January 26, 2010 § Leave a comment
Late last year, my troupe performed at the Alabama Renaissance Faire. One of our pieces was a choreographed sword dance.
Many people in our troupe have the same Turkish scimitar style dance swords. They are purchased from the same distributor and therefore balance the same and have the same weight. Some people even have two so they can do double sword. We like to have matching swords for performances so we share the surplus within the troupe when we do a group piece. The sword I own is a different style, so I’m one of the dancers who borrows.
Before the Renaissance Faire, we did not communicate well enough about who was bringing whose sword for the first, less formal day of performing, and we ended up a sword short. In retrospect, we should have talked our way through a reset of the choreography and just did the piece with one fewer dancer. Instead, we borrowed a sword from another dance troupe. It was a little larger, but had a similar shape and the look we wanted. I was going to use that sword. This was only minutes before we went on. I put the sword on my head to make sure I could find the balancing point, took it off again and went to the stage area.
The performance started off really well. When it was time for our sword piece, we began with the swords in our hands and did some lyrical work, creating interesting shapes and lines. I was a little worried because the borrowed sword felt strange. Even just moving it around with my hands, it felt…different.
About a third of the way into the dance, we balance the swords on our heads. As we find the balancing points, we do some hip work and undulation type moves so we continue dancing even as we are placing the swords. Then we all remove our hands at once for dramatic effect.
Up until this point, everything had gone really smoothly. No forgotten choreography. No spacing issues. No costume malfunctions. No wind blowing (wind makes balancing harder because it can actually blow the sword around on your head). All swords were in place.
Then we began moving. First the back line, then the front. After just a couple seconds, my sword slipped. I calmly put it back in place. Within 30 seconds, it slipped again. I replaced it once more. When it slipped a third time, I started to get frustrated.
I have dealt with having to reposition a sword before. It’s usually no big deal, it’s just part of dancing with a sword. But I had never dealt with a sword that I couldn’t get to balance at all. This was quite embarrassing. Part of what is impressive about sword is that a dancer can seem to move effortlessly with this dangerous object on her head. If a dancer can’t get it to stay, it ruins the effect.
I hate watching other dancers struggle with things on stage and I’m sure it was painful to watch me fight with that sword. What I wanted to do was stab the sword into the ground, declare that it was not mine and stomp off the stage. I didn’t, of course.
I managed to finish the rest of the choreography as gracefully as possible while mostly holding the sword in place. In retrospect, I could have removed the sword and improvised around the dancers who were still doing the choreography. This option did occur to me during the mishap, but I was afraid it might throw off another dancer, so I just finished the piece the best I could.
One thing I learned is that it is best to be responsible for your own prop. In the future, if I’m borrowing something I will try to borrow it beforehand so I can personally bring it to the performance space. It is a lot easier for each individual dancer to keep track only of what they will need for the show.
After this rather embarrassing performance, I went home and played with my own sword, which has a thinner blade and is much more light weight. I could not do the troupe choreography with this sword either. The choreography is at a medium tempo. With my own sword, I dance at very slow tempos. This got me thinking about how one sword may lend itself to different styles of dancing better than others.
The heavier, scimitar swords we use in the troupe stay on the head more securely during turns and faster moving steps. You can move more suddenly and the weight and shape help keep the sword from responding as much. When you finish a turn, the sword tends to slow down and stop just after. Its own weight seems to have more influence on it than the momentum of dancing.
With lighter swords, you have to move slower. For turns, you have to start out slow and build speed so you don’t leave the sword behind, and you usually need some way to stop it at the end so it does not keep going without you. For example, you can artistically put your arm up in the path of the sword.
While this does not mean one sword is better than another, it does mean that you should be cautious if borrowing a sword that you’ve never danced with at the last minute pre-perfomance, especially if you plan on adhering to a strict choreography that may or may not work with that particular sword. I know, this should probably be sword-balancing common sense, but sometimes you need to make last minute decisions to fix a problem. Sometimes they work well and sometimes they don’t. This time, it didn’t work out so well for me. It’s okay, though. It’s all part of that live-in-the-moment performance experience.