Fools and Food in Fenestrelle or: Seeing Sword Dance and Striptease

Despite having gone to bed early, was tired when I woke on the 25th of August, the day of San Luigi. I realized I didn’t know what time the ceremonies were starting, so I figured that I better get over there just in case. I showered and ate the last of the cookies that the team gave to me during our history lesson on the dancing. As I was walking up the road that led up the hill from the campsite to the main road I got a call from Alessandro, one of the Couchsurfers I had messaged. Yes, he would be happy to host me in Torino the following night, I could just call him when I arrived. Yippee!

As I talked and walked I saw another member of the team walking up a side street towards me. He was in kit, clad head to toe in the colors of the Italian flag and wearing a big grin as always. He started talking to me as I was wrapping up the phone conversation, asking me about my night and if i was excited and so on. I got off the phone and turned my attention towards him; he told me that the team was gathering just north of the main area in town to form up and carry the offering of bread to the church. I arrived to find the team all milling about outside a large stone  building with a dirt road out front. The men were dressed the same, with black shoes, white stockings and white shirt. Their pants cut off in baggy clumps at the knee and featured one red leg and one green leg. The belt was white with a woven pattern of red and green ribbon. Over the right shoulder they wore a sash of the italian flag and on the left they all had clipped their hats (also red, white, and green) for storage.

 They wore a diamond shaped pin with the team name and crest (Fenestrelle flag over crossed swords) with the words Finis Terrae (Meaning end of the earth, and where the name Fenestrelle comes from I believe) written across it. I was taken inside and shown the bread that had been prepared.While not yet blessed bread, it looked the part with flowers sticking out of every roll. Large baskets had been filled with the brightly colored loves which as well as smaller trays.

The women arrived soon after, all dressed in their traditional clothes. While the men’s team collectively owns their costumes, the women all have their own outfits that have been passed down mother to daughter (eldest daughter!).

This makes the women’s group more closed by default, while the men have allowed the UK Michelle’s son to dance with them while she cannot. The women all carried trays of bread while them men carried baskets between two of them. There were several very young girls, and the group was arranged by height order, which made for a great sight!

I met Bruno again, who was hopping around and taking pictures like me. He explained the sequence of the march (“They will march back and forth a few times, go to the church, march up the road to the mural, march around until they want to stop and go to the sports field”) and then we were ready to go! The parade was led by Michelle’s son, bearing the flag of the group with the Italian flag on the back.

He had an honor guard of the smallest of the boys on the team, followed by the carabinieri, dressed in long red jackets, black hats with circles on the front and the same shoes and sockings. Following them came the women, youngest to oldest in two lines carrying baskets and trays of flowery bread. The sword dancers followed, led by their drummers, and carrying the large baskets, their Harlequin in their midst. Lastly came a policeman with the Fenestrelle flag, leading a small group of town officials and dignitaries. We marched down the hill and picked up a large following of other people who joined in behind. After processing through the main street to the sound of the drummers we headed up the little street to the church, which also had a little water channel running down its center. There was a ceremony which culminated with holy water being sprayed all over the bread.

This was then taken outside to be shared with the people and enjoyed by all. 

I expected to be surprised by many different things when deciding to study sword dancing for a year. Being in danger of getting trampled to death and body checked by 70 year old italian women was not one of the things I had anticipated. The second the bread appeared there was a feeding frenzy. People were shoving and pushing and trying two grab as many rolls as they could before they were torn away by others. The old women were the worst (this was a common consensus, not just my opinion). You could be well in front of them and they would grab you by the arm and pull you backwards before filling their arms with bread. And not just any bread, only the prettiest and biggest flowers would do! Bear in mind this is on a staircase with a stream in the middle. I’m amazed no one was hurt! We all then headed down to the school where there was more food. After a speech by the absentee mayor of the town there was another pushing match to get wine, soda, pizza, olives and other such food. The party dispersed after a while, but I stuck around and was rewarded by being adopted by a group of locals who gave me lots of local food and drink to try. Even better was the sight that followed:This certainly makes me think of sword dancers in a new light! An old lady decided to dance along as well, though not with nudity. It is on my channel so check it out, it’s worth it I promise!!

In an hour we gathered at the parking lot at the bottom of the town while the carabinieri shut down the street. They marched up the road and had more speeches for the official unveiling of the mural I showed you before. 

A few more passes up and down the main street followed and we ended up down by the sports field again, the crowd all sitting around on the hill while the dancers entered the football pitch itself.
There was a sound system hooked up and Bruno made a short announcement about the dance and celebration. The women started with a few dances before the men took the stage. The dances were fairly simple, but they got a good round of applause.

After they were done the men started up their dance. Similar in many ways to Bagnasco, it started with a line of men and a salute. The dance was only done to one rhythm, as opposed to the varying rhythms in Bagnasco, and didn’t have as many figures.
The basic two figures involved the dancers winding themselves into a circle, each dancer running a half turn around the circle before lowering his sword. The younger dancers couldn’t reach over the heads of their fellows and had to drop swords in order to complete the circuit. They danced this figure often, one forming a true circle, the other forming two long lines through which the leaders then danced, either over or under the swords.
Other figures included long lines that the lead dancer then wove through, and forming two separate rings in the manner of the first figure, joined by a single sword. I will upload videos at some point, but at the moment they are too large for my current internet connection to handle well. Till then these pictures will have to do. The a platform was made upon which the fool (harlequino)  stood and made a speech.
This used to be a “roast” of sorts that poked fun at different people of the town. It was often performed at carnival time as a way to “let off the pressure that had been building all winter” and let the villagers laugh at each other. Today it is not quite as pointed and is fairly standardized. After this, a stand was brought out for the maypole, and a simple dance was performed, first winding the rope and then unwinding. The team finished the dance with another line and salute, as in Bagnasco and left to wild applause. The women danced a few more dances and the last speech was made. Well…almost! At the end, Bruno took the mike and announced that there was a special visitor in the town. He pulled me over and announced that there was an American who had come to study their dancing and learn about sword dancing all over Europe.
A few members of the team had assembled, ready to make a sword lock. They were not, however, the same members as the night before. We managed at last and the crowd went wild; a new use of swords! We stuck around for a while, chatting, eating, drinking, and answering questions about what I was doing. Of course I got a team picture!

I also got to meet a woman from Überlingen, home to the world’s oldest documented hilt-and-point Sword dancing. She was visiting with her husband who dances on the team and they invited me to come and stay with the sword team there. I say it often, but can’t say it enough: I love the lucky connections that I’m making! In the evening there was a football match between the married men and the single men but it started raining in the middle. We all hid underneath the stage that the folk band had played on the night before for a while, but eventually gave up and went home. I don’t know who won, but I sure feel like I did!

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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5 Responses to Fools and Food in Fenestrelle or: Seeing Sword Dance and Striptease

  1. Pingback: Guns, Garrotes, Swords, and Firewater: Sword Dancing at the Fiesta de San Sebastian | Chasing the Star of Swords: Sword Dancing on a Watson Fellowship

  2. sammy says:

    Haha the striptease video is so funny. A fat Italian would dance to Ke$ha. Your travels sound like so much fun! A very unique and interesting way to travel Europe!

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

  4. Pingback: Guns, Garrotes, Swords, and Firewater: Sword Dancing at the Fiesta de San Sebastian

  5. Pingback: International Sword Spectacular In Germany

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