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Raks al Sayf: Sword Dancing

Dancing with a Sword requires Balance, Line and Acting Skill

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The history of sword dancing in the United States is debatable and debated. Feel free to join in!

The Martial/ Folkoric influence: The first sword dances performed by American belly dancers MAY have been imitations of martial sword dances, such as the Al Ardha of Saudia Arabia, traditionally performed by warriors before battle to increase morale. Aziza Al-Tawil claims that her mother Johanna and friend Aiyupa were the first to perform authentic sword dances of this type, in the 1960s. The Saudis often greet visiting dignitaries with a performance of Al Ardha.

The Orientalist influence: In the 1970s, inspired by some of the Orientalist paintings of the 19th century, numerous dancers began using the sword as a balancing prop, sometimes balancing several swords at once. Rhea is often referred to as the first belly dancer to balance a sword in a club venue. These dances could be further split into:

  1. Strictly Entertainment, often flirty or sultry;
  2. Dramatic, with Feelings.


"Of old times there was a beautiful courtesan Kung-sun,
When she danced the sword dance everyone was moved;
Those who saw her were massed like the hills tense with emotion;
Heaven and earth swayed in sympathy up and down."— Tu Fu


Practice, practice, practice. Here a few things I recommend before getting started with your sword.
  • If you are taking chances and really connecting with your sword, most likely you will drop it all over the place. I would recommend having a cheap sword for really experimental practice and buy a light practice/performance one to really show off when you are on stage.
  • Don't assume your dance sword will automatically balance. If you buy a cheaper style, you will have to make adjustments. Adjustments should be slow, done in very small increments, and may have to be repeated throughout the life of your sword. What works best with mine is lay it flat on your knee in the problem area and use a gentle push with the hands on either side of the problem area. If balance is the problem, push gently throughout the direct middle and either end of the sword. If the sword blade is bent, then apply pressure on either side of the bent area. Gentle experimentation will help you get to know your sword.
  • Develop your line and balance through turns, a strong core, and full body awareness. Delsarte and Pilates are wonderful for all of these things.
  • Start making it a way of life by balancing household items. Start with a book and move to a water bottle. If you can go about your daily routine with something balanced on your head, your sword will require much less effort.
  • Make sure your dancing is good! Picking up a prop does not make you a good dancer, good dancing does. Make sure you are not using your prop to compensate for lack of dance skill.
  • Your sword is your best friend!

From Veda Sereem's book Quality of Belly Dancing

The trick to good sword balancing is:
  1. Being a good dancer to begin with;
  2. Moving your body, not your head.
  3. Knowing your dance so well that you can keep all your concentration on your sword.

Sword balancing tends to improve hip isolations, making for smoother movements and better coordination.

  1. Wear a turban or head wrap when you are learning.
  2. Practice in a space that is free of furniture and anything of value in case you drop it. A falling sword can cause damage to the floor as well as to itself.
  3. Keep your eyes level and your chin down.
  4. Start by walking around the room with feet flat, arms at the side and knees slightly bent. Walk forward, backwards, and in a circle.
  5. Add easy steps and movements over time; practice each day and try a new movement when you feel you are ready.

Floor turn:

  1. In a sitting position, slide left leg to the rear, keeping it straight. Arms at the side.
  2. Roll the right hip to the floor to begin the turn.
  3. Straighten both legs, and bend the left leg into the body.
  4. Put your weight on the left leg and lift the body. Now the right leg is to the rear.
  5. Slide right leg forward, lifting the body to a kneeling position. Stay upright or the sword will slip.
  6. Lift the torso until you are sitting up straight. As you come up, the legs will be slightly apart, so you can go into a knee slide.

Ms Sereem's photographic model was a young woman costumed in folkloric dress, very effective.

Ruric-Amari Sword Dance
Dancer: Ruric-Amari. Costumer: Maura Enright. Photo: Tammy Howell.


Sword balancing fascinates an audience, but ONLY if you are able to move freely. If you are scared to move, your audience will feel let down. You must be able to balance the sword, pay attention to the audience, project personality and enjoy your own performance.

Summary of Zaghareet interview with several expert sword dancers, including local Louisville performer and teacher Ruric-Amari, in 2011.

Ruric-Amari 2006 sword dance video. This video features the "infamous" drop with a sword on her head.

Isadora Bushkovski-Hart (or Izzy) is an American dance artist notable for her fluent, eloquent dancing. Part of her meticulous and distinctive style could be attributed to the care with which she had to rebuild her body after being hit by a drunk driver in 2000. Active since the 1990s. Currently based in Colorado Springs, CO.

Shems maintains a good page on sword dancing. Her historical photographic contribution to the never-ending debate on whether women in the Middle East ever really danced with swords is well done.

Veda Sereem is an American dance artist and teacher. She produces instructional DVDs, writes articles, and teaches classes and workshops in the Veda Sereem technique. Active since 1974. She is now based in Maryland.


Morgana in 2003 Jareeda magazine: The ideal way to buy a sword is to try the sword first. The swords vary in weight, types and balance. The only way to find out which one works best for you is to try them. It is best to focus on swords designed for dancers. Historical weaponry shops sell enticing swords but if they are not balanced for dancing they will be disappointing tools.

Veda Sereem in Quality of Belly Dancing: The best test is to place it on your head. If that is not possible, try balancing it on the palm of your hand. The blade should stand on its edge with the sharp side up.

Shakira in MedDance, a collection of postings on the internet from 1995 to 2001: The scimitars are curved, but are not a thin blade. They get wider at the end, have fancy designs on the blade on both sides, and a brass-colored handle that you can reverse for balance that usually has a dragon-head design...Great for balance, lousy for swinging.

Shira, 2011:

  • Test a sword's balance on your hand.
  • Chromed swords are slippery.
  • On adjustable handle swords, rubber O rings can be used to secure the handle in the proper position.
Jareeda Magazine focuses on belly dance and Middle Eastern dance topics.

Morgana is an American dance artist. Active since the late 1990s. Currently based in Newport MA.

Shakira al Fanninah is an American dance artist, teacher and dance company director based in Columbus, OH. Active since the late 1980s.

Shira is an American dance artist and lecturer whose web site has become one of the great references on the web for belly dance and Middle Eastern dance information. Active since 1986. Currently based in Iowa City, Iowa.


Sarayan swords, for years the sword of choice for American dancers, are no longer being made.
Some of these sources were posted by dancers on the Biz of BellyDance Facebook page.


From MedDance:
[Regarding reversing the handle if it's on backwards] just unscrew the dragon head, remove it, remove the grip piece, then remove the handle and replace the way you want it. ...all of mine have been reversible...(I own 3). If the dragon head isn't tight enough for you after this, or some other piece isn't, or to be tight it really wants to finish at a diagonal to where it should be, insert leather "washers" (you can make them out of old gloves) to tighten. --Shakira
Here's how you get the rust off [swords/scimitars]-- steel wool and naval jelly. Use gloves! Once the worst of the rust is off, you can use very fine grit sandpaper to get off what's left of the rust, and finish with the steel wool again. Then get some Simichrome polish (available in auto/bike supply shops) to polish the blade again. Now, so you don't have to do this *again* -- put a thin coat of petroleum jelly on it; just enough to rub into and coat the metal without getting gunk all over your hair and costume. This will keep the blade out of contact with the air. Also, keep your blade wrapped in an old towel. This really helps--Athena Mizelle
I whipped out the Brasso I use on my tea kettle and it worked really well. It got off most of the rust, and shined up everything else. Boy was it dirty! I completely trashed two white washcloths I was using, and there was still dirt coming off of it. — Ranaiyah

Saroyan on the Care of Your Stainless Steel Scimitar . . . before he discontinued production of his swords...

  • Natural stainless-steel blade with antique-tone handle: Rub the blade (applying light pressure) with a fine Scotch Brite using long unbroken strokes in the driection of the blade length or grain of metal, in order to pick up any accumulation of residue. You may also clean the lade with stainless steel clearer or spray lightly with WD-40. Wipe with a clean dry cloth.
  • Polished blade with gold-tone-handle: To maintain brilliant finish, go over the blade with Brite Boy or Glass Wax and wipe clean with dry soft cloth. Do NOT use steel wool, Scotch Brite, emery cloth or any type of abrasive compounds as they will scratch the finish.
  • [The sword] is not intended to be swung around or over the head by the handle, even when the handle is secured, because of the necessary weight of the blade created in the balancing process.

Business of Bellydance group on Facebook, in response to a member query on how to clean a tribal-style sword, metal composition unknown:

  • Never-Dull to clean and Renaissance Wax to coat after cleaning. Wipe down after every use with a ShamWow cloth;
  • Mr. Clean pads;
  • Metal Glo
The original poster chose Metal Glo, which she reported as taking off layers of tarnish very successfully, followed by a Super Rust Eraser which took off most of the tarnish and buffed out the rust spots quickly.

Shira recommends that you never do anything permanent to your sword in order to make it easier to balance it, and that you not perform with it professionally until you can balance it without help from wax, hairspray, etc. The advice is good, because frequently audience members will approach you and try to determine what tricks you used to keep it on your head. If they determine that you have modified the sword to keep it on your head, you lose respect; but when they see that no tricks have been used, they will be impressed. The first time Ruric-Amari performed a sword dance, one of the waiters marched up, grabbed the sword and confidentally ran his finger along the blade, determined to display his own expertise at disclosing a sword dancer's secrets. When he found nothing, he apologized sincerely and left abruptly. No spotlight for him!

MedDance is a collection of postings from the original Med-dance maillist, 1995 to 2001.

Saroyan made the most famous dance swords, widely copied but rarely duplicated, until their supply of metal disappeared when Chinese manufacturers bought it up.


Two considerations about traveling with swords:
  1. Transporting them safely;
  2. Transporting them safely on an airplane.

Common suggestions from various online dance forums include:

  • The original corrugated box the sword came in;
  • Gun or rifle case, hard shell;
  • Guitar or bass case;
  • Canvas carrying bag from folding table or chair;
  • Custom made sheath;
  • Golf bag;
  • Padded carrying bag;
  • Baseball bat bag;
  • Baton bag.

Some of these are hard cases, and could be used (if padded properly) to transport swords as checked baggage in planes. Others are soft-sided and will allow the dancer to carry the sword to the gig safely but will not protect from bending or crushing from accidents or sheer stupidity -- like being walked or sat on in a busy dressing room.

Pelican is a popular hard-case brand.

Princess Farhana's advice for flying with swords is: if you cannot arrange to have a sword waiting for you at your destination, you'll have to transport yours with your checked luggage. She puts her sword in a hard guitar case with a padded interior, with business cards, a resume and pictures of herself balancing the sword included so that any TSA agent will know why she is traveling with it. She buys her cases in pawn shops, where they are inexpensive.

Princess Farhana is an American dance artist and writer who has produced several well-regarded videos on sword dancing. Active since the 1990s, at least. Currently based in Los Angeles, CA.


Saudi men performing Al Ardha. Drummers beat out a rhythm and a poet chants verses while sword-carrying men dance shoulder to shoulder.

Khattack Sword dancing:

  • "Khattak Dance is a swift martial sword-dance of the Khattak tribe of Pashtuns in Pakistan. Khattak is danced to fast music featuring the piper clarion and drums beaten with sticks. Dozens of men dance together wielding swords or handkerchiefs, performing acrobatic feats. . .The dance comprises 12 steps requiring great skill on the part of the dancers. The dancer alternates between performing solo and synchronizing with the rest of the troupe. In the Bhangrah, every member swirls while carrying swords. In the Derabi, two youths, each carrying a sword and a handkerchief, start dancing in front of the man with surnai while the rest of the troupe members wait for their turn. In the Laila, a group of four performers holding two swords each perform stunts while moving in a circle. Braghoni is the fastest and the most adventurous of all steps, which a single dancer performs with three swords. He swings two swords in the air while holding the third in his mouth. Bulbullah is the last of the twelve steps, staged without swords. The dancers sing a love song at a high pitch. At the end of the song, the drumbeat increases and the dance goes on. And so does the frenzy. One really has to watch it live to enjoy."
  • Aghgan dance team dancing with two swords, one sword, one sword and a handkerchief, one handkerchief, two handkerchiefs.

Indian Sikh Gatka martial arts dance includes a variety of weapons props, including swords, sticks and something like poi that would crack the skull if mishandled.

Turkish kilic sword dancing:

Khattak sword dance of Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The venue is the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

A description of Ardha The Warrior's Dance on, the website of the newsletter Asharq Al-Awsat.

Georgian sword dance by a dance theatre.

Female Chinese sword dance with great special effects.

Yoon Ja-Kyeong, Korean double sword AKA Kendo.

by TU FU (712-770 AD)

(On the 19th day of the 10th month of the 2nd year of Ta-li I saw in the house of Yuan T'e, an official of Kuei-chou, a girl named Li from Lin-ying dance a sword dance. I admired her skill and asked her who had taught her. She said the lady Kung-sun. I remembered that in the third year of K'ai-yuan at Yen-ch'eng, when I was a small boy I had seen lady Kung-sun dance. She was the only one in the Imperial theatre who could dance this dance. Now she is aged and unknown and even her pupils have passed the heyday of their beauty. I wrote the poem to express my sorrow. The work of Chang Hsu of the Wu district, the great master of grass writing, was improved by his having been present when the lady Kung-sun danced in the Yeh district. From this may be judged the art of Kung-sun.)

Of old times there was a beautiful courtesan Kung-sun,
When she danced the sword dance everyone was moved;
Those who saw her were massed like the hills tense with emotion;
Heaven and earth swayed in sympathy up and down.
For she flashed like the arrow with which the archer Yi shot down the nine suns
And soared as a crowd of spirit kings astride their winged dragons.
She began like a thunder clap with all the anger of rolling echoes,
She finished like the waters of the river and sea shining calm and still on a summery day.

Her red lips, her pearl sleeves are things of the past,
But in the evening of her life there was a pupil to carry on her fragrant traditions.
When the beautiful dancer of Lin-ying, now her successor, danced in Po Ti
She danced wonderfully to the music and her skill triumphed.
When I talked with her we found a common background of memory.
Overcome by memories the episode was coloured with an added poignancy.
Ming Huang posessed over eight thousand such girls, of whom Kung-sun excelled all as a sword dancer.
The passage of fifty years is gone as the turn of the hand,
Wind and dust in continuous storms have darkened the Imperial palaces,
The children of the pear garden have drifted away like smoke,
The remnant of that galaxy of beauty look forward to the bright cold of a winter's day.
The trees already meet to the south of the tomb of Ming Huang.
On the stone walls of Ch'u-t'ang the grasses rattle in the wind.

Tonight as this splendid feast, as the song of the tortoise-shell zither and the pipes drew to its close,
At the very moment of my ecstacy came sadness; while the moon comes out in the east
An old man like myself does not know where to go.
With blistered feet I stumble among the wild hills, yet I regret my haste.

From the book, _Selections from the Three Hundred Poems of the T'ang Dynasty_ (London: John Murray, 1940), translated by Soame Jenyns. Thank you, Donna Carlton, for calling attention to this excellent translation.

Tu Fu (or Du Fu) is one of the most famous, if not the most famous, Chinese poet. Active in the 8th century A.D, his works, even in translation, are supernaturally moving, powerful, and poignant.
Maura Enright, Proprietor
©2012 - 2016 by Maura Enright
Last update: July 2016.
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