THE LEGEND OF THE SWORD DANCE
by Charlie Mill
(Danced to the tune “Ghillie Callum”)
All of our Highland Dances have a legend or story of how they came into being. A Scottish prince named Malcolm Canmore is said to have crossed his sword over that of a defeated enemy and danced round and over the naked blades in triumph.
But who was Malcolm Canmore? He was the son of King Duncan of Scotland whom Macbeth, the Earl of Moray, defeated and killed in the year 1040 and took the crown of Scotland. This is the same Macbeth about whom William Shakespeare wrote his famous play.
Malcolm fled to England and took refuge there, dreaming always of returning to Scotland and reclaiming his fathers throne. After long years Malcolm went north with an army and defeated Macbeth at Dunsinane Hill and later completed the conquest in a final battle at Lamphanan in Aberdeenshire, slaying his enemy Macbeth. It was after this battle it is said Malcolm crossed his sword with that of the slain Macbeth and danced in triumph.
We can see that the Sword Dance evolved from a war-like history so when we perform the dance we must remember this story. This is a battle dance and all foot movements must be precise and strong.
The BACK is straight and shoulders square. The ARMS when raised in 3rd position are curved and held steady. The WRISTS are held firm at Akimbo with elbows square.
All this will give an appearance of strength and control. Everything we do is carefully placed over the sword ends or in the quarters. The head is proud and poised as we remember the history of this dance.
The foundation movement in the Sword Dance is the Pas de Basque and here are the most important factors to achieve when performing it: -
1. The timing or counting the Pas de Basque movement – 1& 2, 3& 4 – must be kept in your mind throughout your entire performance.
2. Remember to spring to the side or 2nd Position. Do not drop into this position when using the extension – carry the body over.
3. Make sure the front foot is in 3rd or 5th on the half point – that the foot is fully erect with the knee well turned out.
4. Always transfer the weight fully onto 3rd or 5th half point as the rear beat is executed. If you work hard on this your Pas de Basque will have a pleasing lift and lilt to it, which brightens up your dance.
5. Be careful to end your beat closely in 3rd rear ball position. A good way to learn this is to count 1& A2 – the A count is your transference of weight.
AND NOW FOR THE FOUNDATION MOVEMENTS
PAS DE BASQUE: - Take great care with 3rd or 5th Position and ask yourself, is it full on the half point – is the foot erect – is the knee turned out? Do you realise how many times you execute that position during the 1st Step? – 24 times!! – so it is very important to do it correctly. Try to make your Midway Turn part of your step by DANCING the two Pas de Basque (don’t walk through them). Turn on the one spot.
Once you enter inside the swords, spacing and alignment are very important. The Opening Step is a circle within a square; all other steps make a square within the swords. These steps should be danced well up on the ball of the supporting foot, as often the supporting foot is almost flat. This is a very important point!!
OPEN PAS DE BASQUE: - This step is performed in 4th opposite 5th Point Position, which can be difficult to attain when dancing. The foot is held fully on the half point and as erect as possible. The knee is flexed (not bent) and is well turned out. When changing be sure to elevate well and always remembering your timing is 1& 2, 3& 4.
QUARTER TURN: - Remember all your combinations of 2nd and 4th positions are danced with a slight FLEXED knee, which means almost straight. Square your body completely on all the positions and ensure you’re on the ball of the supporting foot.
DIAGONAL POINT: - A beautiful movement when well performed. Remember your 4th Position has a lovely straight leg, well turned out from the hip. The foot is fully pointed, both legs straight and elevate with the toes pointed to take 4th position on the other foot.
TOE AND HEEL OVER THE SWORD: - These positions are difficult to control and retain elevation. Again the toe is pointed in 4th opposite 5th Position with flexed knee and with stretched ankle and instep. With strong elevation take 4th opposite 5th heel, knee very slightly flexed and with relaxed ankle and instep. Repeat on the same foot as for the first movement. The same rule applies for toe and heel in 3rd or 5th Positions; ensuring full use is made of the ankle and instep.
POINT OVER AND FORWARD MOVEMENT: - (Pointing Step) – Another lovely movement when well controlled with strong elevation, slight accents on Counts 1 and 3 and straight legs in 2nd and 4th opposite 5th Point Positions. Elevate well, ensuring the working foot is correctly placed and well turned out. Always remember, when taking all open point positions, the feet alight almost together or almost at the same time.
QUICKTIME STEPS: - The quicktime is danced in a lively manner, remembering all points learned earlier. Always keep the body as erect as possible with well-placed arms in 3rd Position for a wide brave appearance. As you progress and have more confidence remember to utilise head movements where possible.
YOU MAY BE SURPRISED TO KNOW THERE ARE MANY OTHER TYPES OF SWORD DANCES –
E.g. The Argyll Broadswords, The Jacobite Sword Dance, The Clansmen Sword Dance, The Broadswords of Lochiel and the Lochaber Broadswords to name but a few.
One of the oldest, dating back to the Norwegian invasion of Northern Scotland and the Hebrides, is The Sword Dance of Papa Stour – a small island off the west coast of Shetland.
This dance is performed by seven dancers representing the seven champions of Christendom – St Andrew of Scotland, St George of England, St David of Wales, St Patrick of Ireland, St Dennis of France, St James of Spain and St Anthony of Italy.
Each champion carries a sword at his side. The dance is preceded by an exhortation to each champion, with Scotland’s champion being called thus -
Thou kindly Scotsman come thou here,
Thy name is Andrew of fair Scotland,
Draw out thy sword that is most clear,
And fight for the King with thy right hand.
There follows an intricate dance in which the champions move in circles, forming arches and patterns with their swords, holding the hilt in their right hand and the point of the next sword in their left. Eventually they are all intertwined to form a seven-pointed star, which is held aloft. The wonderful colour of the sashes worn by the champions coupled with their intricate movements, agility and grace makes this dance a wonderful spectacle.
The above article is attributed to the late Charlie Mill 1940 – 2004