Sword dances from France
The best known of the French linked sword dances is the Bacchu-Ber, also known as Ba'cubert, from the village of Pont de Cervières near Briançon in the Dauphiné region of the French Alps. It is performed annually on the 16th August, the day dedicated the St Roch, the patron saint of the village. The name remains something of a mystery: it has been suggested that it is named for Bacchus, the Roman god of wine (Arisitide Albert, 1842), and also that it is a corruption of Basquibere (implying a Basque-Iberian origin for the dance, Chabrand, 1920) or of Bal Couvert for a dance performed in an enclosed space (mentioned in texts in 1866).
It is a slow dance of 45 figures performed over around 15 minutes, accompanied by singing of ‘mouth music,’ – nonsense syllables such as “la dra tan la” and “la de ra tan la” similar to Scottish Gaelic port a-beul. Traditionally, the dancers are unmarried men, and singers unmarried girls. The dancers are dressed in white shirts and trousers, with black bow tie and red sash. The choir wear traditional dresses with shawls.
The dance starts with the dancers processing on and forming a circle facing inward; swords are held upright in the right hand, then lowered to the ground with points crossing at the centre of the circle. The leader then salutes the man on his left (No. 9), picks up his sword, and salutes the man on his right (No. 2) while offering him the point of the sword. No. 2 then does likewise and the others follow in turn to form the hilt-and-point chain.
Next comes La Lève, where a series of movements of the dancers under a single sword is followed by the formation of a loose lock placed over the shoulders of No. 1, while the rest of the dancers drop down to one knee and jump up again repeatedly.
The next part is Les Figures, where various different shapes are formed with the swords. The dancers move around with a slow shuffle, creating a style which is very slow and deliberate – even more so than longsword dances! Once all the figures have been completed, the dancers return to the circle, release each other's sword point and march off with swords held vertically.
The organisation of the team was formalised in 1887 with the foundation of the Société du Bacchu-Ber, who then went on tour with the dance to Marseille, stopping on the way at Sisteron and Manosque. Like any modern dance team, they had some tall tales about the dance for their audiences, and as was fashionable in the 19th century, came up with a rather fanciful attempt at claiming a classical origin:
“Dance of Greek origin, imported to Rome by Pyrrhus in 200 BC. This dance became, later, familiar to Julius Caesar, who had it performed by his soldiers, during his meals.”
The dance was first mentioned in local records in 1731, and a book about tradition with the first formal notation was written by Raphael Blanchard and published in 1914. The most important collector of the tradition was Fernand Carlhian-Ribois, who recorded a detailed notation of the dance in 1936.
The other French linked sword dance is Les Olivettes, native to the area around Toulon in Provence, and first recorded in 1777. It was preceeded by a play and had associated characters, including a King, Prince, Marshal, Herald and Harlequin. The Harlequin was hoisted on a lock to recite a verse at one point in the dance; the verse quoted in Violet Alford's Sword Dance and Drama is in French, rather than Provençal, suggesting that the dance had changed significantly over time.
Violet Alford, Sword Dance and Drama, London: Merlin Press, 1962
Raphael Blanchard, Le Ba'cubert, Paris: Édouard Champion, 1914
André Carénini, Le Bacchu-Ber et les danses d'épées dans les Alpes occidentales, Aix-en-Provence: Editions Edisud, 1996
The photographs of the Bacchu-Ber on this page were sourced from the Wikipedia page on Bacchu-Ber and are copied under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 licence. The photographs may therefore be freely copied for use elsewhere as long as the source is thus credited and the same terms applied.