History and origins: facts and fiction.
Fiction 1) The origin of balancing a sword on the dancer's head comes from the women who accompanied men into wars, and entertained them in their tents at night.
- The dancer and researcher/writer Asmahan has found references to a “tribal” dance performed by the gypsies: “The Ottoman armies had tribes of gypsy armourers who followed the soldiers and repaired their swords, shields, spears, helmets and armour after battles. It probably occurred that at night when the music and dance was performed around the campfire, the gypsy girls danced with the swords and did acrobatic dancing and balancing that must have been a delight and pleasure to behold.”
Fiction 2) Dancing with a sword was done by women who had been enslaved to signify to their “master” that he may have possession of her body but not of her soul.
* Facts: “There is no widespread dance in the Middle East today involving sword-balancing on the dancer's head. The primary historical “evidence” that has led modern-day dancers to take up the sword a prop comes from a famous painting by the Orientalist artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (19th century). It is reasonable to believe that at least the dancer who inspired Gérôme's painting indeed did such a dance, and probably others in her community did too. However, it's not a commonplace part of a typical dancer's act today in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, or other parts of the Middle East, and dance researchers have not been able to find corroborating documents to suggest that it was ever common practice. There is an Egyptian men's dance that involves holding the sword and executing martial moves.... But at no time do the men balance the sword on their heads (or anywhere else) when performing this dance”. www.shira.net
“The Iraqi and Saudi men still have sword dancing in their folklore tradition. In the Middle East there is a tradition of dancing while balancing something on the head. This can include a cane, tray, pot, glass, or candelabra. It is very possible that balancing a sword would be a likely dancing skill. It would have been from a mix of cultures included in the Ottoman Empire. This would be Turkey, Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and North Africa.” - Asmahan
**In my own research: There are BRIEF mentions of “dancing with swords” or “sabers” in Medieval Spain, doing “acrobatics” with them which possibly included balancing.
Jamila Salimpour’s Bal Anat was one of the first sword Bellydance performances in North America. She created a show based on the Orientalists’ descriptions and depictions, looking to recreate what she called a “pre-Napoleonic” look.
Dancing with a sword:
- Remember that a sword is a weapon. It conveys a feeling of power and control. As a dancer with a sword, you have a “weapon” in your hands and your dance demonstrates that you are at ease handling it.
- Martial arts inspired poses
•Showcase confidence, fluidity, strength and control.
•Engage the viewer with suspense, drama and innuendo, create the ‘ambience’.
•Build anticipation, don’t make it look too easy, pose and pause throughout.
•Direction changes, lots of attitude.
•Body awareness: beware of rising or otherwise tense shoulders, sinking chest, nervous eyes and smile, floppy hands.
•Pay attention to HOW you take the sword, and keep remembering that you’re supposed to be holding a deadly object not a butter knife.
•Avoid bad backbends!!
a) Balancing: Buying the right sword for the right dance
Chrome swords tend to slip more easily
No more than 15 min practice balancing on head, and start with 5min.
Level changes vs travelling sideways
Balancing on: fingers, shoulder, chest, knee/thigh, hip, chin, head
c) Floorwork: pantaloons, flowy chiffon skirts.
d) PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE
FLUIDITY and TRANSITIONS
•Be aware that dancing in front of an audience is NOT the same as dancing ‘solo’ in front of a mirror… Nervousness will play tricks on you. Try to perform only those moves and balance points that you have practiced a LOT and that you can perform with EASE alone. If something is moderately difficult to you and tends to ‘fail’ 50% of the time or more, try to leave that for later when it becomes more natural and you can do it with confidence.
•Use what works for YOU!
•When creating a choreography play between poses, moves and balancing; between working SLOWLY and adding excitement with accents, turns, poses, simple moves, direction changes.
•Create clear shapes. Adorn/dance with your hands.
•It is always a good idea to create a ‘persona’, ‘character’ or story for your sword dance.
Isidora Bushkovski: “Temptation of Bellydance 2” – performance
“Fantasy Bellydance: magic” - instruction
Princess Farhana: “Bellydance and Balance: the art of sword and shamadan” –
Rania, Shazadi, Hannan, Ansuya, Suhaila Salimpour Troupe and MANY more.