One of the most widespread and dramatic styles of folk dance performance throughout much of Europe over the past six centuries has been sword dancing, specifically the linked styles—often called “hilt and point” or “chain” sword dances—which were first reported in the late Middle Ages and are still practiced in a number of countries. In these dance styles, a group of dancers, normally ranging from four or five up to twenty-odd, moves through various figures, minimally lines and circles but often using very complex and demanding movements. The dancers are connected to one another by swords, or sword-like implements of metal or wood, which they usually hold with the hilt in their right hands and the point of the next dancer's sword in their left. The dancers have traditionally been men or boys, often members of a guild or profession, or in rural areas, the men of a parish or district.
The dances are usually presented in the winter, most often during Carnival time or Shrovetide in much of northern and central Europe, or on Boxing Day or Plough Monday in England. But they might also take place on a local patron saint's feast day or other popular holiday. In Spain and Portugal the dances have been performed at Corpus Christi, in the summer. In many countries they have been presented to entertain royalty, wealthy tourists, folklore collectors, or other distinguished audiences. Particular speeches, songs, or short dramas have sometimes been associated with these dances. It has not been uncommon for a piece of mock combat to take place, perhaps with a fencing scene. A dramatic moment in some dances comes when the swords are locked or laid together. They then can be displayed in a star shape to the audience; used as a platform for a performer to stand on; or placed around a performer's neck, for an “execution”, sometimes followed by a “resurrection.” Nonetheless, the emphasis and originality of this style of dancing lies in the linked movements of the dancers, connected by their swords.