Czech & Slovak sword dances
Sword dances were found in former German-speaking areas of Bohemia and Moravia such as around Kaplice (Kaplitz), along with the ancient mining areas around Strání on the border between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The former Czechoslovakia was also home to František Pospíšil, the great but forgotten sword dance researcher.
Czech sword dances were performed for the Prussian king Frederick I when he entered Prague .A dance from the 15th century called the Fašančaré – probably derived from the German “Fasching” meaning “carnival” – was preserved at the St. Koruna monastery in Moravia. Indeed, most Czech and Slovak sword dances were traditionally only performed at Shrovetide, the same time as the pre-Lent German Fasching. Many of these dances were performed by those about to start military service, and in some village traditions the dancers are called “Recruits”.
The Strání sword dance
Strání is a village close to the Slovak border some 20km from the town of Uhersky Brod and its sword dance, the pod šable (“under the sword”), is part of a longer ritual performance starting with singing followed by a linked sword dance of five dancers performing relatively simple figures such as clashes of swords and passing under or over a single sword. There is then further singing, the dancers break out and dance with female partners. The swords were traditionally made from wood.
František Pospíšil's account of the dance in 1911 describes the dance as starting with an “over single sword” figure, followed by a clash, then an “under single sword” figure and another clash. The dancers would then dance with women of the house visited. Pospíšil noted that until around 1860 it had been traditional for the householder to accuse one of the dancers of theft, who would then by symbolically beaten with the swords.
Unlike in rapper, longsword or the sword dances from the German-speaking and Low Countries, the Strání sword dance does not include sword locks and is not accompanied by any characters or fools, although there is film footage showing that characters were used in the recent past. There is a non-dancing team leader called the Gazda, who traditionally sought permission to visit from the various householders on the team's tour, and who collected gifts of food from the audience, which were traditionally skewered onto his sword, although by 1911 the gifts were more ususally collected in a sack.
The Strání sword dance is the best documented of the Czech sword dances, and it has been suggested that the reason for its fame may be that Strání had been visited by the Czech composer Leoš Janaček in 1899 and 1906 to gather material on folk music for his compositions. Janaček saw the sword dance on one of his visits, and wrote a critical review of Pospíšil's account.
Strání also had and older mock-battle sword dance; this had been seen by Carl Rudczinsky in 1784, who wrote a description of the dance in Ernst Hawlik's 1808 guidebook to Moravia and Silesia:
Twenty-four years ago I saw some of them, in the presence of their lord of the manor, in Ostrava, publicly in the courtyard, excellently perform their customary bandits' dance, armed with swords and axes; they moved around boldly and wildly with these weapons of death, striving to wound one another, themselves bloody, yet cold-bloodedly showing no disdain for their pain. Thus, I was eager on my last visit there [to find], whether this roughness still rules among them; and indeed, I found it to my joy, as before, noticeably more polished; and so I believe the training and inspiration of strength will to the emulation of the most handsome sort of sociability.
Some other villages around Strání have similar sword dances, although with variations in the exact form and music. In the village of Stary Hrozenkov, they used a straw man as a character, looking rather like the Whittlesey Straw Bear!
The Komna sword dance
The Komna dance is similar to the Strání dance, except that the swords are made from metal rather than wood. Four dancers are used in Komna, with a non-dancing leader as in Strání to collect from visited householders. The dancers dress in black military style uniforms, black riding boots and artificial flowers on their black hats. Characters are sometimes used, which may include a man dressed as a woman, a Lord and Lady, a fool, flag-bearer and three sweeps. As in Strání there may also be couples dancing.
The Komna tradition is still performed locally, and dancers from Komna have appeared at the Sword Spectacular events held in Scarborough and Whitby from 1996 to 2004. There are photographs on this site showing the Podšable Komna dancers at the Sword Spectacular 2008.
The Kaplice sword dance
The Kaplice (Kaplitz) sword dance was traditionally performed at Shrovetide by ethnic German carollers, but died out locally when the ethnic German population was expelled from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War, although it has been subsequently revived. It was fortunately filmed by František Pospíšil before the war. They used sabres made from iron plate and wore an elaborate costume of black uniform with coloured sashes and black hats decorated with flowers while performing a relatively simple sword dance to a small band playing brass and accordions. Pospíšil's footage shows seven dancers and four fools.
The majority of sword dance traditions in Slovakia come from villages close to the Czech border, and were therefore probably similar to the Strání dance. Another linked sword dance preceded by a play formerly performed at Shrovetide in Banská Bystrica in central Slovakia was documented by August Horislav Krčméry in 1842. Sword dances have also been described at Kremnice, near Banská Bystrica, as well as Pozamčok, Čičany and in the Malacký district to the north of Bratislava.