Over the Swords
I watch her from a distance, out of sight so she doesn’t feel the weight of my concern. She has enough to worry about. She needs to be light as thistledown, precise as a machine, graceful as billowing silk and as strong as the swords at her feet. She doesn’t need to be reminded that I’m watching. The judge’s eyes are all she feels.
The music has played over and over again, repetitious to the point of being maddening. The piper is good, his fingers are limber, the rhythm is strong and steady, the drones are sounding sweet. All the good luck charms have been invoked, the silly rituals, the serious routines. It’s time to dance over the swords.
Every time I watch my dancer approach the swords, I’m taken back to her first competition. I think she was too awestruck to be nervous. On the other hand, I was not. I was quite afraid enough for both of us. She made it through, more or less straggling to a stop with the rest of them, close to the music’s end. She even won a medal.
I don’t recall her first Sword. There have been others seared into my memory, but not the first. Every discipline has its ultimate obstacle, an Everest, a four-minute mile. For the highland dancer, it is the Sword, the Ghillie Callum. It might not be so for a few, but I know the crossed blades stand out large and fearsome in the hearts and souls of most who aspire to the highland stage. I’ve seen it reduce the very best to abject misery.
They go somewhere when they get on stage. You can see it in their eyes. Call it the Zone, call it Zen, anything you like. But those who have been around a while disconnect themselves from the stage, the competitors and the audience. They let training and reflex take control for the 2 or 3 minutes from rising-to-the-toes to final bow. If for one moment reality intrudes, if they pause to consider the next step, or 2 or 3, then chances are that their minds will trip up their feet. Watching their shock as the realization sets in that all the work, all the training is for naught tears at your heartstrings.
It’s just a personal fantasy, but I like to think that, if they have dedicated enough blood and sweat and tears to their art, then when they’re over the swords they are in the care of all those who have gone before, the teachers and dancers, the instructors and even the warrior who first celebrated victory over the sword and targe of the defeated. They become part of a long heritage that is strong and proud.
Seeing dancers drop into that focused state always sends a chill down my spine. The only other tactic that I have seen that sends that same message is the cool, confident stare straight into the judge’s eye. The one that says “I’ve worked. I’ve practiced. I’m good. I deserve to be here and this stage is mine. And now I’m going to prove it to you.” A hesitant glance left or right is a sign that all may not go well. And if, God forbid, it does not; in that brief half-second before disaster, you can actually see the world, the audience, the dancer left or right, that last-minute instruction, come crashing through. A touch, a clang, a skittering blade and the day is lost. Competition etiquette demands that if the sword is touched at any time in the intricate spring and leap over the four quadrants, the dancer must step back and wait for the others to finish. It is likely the longest minute in a dancer’s career. The Sword comes second in the list of four and so, if the dancer is determined to continue, they have a long road ahead. Two more dances to complete. To their credit, they generally do. But the cost must be horrific.
I don’t dance. I’ve never had that gift that allows my feet to express what’s in my heart. But I have been required to perform in public. I know what it’s like to be on stage with the hopes and expectations of others riding on what I do in the next few minutes. I’ve had the walls come crashing down, where the fingers refused to behave and the lungs were not up to the task that day. Most likely inadequate practice and preparation, or maybe I just let the eyes and ears of the audience sneak their way into my Zone or Zen. Whatever; I’ve had to fight back the terror and finish the job at hand before I could slink off to the shadows in my shame. Believe me when I say, this isn’t simply melodrama. It happens, and it hurts.
But the highs outweigh the lows and shame has a way of fading while pride and success seem to endure. However they deal with disaster; silence, brooding, tears, anger, bravado, they come back and I marvel at their courage.
When all is well, when Zone or Zen or talismans have done their job, then watching a dancer over the swords is the most exquisite moment in the day. The foe has been met, measured, and won over. Gold, Silver, Bronze does not matter. Hillary and Bannister must make room for another adventurer, another conqueror of impossible goals against impossible odds.