I rehearsed with the Traunstein Schwerttanz group every Friday evening for the month of March. We would meet and run through the dance once or twice before talking it over and then going out to the local pub to get pretzels, beer and multicolored hardboiled eggs. During the week I took the oppertunity to visit other cities, but I’ll try to write a post on that later! What is really exciting is the dancing! On the day after Easter (St. George’s day) we met in the early morning to get into costume for the day. I had helped organize the costumes a few days earlier, each position has a very specific outfit that aligns with other colors during the figures of the dance, a nuance that I didn’t realize until we were actually dancing. Half the dancers are in blue and white, while the other half are split into either green or black on yellow. The kit consists of leather shoes, long socks, trousers with stripes, a ruffled shirt, a striped jacket and a large hat that is worn hanging over the back by a cord. On the head we wear a leather cap and laurel wreath. There are more pretzels and beer and we grab our swords and go to meet with the Landsknechte, also known as Lanzknechte (as they are carrying lances), these are more historical knights that will make up the other half of the non-mounted Georgirit procession.
The dance was first performed in 1926 for a town celebration after a local pharmesist had found a reference to sword dancing in the town archives from 1530! He assembled a team of people to create different parts of the dance; one for music, another for costumes, a third for the song, and another for choreography. One story that I love is that the choreographer was trying to test out certain movements and couldn’t do it alone. Who did he recruit to test such figures as “single fencing?” Why, his 10 year old daughter of course! With umbrellas! What the neighbors thought, we will never know! We had some last minute preparations (tying flowers to the ends of our swords) and then got into formation to get ready to march to the center of town for our first dance of the day. I handed off my cameras to various friends from the town and we were ready to go!
We walked in two lines down the center of the street while the captain (dressed in red) walked in the center, and the Winters (two boys pictured above) caused general mayhem, hitting the bystanders with the rope whips, doing gymnastics, and having a competition to see which one of them could knock the hats off the most policemen. We arrived in the town center and paused for a few moments to wait for the church bell to strike 9:30. The clock chimed and the brass band struck up its tune. The Herold walked onto the stage, followed by the captain, winters, flag swingers and finally the sword dancers.
The flag swingers, carrying the flags of Traunstein (Green, gold, and black triband) and Bavaria (Quartered blue and white checkered with lion rampant) performed at the beginning and end of the performance. the whole procession made a circuit of the raised wooden platform with the music. The sword dancers lined up along the back edge while the Herold, captain and winters moved to the front, flanked by the flag swingers. The Captain gave a signal and we all raised the swords in salute, cried “Vivat!” and through the flowers from our swords into the crowd! The Herold then read a speech about St. George, God, the sword dancers and the day. Then the middle dancers step aside, leaving room for the Herold and flag swingers to exit the stage. It was time for the dance to begin!
The dance is one of the most varied of all the dances I have seen, including common figures such as various tunnels, circles, sequential arches, weaving patterens and a sword lock lift (known interestingly as both the “star” and the “rose”) as well as more unique figures such as the “Mill” (or wheel), “sword swinging”, and single (and group) “fencing.” The dance starts with a song and then dancers form a long line circling. The music is in 4/4 and the footwork is a high marching step followed by two quick steps. While I was learning the figures dancers emphasized that despite the overt militaristic nature of the sword dance, they were “Dancers, not soldiers. We don’t march; we dance!”
The dance has a loose choreographic narrative of the Winter being captured by the sword dancers and the Spring. Several times one or both the Winters are encircled by swords, sometimes above them, other times about their necks. Each time they manage to escape death at the last moment, usually by a feat of gymnastic ability! As I mentioned above, the costumes are organized so that dancers will match up in their actions throughout the dance. The whole group is roughly organized into the “Greats” and “Smalls” and each person has a partner of the other set. These groups often do matching movements separately. For figures that involve the whole group, the groups will often be opposite each other, such as weaving circles in opposite directions or the figure below, with Greats in the center pointing in and Smalls on the outside pointing out.
The dance culminates in the Winters being trapped by the whole group of dancers, and they finally kneel down and “die.” The Greats form a star (which, while woven, cannot properly be called a lock) and the Spring is raised aloft and spun around while holding his sword above his head. The Smalls stay on the outside, saluting the Spring.
The dancers circle around the stage another time before forming the starting line, leaving the Spring triumphant over Winter. Upon returning to place, each dancer swings his sword down in front of him, driving it into the stage. We had a funny incident where one dancer’s sword hit spot on a crack and ended up going most of the way through the floor! The flag wavers and Herold come out and there is another speech before we all circle a final time and walk down the stairs and off the platform.
At this point we join up with the main parade of Georgirit, which is actually a “horse pilgrimage” to the little church of Ettendorf (via George St. no less!) This procession was no less colorful or exciting! Indeed, knights in shining armor were practically a dime a dozen!
We marched once around the town to the cheers of the inhabitants and then walked up to the church, a few kilometers outside the center. The shoes, made out of leather and shaped rather strangely were not the most comfortable things I have every experienced. Legs hurt the next day! Anyway, we made it up and had a pause for food while the horses got blessed by the priest.
I took the opportunity to check out some of the horses that had been all dressed up for the occasion. Some of these horses were simply enormous. Others pulled carts filled with ompapa playing brass bands or local officials (my host mother was riding in one!) Usually the sword dancers also get blessed by the priest, but since it had snowed the day before (Easter!) the ground was muddy and the organizers didn’t want to destroy the old leather shoes we were wearing. After the horses were all holy again, the parade started back down into town, with the sword dancers once again towards the front!
Yes, that is a statue of the Pope, who was born in Traunstein! The sword dancers have been invited to perform at his birthday in August, which I sadly will not be able to attend as I have to be at the Watson Fellow Conference. Pity, it would be pretty amazing to be able to say I performed sword dancing for the Pope! Now it was time for our second dance.
We danced again, and then it was all over! Thank you to all the wonderful sword dancers who taught me the dancing and are generally awesome people! Hope to see you soon!