloft and brandished, sometimes there is some swinging and slashing of the weapons in mock fights.
Some examples of men’s sword and daggar dances in the Middle East and North Africa include:
- Saudia Arabian “Al Ardha” which you will also see performed with staffs and guns
- Sinai Bedouin Sword Dance
- North African Tuareg Sword Dance
- Sudanese Rashaayda Bedouin Sword Dance (exiled in Eritrea)
- Yemeni Daggar Dance
- Iraqi Folkloric Men’s Sword Dance
- Lebanese Folkloric Men’s Sword Dance
There is record going back to the early 20th century and before of women dancing with swords in various parts of the Middle East. Sword dances were performed at wedding rituals and I have read that they were also used as a way to steal weapons, but I don’t have that story verified. Here is a description of one wedding ritual of the Rashaayda Bedouins:
“One of the men singers, inspired, unslung his sword from his shoulder and unsheathed it. He handed the sword to the dancer, and she took it in both hands, holding it delicately by the hilt and the blade, and rested it against her forehead. Its steel blade and the shining mother-of-pearl buttons on her burga’ gleamed. Turning to face one row of men, she saluted them by hopping toward them as she danced.” you can find the full text here Weddings of the Rashaayda People of Sudan.
There are photos of Bedouin women of North Africa, the Arabian peninsula and up into the Levant dancing with swords, balanced on their heads, held, brandished and otherwise. Faten Salama mentioned in a workshop on the folkloric dance of Egypt, some dancers in a particular region of Egypt dance with swords (I plan to ask her more about this). I did find this is footage of Sudanese Rashaayda Bedouins, exiled in Eritrea, one girl dances with a stick as though it were a sword for a short moment, about 1:00 in, and I found this is footage of an Iraqi Folkloric dance where a woman with a sword attacks a man holding a rifle, then passes the sword to another woman to do the same.
As far at the sword’s use in Raqs Sharqi in the Middle East, there is a photo of the famous Golden Age dancer Tahia Karioka dancing with a sword, but not footage or a description of what she did. There is also a video clip on youtube of Golden Age dancer Samia Gamal and ensemble dancing with swords in an around the world style tableau where she rides a flying carpet to several fantasy lands with Farid El Atrache, the sword dance portion starts at 2:38. Although, you can see occasional examples like these and a few others, dancing with a sword never became a very popular prop among Oriental dancers in the Middle East. I found this sword dance by Lebanese dancer Nabila Metwali to be a very unique approach. Although Nabila also performs Oriental dance, this piece is more of a Levantine folkloric dance approach styled after the men’s sword dances.
One very famous fictional example is the dance of Morgianna in the Arabian nights where she saves Ali Baba from the leader of the forty thieves (in some accounts she dances with knives). A dancer balancing one scimitar and holding another while dancing is depicted in a famous Orientalist painting by Jean Leon Gerome, set in a café in Egypt. Exactly what the traditional women’s sword dances in the Middle East looked like wasn’t and still isn’t widely known, so many believe this painting by Gerome, the story of Morgianna and other similar depictions inspired a lot of the imaginative style of sword dancing that developed in America among Oriental dancers.
Sword by Oriental Dancers in America
American dancers have taken the idea of dancing with a sword and created their own romantic and theatrical interpretations. The mystery and power surrounding the sword make it a very dramatic element of a dancer’s performance, where she can show off her balancing skills and coordination.
I’ve often heard Rhea (Piper’s mother) credited as being one of the first to popularize dancing with a sword as part of her Oriental routine, starting this when she was a member of the Bal Anat dance company in California. She performs her sword dance with a great sense of humor which you can see in this clip of Rhea of Greece starting at 3:24.
My first inspiration for sword dancing was Zahirah of Utah, who performed with an incredible sense of drama and a great respect for the power of her weapon. I also want to mention with great respect Shahravar of UT (a protegé of Zahirah’s), Belladonna of DC and Ghadir of MD for what they have taught me personally about dancing with swords.
A sword dance typically comes somewhere in the middle of a dancer’s set. The sword a dancer chooses should be balanced for dancing. There are several different types, some that are more decorative and some that are replicas of real swords, or actual real swords. If it is one of the latter two, the blade should be dulled for safety. I have shared some of my recommendations for purchasing a dance sword in this guide.
Regardless of the actual danger presented by a dancer’s sword, the sword should be respected as a weapon. A dancer should avoid wrapping her fingers around what would be the sharp edge of her weapon, even if hers isn’t actually sharp, to avoid ruining the illusion.
A good sword performance utilizes the shape of the sword and how it can elegantly frame the body, carve through space and tell a story. Rushing to plop the sword on one’s head should be avoided. The sword can be balanced on many points, the hand, the shoulder, the thigh, the hip, the chest, the arm, even on a finger tip, as well as on the head. Floor work becomes very dramatic when the dancer is balancing a sword.
Dancing with a sword should be approached with a great deal of care. The dancer should avoid swinging her sword unless she can be absolutely certain that it wont break from the hilt (I have seen swords do this before, particularly of the more decorative variety) and she has enough space, and then, with control. Also the dancer needs be very aware of the space around her, especially any people that might not respect that space (like wait staff, inebriated guests or small children).
Working the drama intrinsic in a skilled dance with a weapon is highly recommended.
Since dancing with a sword in an Oriental set for the most part is the product American creativity, the music choice can be varied. I have seen very slow and dramatic dances using theatrical sounding music as well as peppy upbeat music with a sense of fun. I have also seen dances that draw heavily on Khaliji style dancing, where there is a traditional men’s sword dance, using Khaliji dance and music mixed with balancing tricks. Yasmina Dooda is a great example of this approach. You can see how she draws a lot of inspiration from the Saudi Al Ardha dancing. The sword is also a very popular prop among Tribal style belly dancers. Belladonna and Mavi, as Romka have performed some of the best dances I’ve seen done in the Tribal fusion style with swords.
Dancing with two or more swords can be very impressive and unique. Rhea’s daughter Melina does a really impressive dance with her sword balanced on the point of a daggar, inspired by her circus training.
Shems’s Sword Dancing Playlist
Balancing Dances – Tea Tray, Shamadan, Shisha, etc
There are other dances traditional to the Middle East where balancing plays an important component. Balancing things on the head is common in the Middle East. It is the traditional way to carry heavy objects. In general the ability to balance alone, although impressive to Americans does very little to impress Arabs, Egyptians in particular, but being able to balance something and dance well at the same time does.
In Morocco there is a traditional dance with a balanced a tea tray. This is often done with votive candles instead of a tea service on the tray. I’ve even seen the tea tray balanced on the foot in a floor work component of the dance. In Tunisia there is a dance with a water pot balanced on the head. In Egypt dancers balance water pipes (shisha), candelabrum (shamadan, traditionally used in the Zeffa) and other things in their performances. There is old Thomas Edison footage showing a Middle Eastern dancer balancing a chair in her teeth. If you choose to perform a balancing dance with something traditional to the Middle East, it is smart to do research and find out how that particular prop is danced with and any cultural associations it might have. This kind of knowledge can really enrich your dance and help you choose music and character to greatest effect.
You can incorporate balancing most anything in your routine that pleases you, even a customer’s drink. Just be sure you have the skill to dance and balance without dropping whatever it is. Although dropping whatever you are balancing can happen sometimes, and can act as a reminder to your audience that your prop isn’t glued on, it reveals a lack of skill and care if it happens often.