I took a family dance workshop the other day with the wife and child as part of the Dublin Dance Festival. I used to do a lot of dancing, from traditional to classical, but, like a lot of things, I let it slide in recent years. It was nice to get out for what was basically an hour of lighthearted contemporary dance games with other parents and kids. Well, when I say parents… I mean, mums. I was the only dad present; it would appear that Irish men are still a little shy about dancing. My son loved it though but he did get a little carried away at times. Still, he’s only seven.
It was great fun but it also got me to thinking about the relationship between fencing and dance. After all, Confucius said “Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance“. Of course, Confucius said many things, but he had a point. What is a duel after all but a very fine dance where the penalty for making a mistake is… severe. An actual Totentanz if you like.
This is particularly the case in olympic fencing as we practise it. The actual duel is quite stylised, compressed and constrained on to a tight and short piste. The participants can only move forward and backward and in practise we advance and retreat like a dancing couple keeping the perfect distance. Have a look at Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in action some time. (And as the old joke has it – Fred Astaire was good, but Ginger… she did everything he did, but backwards, and in high heels.)
Look at this clip from Roberta. Watch their timings and the way they keep the distance as they move. Above all, watch their control of their bodies in space as they danced.
The footwork we use in fencing is basically a series of dance steps. Certainly, that is how I broke it down when I was learning to advance, retreat and lunge. The movements can be taken down to a sequence of smaller movers that are varied in action by changing the tempo or the extension of a limb. Actually, I must try and explain how I feel the steps at some stage. While I may be pushing the metaphor a bit here, it is the case that the same skills, the strength and the smoothness of movement that are needed to dance well are also needed to fence well. And, of course, in the days when swordplay was a serious skill for a young man to acquire he would have been expected to dance well too.
Of course there is a long history of choregraphing dances with swords as this strange newsreel from the 1930s shows (I’m afraid it opens in another window and is silent footage but is quite delightful for all that).
Newsreel © BritishPathe