Sword dances from
the Low Countries
Dances from the Netherlands and the Flanders are among the oldest. The earliest recorded sword dance in the Flanders is from Bruges and dates back to 1389. Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting “The Fair of St. George's Day” from ca. 1560 features a sword dance, apparently from the village of Beerschot near Antwerp (detail from Hieronymous Cock's 1600 etching of the painting shown below).
The early dances in this area are recorded from 1389 to the mid 1500s, and were mainly performed at religious festivities organised around Shrovetide. From the end of the 1560s onwards, however, religious authorities began to ban non-religious performances at the festivities, and sword dancing went into decline.
Despite the general decline, the dances of the Low Countries were not forgotten, and continued to be performed on a small scale, especially in the Flanders. There was a revival of sword dance traditions during the twentieth century, initially in the Netherlands, and then after the First World War in the Flanders as well.
The Flemish sword dances were revived again in 1970 by the late Renaat van Craenenbroeck, leader of the Lange Wapper dance group from Antwerp. As there were no detailed notations of the dances, they reconstructed the dance from those records that were available and taking inspiration from Cock's etching of Bruegel's “The Fair of St George's Day”.
The Lange Wapper team's main performance is at mid-Lent in front of Antwerp Cathedral, with eleven dancers and a fool. On other occasions there is a shorter performance with seven dancers. The dance has a number of single and double over and under figures, and two locks are tied; towards the end of the dance a ten-sword lock is tied, the fool is trapped by the dancers and symbolically killed, then finally the dance concludes as the Captain steps onto the lock, is elevated and waves the Antwerp city flag.
As well as reviving the Flemish sword dances, Renaat van Craenenbroeck played a pivotal role in researching other European sword dances, forged liaisons between sides in different countries and provided the inspiration for the international Sword Spectacular festivals.
Belgian sword dances
There are now a number of sides practising sword dances in the Flanders style, which is similar to longsword but adds elevating the captain, like the German dances, and flag-waving to the dance.
The De Michielen group from Tongeren can trace its origins back to at least the 1500s as there are records from that time of the Guild of St Michael performing a sword dance on special occasions, and there are further records of the dance in the 18th century, although neither set of records describes the form of the dance. The museum in Tongeren has a set of seven swords used for dancing, and confiscated at the time of the French invasion in 1793. A limited description of the form of the dance is first found in a book by A. Perreau in 1849.
The Boerke Naas folk group from Sint Niklaas, founded in 1949, has performed a composed linked sword dance, the zevenster, since 1961 as well as the Trawantel hoop and stick dance (see below). The Les Pas d'Yau group from Quevaucamps incorporates a local wolf character, the Galouche, who is symbolically executed during the dance, but recovers and is elevated on the lock at the end of the dance.
The Trawantel dance
The Trawantel stick and hoop dance is performed by dancers linked by wooden poles, and is essentially another form of hilt-and-point sword dance. In fact, the mayor of the Flemish village of Hornebeck banned the use of swords for dancing in 1776, and substituted sticks, and it has been suggested that this led to the origin of the Trawantel dance, whose origins are otherwise obscure as the first reliable documentation only comes from the 1920s and the tradition must surely be much older. The dance is also known by the names “Traweitel” and “Trawijtel”, suggesting it may once have been more widespread than currently; the origin of the name is as obscure as that of the dance itself.
The Trawantel dance is still performed by the St. Sebastiaansgilde Westerlo, a guild established for the protection of the castle. Different authorities disagree on whether it was originally only performed by the St. Sebastian's Guild, or by numerous local guilds. The dance itself includes the standard hilt-and-point figures such as over and under figures, as well as elevating a leader on a lock to wave a flag at the conclusion; its unique feature is that a wooden hoop is included and incorporated into the chain for parts of the dance, with the dancers passing through the hoop as it makes its way around the unbroken chain.
Renaat van Craenenbroeck, The Sword Dance in Antwerp, Rattle Up My Boys 1991; 3(2):6-7