The Sword Dance (Ghillie Callum)

There is no Highland Dance older or better known than the Sword Dance, or Ghillie Callum.

The Sword Dance is the ancient dance of war of the Scottish Gael and is said to date back to King Malcolm Canmore (Shakespear’s MacBeth).

Tradition says the original Ghillie Callum was a Celtic prince who was a hero of mortal combat against one of MacBeth's Chiefs at the Battle of Dunsinane in 1054.

He is said to have crossed his own bloody claymore (the two-handed broadsword of Scotland) and crossed it over the bloodier sword of the defeated Chief and danced over them both in exultation.

This dance of exultation became a tradition among the highland warriors, and in subsequent battles, clansman would cross their swords and dance around them in the same way. In addition to being a test of skill and agility, it was believed that if they could complete the dance without touching the swords, it was a good omen that they would be victorious in the coming battle. However to touch or displace the swords was a bad omen and was indicative of losses or even defeat.

There are many variations of the sword dance around today but they do have common features (although, of course there are examples of exceptions to all of these):

· The dance is performed over or around 2 crossed swords (although 3, 4 or even 8 swords are used from time to time)
· The dance normally comprises slow (strathspey) time followed by quick (reel) time
· The dancer normally travels anticlockwise round the sword

The dance performed at the Highland Games today typically comprises 1 dancer performing over 2 crossed swords and includes 2 or 3 slow steps followed by 1 or 2 quick steps and focuses on technical accuracy and the precise placing of the feet. Whereas the dance seen in exhibitions tends to be performed at a much faster pace and where completion of the dance without inflicting self injury necessitates appropriate placing of the feet and rapid body turns and as a result is an extremely exciting visually display.

In the first step the dancer performs the steps outside the sword or "addresses" the sword. Subsequent steps are danced over the crossed blades, but notice that once inside the blades, the dancer never dances with his back turned to the swords - only a fool would turn his back on a weapon. It requires tremendous dexterity not to displace the swords.

It is worthy of note that the Sword Dance is unique in Scottish Dance in that it is comprise almost entirely of only one movement - the pas de basque. All other movements provide a supporting role.


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