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Book review: Sword Dancing in Europe: A History, by Steve Corrsin

Reviewed by Allen Dodson
First printed in the American Morris Newsletter, Volume 22, number 1 (May-June 1999)

Sword Dancing in Europe: A History is the first detailed treatment in English of the history of linked sword dancing in Europe, and for that matter one of the first scholarly publications in any language to bring together material from a variety of countries where sword dances are recorded.

Such books as have existed previously have generally treated a dance or dances from one region (often the author's own), and have suffered either from extreme nationalism - in its worst form, evidenced in German publications from the Nazi era - or the Golden Bough sort of fanciful romantic notions of ancient mystery and ritual surviving into modern times from which so much discussion of ritual dance has suffered.

As someone whose knowledge of Continental sword dancing is limited (like many AMN readers, I imagine), I found the book entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking, posing more questions than providing answers. In this respect it is a useful summary of present knowledge as well as an inspiration for further research.

However, its academic focus does serve to limit the book's accessibility. While Corrsin does an excellent job of critically reviewing the existing literature and offers useful hypotheses about the origins and transmission of dances, a non-folklorist dancer interested in the dances themselves is liable to come away with less insight than he or she might have hoped for.

This is partly due to the fact that the Continental dances included here take a variety of forms, having in common the use of linked swords but little else. Many of the dances appear completely unconnected to English longsword dance (and they probably are); it's difficult to visualize a dance from the printed instructions, of course, but I found myself particularly frustrated here because they are so different.

It is perhaps unfortunate that this book was completed before the author's visit (as AMN correspondent, I should note!) to the International Sword Spectacular in England, as I think the descriptions of existing dances would have benefited from his discussions and observations there (AMN Vol. 19, number 3).

However, the book contains much that is of interest to the sword dancer outside the scholarly realm, and is a valuable addition to one's dance library.

Chapter 1 is a well-written introduction, particularly useful to the non-folklorist, which covers the limited material published to date. The remainder of the book is arranged both geographically and chronologically; that is, Chapters 2-5 summarize fifteenth- to mid-eighteenth-century citations and descriptions of sword dancing in the Low Countries, central Europe (including Scandinavia), the Iberian peninsula, and Britain. Certain similarities occur here: most of the references are from urban centers, the performers are often members of trade guilds or other such groups, and the dancing itself frequently occurs as part of a grander pageant, often on a religious holiday.

It is to Corrsin's credit that he manages to present what, after all, are mostly fragmentary descriptions of dances involving swords (or in some cases prohibitions against dancing with swords), without the book becoming simply a dull recital of extracts from municipal records.

That said, as a non-sword dancer I found some of the descriptions needed more explanation, and would have appreciated some speculation from the author as to what the dances may have looked like, as well as potential similarities among dances from different regions. The Spanish and Portuguese references, some of which may refer to "combat" sword dances as opposed to linked sword dances, seem to suggest a different type of dance than is found in the other areas.

Particularly interesting is the paucity of references to sword dancing in Britain, especially England, before the 1760s; while as Corrsin states, "non-evidence of performance is not necessarily evidence of non-performance," it does suggest that prior to this period sword dancing was indeed quite rare in England (compare the number of references to Cotswold-style Morris from this period, for instance).

The remainder of this book covers sword dances from various parts of Europe from the late 1700s to the present. I found this part of the book fascinating from the standpoint of the variety of areas which have had linked sword dances during this period, as well as their variety of styles. Compared to the English longsword dances, which are what I suppose most AMN readers think of as sword dances, the Continental dances may strike one as bizarre, to say the least.

The Hallein, Austria dance, which dates perhaps to the 1580s, uses 20 dancers, flagbearers, and a brass band, and the figures are almost set-pieces or tableaux, connected together by a sword dance; a complete performance lasts 45 minutes, apparently. In this respect it appears similar to some of the early German sword dances.

Dances from the Basque country and Galicia feature two or four files of dancers linked hilt and point, with a "captain" at the front who holds the points of the swords of the files' leaders.

Other dances appear to have only a few simple figures, and it is difficult to judge their degree of intrinsic interest without further description. For example, the figures of the bacchu-ber, a sword dance still based in its original village in the French Alps, are described here, but the style of its presentation is hardly clear. Was Violet Alford right to claim that it might have been of interest to specialists, but hardly deserved to be presented (at a dance meeting) as entertainment, or might the dance be impressive in its own way, just as Ampleforth or for that matter the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance?

When it comes to English sword dances, both longsword and rapper, Corrsin is on firmer ground, and his descriptions of the dances themselves are more detailed. His analysis of the merits and faults of Cecil Sharp's work is balanced and well-argued. While much of the longsword material covered will be familiar to readers of Ivor Allsop's Longsword Dances from Traditional and Manuscript Sources (edited by A. G. Barrand, Ph.D., Northern Harmony Publishing Company, 1996), many of the early rapper citations mentioned here were unknown to me.

Corrsin suggests that longsword (in Yorkshire) and rapper (in Northumberland) probably developed from an eighteenth-century Tyneside sword dance style. An interesting point, not mentioned by Corrsin, which might support this hypothesis is the existence of the "rapper-like" longsword dance from Greatham, County Durham, which geographically and stylistically lies between the Tyneside rapper and Yorkshire longsword forms.

The question of possible connections between English and Continental dance forms is an intriguing one, only briefly treated here. This is certainly an issue which deserves more attention, particularly as regards possible immigration or trade connections between the Low Countries and England.

The Papa Stour dance is also discussed, in a short, separate chapter; again, what we do know is dwarfed by what we do not know - is this dance related to English longsword at all? Corrsin makes the point that in the twentieth century it has been "assimilated" to English longsword style, and that some of the "English-like characteristics" such as the star-shaped lock and running step may not be original. Certainly a close analog to Papa Stour's "tunnel" figure is shown on the cover, which reproduces a Brueghel engraving from 1560 showing sword dances in Bruges.

All in all a fascinating book which you should have if you're at all interested in longsword dance. It's not cheap, but it's worth the money.

Visit Shave The Donkey's shop to buy your copy of Steve Corrsin's book, Sword Dancing in Europe: A History

2000 Allen Dodson, American Morris Newsletter

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