Bagnasco Bal do Sabre: Rapperswords, Hoops and Firebreathing

I wandered around the city for the next day, exploring shops, the river by the house, the bottom of the old fort and nearby mountains. It was a somewhat uneventful day, but I did get invited to lunch by a gang of Italians in the campground led by a small man named Bruno. Everyone seemed to like to say Bruno’s name when addressing him or anyone else. He himself spoke little, mostly offering me food and drink. He seemed intent that I be well fed and kept cutting me pieces of cheese, sausage, and bread. He also kept trying me wine and aperitifs, to which the women all clamored, “Bruno, Bruno, he is young!” “Bruno, he is out of cheese!” Bruno, apparently, had been named “Best in the Camping” by general consensus.

The real excitement was the next day when I got picked up by several members of the Fenestrelle Bal da Sabre group to drive down to Bagnasco to see their festival day. Paolo was sick and couldn’t come down, but the others were going anyway. I was rather exhausted and after learning some of the history of Fenestrelle and Bagnasco from Makala and Michelle I fell asleep from most of the ride.  I awoke as we were finding parking in the narrow streets of the town. We walked into the center, where I started to see little hints of the sword dancing. I found a mural of dancers painted on the wall!

We walked on a little further, passing clowns, oversized table games, and all other sorts of revelry. We stopped by the bar in town and had some gelato and beer. The bar was filled with signs for events in town including my favorite: an advertisement for the “Miss Mushroom” contest! The members of the Fenestrelle group told me that the Bagnasco team was “more professional.”  They had six drummers instead of three and they practiced more often. On leaving the the room, we bumped into a few members of the team. On of their drummers was sick, could our group members fill in? They laughingly refused but both teams joked around and talked about the day. They have danced with each other on several occasions in the recent past and there exists a good rapport between the groups.

We walked back to the festival area where I made an interesting discovery. There was an exhibition of old tools for farming, cooking, husbandry, winemaking, and other devices. While the whole thing was quite interesting, the highlight for me was right in the middle.

It was labeled as a tool for cleaning horses of their sweat, and i think we can all agree that it is a rapper sword! I got very excited and had to explain to all the Fenestrelle folks what was so exciting, but many of them had been to York for the 2008 Sword Spectacular so with a bit of explanation they remembered and were excited too!

We stopped for a while to watch a fire breather doing a performance on the street corner. While some of it was good theatre, I was underwhelmed by the actual fire. I think that learning how to do things can either make you more or less impressed by their performance.

At the crossroads in the center of the village I had another wonderful surprise. There was a group of people dancing in the streets to the sounds of an accordion and guitar. Some of them were just people off the street, but others were dressed up and part of a group called Gruppo di Ballo Artusin. I alternated filming dances and joining in for several hours. I recognized several dances from the french folk bal and picked up the rest of them easily enough. The other group members left me there after a while and I danced and danced and talked spangtalian with the other dancers.

I just left the dancing and had headed off to find the others when they came rushing down the street; “the dancers have arrived! They’re here!” I rushed off to find the dancers all watching a little exhibition on military and police uniforms of italian history since unification. They were dressed in their uniform and carried swords with curved blades. A few members lingered outside, since there wasn’t much space in the room. I introduced myself to the Halequino in italian. I managed to make him understand why I was here and he came back in a few minutes to tell me that there was a young dancer who spoke English who could help me. It was time to go however, so the dancers all formed up  in two lines with the drummers in the front  three abreast.

We marched down the path and arrived at a large square in front of the church. The dancers paused and milled around for a while while the crowd gathered and grew. Marco, the English speaker, spots me filming from on top of a statue and comes over to introduce himself. He would be glad to talk to me and tell me about the history of the team or help translate for other members! I should just follow the team back to their headquarters after the dancing is done and we would have some food and chat. He has videos and books to show me and would be glad to help! I again am so thrilled by the kindness and willingness to help of all of these no-longer-strangers I have met, it might be a theme this year!

The dancing starts with the team forming up in their marching formation and circling the square (more of a triangle actually) a few times before halting in front of the drummers. With a single beat of the drum each time on line stepped forward, the all turned to face out towards the crowd, the back line stopped forward to form a single long line and the saluted with the swords. I won’t try to describe the dance in it’s entirety at the moment (“The moment” is on a train from Torino to Florence, where I will stay with a friend of a sword dancing friend, next stop Venice? Rome? Bern? Barcelona? I’ll let you know!) The swords were raised above their heads in two hands and they followed the leader as he started to circle the square. The swords were lowered one at a time to join the dancers until they were all joined in a  a serpentine line dancing in a 1-2-3 step. When showing the video of Bacchu-Ber to the Italians they pointed out that the step was similar to the Bagnasco step, just much slower whereas Fenestrelle is completely different. There were several figures with jumping over the swords or going under a sword, all of which followed a pattern of the last dancer ending up twisted in some way (sword between legs or over shoulder). The figure was then repeated with the sword of the second to last dancer, and so on up the line until all dancers were twisted. The music (drumming) then stopped and the dancers paused in a ring to undo the twists.

The second type of figure involved running to a different drum beat and forming a tight cluster of dancers with swords running back and forth between them. The leader would then exit through the tunnel that was formed.

A hoop was brought out that all the dancers dance through at rapid pace, first held in place and then the “free hoop” which was carried by the dancers.

A man was hoisted up on a platform of swords and condemned to die while the fool made remarks and jumped up on him and the other dancers.

After he was “slain” a *maypole* was brought out and danced around before the dancers formed back up into original positions and marched away.

I followed them as they said and even got a group photo as a bonus!

Their headquarters were on the second floor of a building tucked away on a little side street. If it weren’t for the strange clothing and swords one might have mistaken the scene for a stereotypical men’s locker room; there were fart jokes and burping contests and talk about the dance. I met a young dancer who knew some english so we sat on the curbside and talked about sword dancing in our respective traditions before he had to run of to prepare the dinner. He has been doing it for a few years, but his football (soccer) practice gets in the way and so he has to choose different events. Marco told me that we would talk at the dinner and so we all walked over to the park where it was to take place.

The whole scene reminded me of a fourth of July picnic. There was a band and entertainers, food served by the children and teens of the town, and everyone was there with their families and friends. There were large murals of Bal do Sabre around the edge of the walls and vendors selling all sorts of knick-knacks. We ate polenta with wild boar (yum!) and I showed my Watson video to the dancers from both teams. I’m so glad that I have that as a way to show people what I am doing, those who dance are excited by the different styles and those who don’t get a clue what I am doing! Marco came over with loads of recordings and information about the dance and we talked for a while. He ended up giving most of it to me, which is great, but I will need to send it home soon, it’s rather a lot and sort of heavy!

By the time we got back it was midnight and I was exhausted! I crawled into my tent, wrote in my journal, and slept.


About Jeremy Carter-Gordon

My blog of a year studying point-and-hilt sword dancing on a Watson Fellowship. Enjoy reading, tell me your thoughts and leave me a comment, or visit my website at
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7 Responses to Bagnasco Bal do Sabre: Rapperswords, Hoops and Firebreathing

  1. Nancy Knight says:

    Love your posts….living vicariously! Those Italians were wonderful at the York Sword Spec!

  2. Heather Gladstone says:

    So cool that you’re finding all these dancers 🙂 And I can tell you haven’t really hung out with horses in the US – we have flexible metal “sweat scrapers” too, although they’re often slightly toothed on one side of the blade. But they’re what I first thought of when I joined GMMS and saw the swords!

    • I had heard this as one theory as to where rapper swords came from, but the only horse scrappers I had seen were wider and toothy, as you say. That said, the resemblance is unmistakable! Someone should just do a hourse themed dance with them!

  3. Pingback: Pigs Bladders, Italians and Horny Bears: Rapper Sword Dancing and a Basque Carnival! | Chasing the Star of Swords: Sword Dancing on a Watson Fellowship

  4. Pingback: International Sword Spectacular In Germany | Chasing the Star of Swords: Sword Dancing on a Watson Fellowship

  5. Pingback: International Sword Spectacular In Germany

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