Martial Dance

Here's something that the History Forum might be able to help out with...

I'm trying to think of various forms of martial dance. By "martial dance," I mean activities that a) are designed to develop fighting ability in practitioners; b) may or may not use weapons, c) involve (to some degree) spontaneous interaction between two "opponents" or "combatants"; d) do not aim at inflicting real damage to said opponents; e) are accompanied and to some extent controlled by music.

Of course, Capoeira and Gatka come to mind. I've also read a little about stick fighting in North Africa that is trained in this manner (and, I may be wrong, but I think I read somewhere that Krabbi Krabong uses a similar method as well).

What other forms of martial dance are out there, and where does one go to find out more about them? BTW, apologies if this issue has been raised before. Thanks.

There were various dances done by the ancient Greeks, most famously the Pyrrhic Dance.(Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Pyrrhic Dance, 1869)[5]After they had made libations and sung the paean, two Thracians rose up first and began a dance in full armour to the music of a flute, leaping high and lightly and using their sabres; finally, one struck the other, as everybody thought, and the second man fell, in a rather skilful way. [6] And the Paphlagonians set up a cry. Then the first man despoiled the other of his arms and marched out singing the Sitalcas, while other Thracians carried off the fallen dancer, as though he were dead; in fact, he had not been hurt at all. [7] After this some Aenianians and Magnesians arose and danced under arms the so-called carpaea. [8] The manner of the dance was this: a man is sowing and driving a yoke of oxen, his arms laid at one side, and he turns about frequently as one in fear; a robber approaches; as soon as the sower sees him coming, he snatches up his arms, goes to meet him, and fights with him to save his oxen. The two men do all this in rhythm to the music of the flute. Finally, the robber binds the man and drives off the oxen; or sometimes the master of the oxen binds the robber, and then he yokes him alongside the oxen, his hands tied behind him, and drives off. [9] After this a Mysian came in carrying a light shield in each hand, and at one moment in his dance he would go through a pantomime as though two men were arrayed against him, again he would use his shields as though against one antagonist, and again he would whirl and throw somersaults while holding the shields in his hands, so that the spectacle was a fine one. [10] Lastly, he danced the Persian dance, clashing his shields together and crouching down and then rising up again; and all this he did, keeping time to the music of the flute. [11] After him the Mantineans and some of the other Arcadians arose, arrayed in the finest arms and accoutrements they could command, and marched in time to the accompaniment of a flute playing the martial rhythm and sang the paean and danced, just as the Arcadians do in their festal processions in honour of the gods. And the Paphlagonians, as they looked on, thought it most strange that all the dances were under arms. [12] Thereupon the Mysian, seeing how astounded they were, persuaded one of the Arcadians who had a dancing girl to let him bring her in, after dressing her up in the finest way he could and giving her a light shield. [13] And she danced the Pyrrhic with grace. Then there was great applause, and the Paphlagonians asked whether women also fought by their side. And the Greeks replied that these women were precisely the ones who put the King to flight from his camp. Such was the end of that evening.(Xenophon, Anabasis 6.1.5-13)

Silat, Krabi Krabong, and Muay Thai jump to mind from a SEA point of view...

bustr, Interesting...thanks for the chhau reference--I hadn't heard of it before. There is another Indian martial dance the name of which I can't remember. It is practiced in Kerala, and I think has a connection to the Christian community there. It has an emphasis on foot stomping. I am definitely not thinking of Kathakali (though of course that has martial roots) or Kalaripayattu. Any idea what I am talking about?

Nevermind...seems I was wrong to think that the Christian dance form was martial. It's called Chavittunatakam, but only one of the articles I've come across has claimed that it is part of a combative tradition. The others have all stated that it was developed by the Christians as a kind of reaction to Kathakali, since it was prohibited for Christians to view performances of the latter.

On the other hand, in the course of looking around I found references to two forms of martial dance practiced by the Nair community, also in Kerala: Velakali and Kanyarkali.

I found some interesting information about Philippine Martial Dance here

It's clear that there is a well-developed tradition of martial dance in South and Southeast Asia. I'm wondering about similar activites in Europe. IBI has already made reference to the Pyrrhic Dance. I know that there are Scottish sword dances, but do any of them emphasize spontaneity and improvisation?

Also, I remember reading about Chinese sword dancing in Barry Hughart's "Bridge of Birds" (GREAT book). It sounded interesting, so I looked it up in a book on Chinese martial history (IIRC, called "The Spring and Autumn of Chinese Martial Arts"). There were references to sword dancing there, but not in great detail. Does anyone know of any books where the topic is covered at greater length?

Chinese Lion-dancing is part of almost every chinese MA school. It develops footwork and stance training. especially when you have to climb up something and walk on poles etc. The same goes for unicorn-dancing, which is very similar. I'm not sure about dragon-dancing tho, I don't see any immediate application to martial training in it...just a team of guys running around carrying a dragon on a stick? If I'm wrong, somebody enlighten me :)

Chinese sword dancing is mentioned in the historical novels 'Three Kingdoms' as well, and from the way it sounded it was a free spontaneous form rather than a set form. I'm trying to find more info about it as well. However I dont think it was performed with two people and there was no music so it didn't satifsy kamisori's definition of martial dance. By the way, many of the dances mentioned are not spontaneous I think.

to followup on Otsuka's post, lion dancing in the CMA is i think mainly a southern CMA practice. it helps build low stances. it's mainly the lead guy holding the lion's head which is pretty heavy, and the rear guy holding the cloth which represents the rest of the body/tail of the lion. if you've seen some early jackie chan movies, specifically, the dragon lord, amongst others, you would've seen some of the lion dancing.

the dragon on the other hand is like 10 guys holding a stick which has the body attached to it and 1 of the guys has the head and they just move around.

There's northern lion-dancing too, where both guys are in a big furry lion-suit, usually a golden lion. (reminds me of the scene in "secret weapon" when they're in this big cow-suit, and then this bull comes and humps the guy who's at the back of the cow-suit...funny shit).

IronMonkey, don't worry about that definition above. I only worded it that way because I was interested in how martial dances allow spontaneity without ending up in grievous injury to the participants. But I'm happy to hear about choreographed dances as well. It's all fascinating. Hell, bring up group martial dances if you want. :)

BTW, I'm pretty sure that the references to Chinese sword dancing that I've seen have described it as involving two people. Certainly the Hughart book did, but considering one of the dancers was a ghost and that it is a fantasy novel set in "an ancient China that never was," it's a less than reliable source.

Have you looked at the CMA history I cited above? It might be helpful. Lots of information in point form, with very little interpretation--but it's a start.

Check out the ROSS version of Russian Martial Arts. One of the underlying principles is that if you do the exercises slowly, they develop health and strength; quickly, they turn into Cossack dance; very quickly, they turn into martial arts. The system does emphasize spontaneity (sp?), but is initially built around some basic exercises.


Kamisori- Where can I find the book? I can't seem to find it listed in amazon. Do you happen to know the isbn?

I think most forms in traditional styles can be regarded as martial dance. There are some Chinese styles that do not have any set forms but practise free form as one of the more difficult stage of their training.

To add more about lion dancing, in Fujian province ( neighbouring canton), they have a green face lion. It is different in that the lion's head is worn like a shield and depict a monster. They have a guy fighting against the lion, symbolising the Han chinese struggle against Manchurian rule.

faan ching, fook ming!! :-)


I bought the book from Wing Lam Enterprises. I don't think that Amazon stocks it. WLE has a lot of material that is hard to find elsewhere, but it is of varying quality. The Spring and Autumn book, however, is pretty good. Like I said, it doesn't give much in the way of coherent explanation or interpretation, but it is well worth a read if you have any interest in CMA.

I've heard about these CMA arts that don't practice set forms. Ziranmen and Yi Quan are probably the most famous, but I've found very little solid information about either of those.

Most of the polynesian cultures have dances which incorporate weaponry drills. I've seen such in Tonga and New Zealand. They are also used to psyche themselves up.

The Highland Scots have a sword dance. The History Channel showed portions of the dance on a "History of the Scots" type special.

I've also heard reference to a medieval German sword dance that is supposedly still practiced, but I've never been able to find any information on it.


I second the ROSS reference, and also mention Morris dancing, which uses both sticks and swords to varying degrees of abstraction...

Kung Fu King, thanks for your contribution. I just did a brief web search and came up with some reviews for a book called "Sword Dancing in Europe: A History" by Stephen D. Corrsin. More information can be found here

It has chapters on German Sword Dancing, and the state of the art since WWII.

Thanks kamisori!!