American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 26, Number 2
August, 2006

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 AMN Article  

Dancing with Swords in the DVRA Part 1. Longsword

Dr. Anthony G. Barrand


For this issue, I decided it was time for me to take a close look at the extensive and varied collection of video clips of sword dancing that are available in the Boston University Digital Video Research Archive (DVRA).  It was, therefore, a nice piece of synchronicity that the editor had other articles available on sword dancing. My original motivation in 1976 for recording forms of seasonal dance displays was to document Cotswold Morris (see history of the collection).  But, until now, I had forgotten that a major spur for initial fieldwork trip to England in December 1976 was encouragement by my friends and, then, new neighbors in Vermont, Fred and Dinah Breunig, to get film of the Handsworth sword dance. They had both learned the dance in England at a workshop given by Harry Pitts, then Captain of Handsworth. Fred and Dinah had moved to Brattleboro and joined the newly-formed Marlboro team. We then took up the process of starting longsword teams. Dinah, thoroughly smitten with the Handsworth dance after taking the workshop, was interested in studying film to "get it right" while realizing that a women's side performing the dance was probably not a dream of Harry Pitts'.  So, with a borrowed silent 8mm film camera, I filmed both Handsworth  and, since they traditionally dance on the same day on the other side of Sheffield, the Grenoside sword dancers.  I had a Boxing day lunch with Harry Pitts' family, confessed my reasons for filming, and was not discouraged. (As a footnote, the Handsworth men seem to have a history of a complex and ambivalent relationship to outside scholarship. (See Lester, G.A. "Cecil Sharp and the Handsworth Sword Dancers, 1913-24." Folklore. Vol. 99 (1988), pp. 110-23. Geoff Lester, a Handsworth dancer, came to the US on academic leave and, here anyway, liked how the respectfully the Marlboro women  did the dance.) I filmed the Handsworth and the Grenoside teams on two other occasions (1979 and 1982) and those performances can be heard and seen after a simple search of the DVRA using the name of each dance (both names refer to suburbs of Sheffield).


The films from my trip to England in 1976, then, began my collection of video of sword dancing that now has five sections:

  1. Annual performances of local Vermont longsword teams (Marlboro Morris and Sword (women) from 1977 - present and the men's team, Green Mountain Mummers) from 1978 - present

  2. English and American teams performing selected British longsword dances, either traditionally (as in the Handsworth and Grenoside examples) or as interpreted from manuscript and/or printed sources containing notations of whole dance

  3. Invented longsword dances by English and American groups, either using fragmentary historical information or new choreography

  4. Dances with swords by groups from continental Europe

  5. Rapper sword dance performances by English and North American groups


Beginning in 1977, and taught by Dinah Breunig, the Marlboro women continued to perform the Handsworth dance annually until 2004. They abandoned it reluctantly; it's a strenuous dance that, when done vigorously, involves a relentless pounding on the right knee. Their invented "New Dance" will be covered in a later section. After their debut in 1977, they combined their Handsworth dance with a mummers play that changed from a plough play in ribbon costumes through versions of a play modified many times by Andy Horton and the team for women characters; such as St. Joan ("Je suis Jeanne d'Arc et je suis étrange/Je ne parle q'avec mes anges"), Mother Earth (instead of Father Christmas), a Registered Nurse ("If I can't make 'em better I'll make 'em worse"), and a pregnant Fool ("I should have danced all night!"). The idea was borrowed originally, as I remember it, from a play Andy and Dinah saw done by Ring o' Bells at Pinewoods Camp in the late 1970s.  I recorded them once a year until the 1980s. At that point, with VHS video tape being cheaper than film or reel-to-reel video, I tried to get two or three shows each year. The sequence of films is a unique source for study of performances over nearly three decades, both of the same dance performed by many of the same women and the evolution of a play idea searching for a successful and funny way for women characters to function as mummers enacting the basic death-and-resurrection motif. Dinah Breunig's wicked Witch (e.g. Saxtons River, 1990) became a tour de force.  The sequence from 1978 - present of the Green Mountain Mummers, a team formed with by uniting Vermont-based members of the New Cambridge Morris Men and men from the Marlboro team, represents a similar extended opportunity. The prime difference, however, is that the play incorporating a longsword dance has remained largely unchanged. We adopted a shortened version of the Ampleforth play (for full text of original, see Barrand, Anthony G. (ed) Longsword dances from Traditonal and Manuscript Sources as Collated and Notated by Ivor Allsop, Northern Harmony Pub. Co, 1996, pp. 5-20). I think the abbreviated text came from Roger Cartwright (founder of New Cambridge MM). For the fifth figure of the Sleights dance, we added the Tommy and the King to make eight and, for dramatic effect, substituted a spacious whole-pousette for the more self-contained Roll. In the early years, Margaret MacArthur's son, Dan, played the King to Jeremy Coleman's Fool (e.g. Putney Town Hall, 1978).  Beginning in 1984, John Roberts took over as King and Steve Adams (lost at the Twin towers on 9/11) was Fool (e.g. Marlboro Post Office, 1984)  In many ways, it is the fooling of the Steve as Fool with Will Fielding's Tommy during the dance that evolved as the unique aspect of the Green Mountain Mummers, and that has continued after Dan Popowich became Fool (e.g. Williamsville General Store, 2005) 


British is a generous term to use here to apply to the twenty-eight descriptions of longsword dances that Ivor Allsop identified as "dance-able" and included in his collated set of notations. The corpus is really only twenty-seven as the Wigginton dance was seemingly the same as that from Haxby. All, except one from Shetland (Papa Stour, a long way north of Scotland), one ("White Boys") from the Isle of Man (between England and Ireland), and one from Greatham in County Durham, were formed in the English county of Yorkshire. Eighteen of them can be seen in the DVRA, some by teams that specialize in the local dance, including the beautiful dancing in 1982-3 of the (sadly no longer extant) team from Loftus, and the wonderfully idiosyncratic men from Flamborough. Samples are linked below though other interpretations of many of them by various teams can be found in the archive by searching on the dance name:

Three of these links document deceased English dance luminaries: First, in 1979, the Handsworth Captain, Harry Pitts, asked me particularly to film at Woodhouse Cross, one of their stops on the Boxing Day tour. He said it was a site he associated with the origins of the Handsworth dance. More than that I never learned but, knowing in advance that I was coming, he arranged for the team to dance there on that summer evening tour and he made sure there were two clowns to sweep the circle at the beginning. They commonly did not dance with the clowns but at Woodhouse Cross, for a performance stored for posterity on film, Harry considered it essential. This is the clip chosen above.

Second, Father Kenneth Loveless, inheritor (self-appointed?) of William Kimber's concertina, can be seen seated across from the camera at the Barnsley performances of Haxby and Kirkby Malzeard. The Barnsley BoxIng Day event and the home of Ivor and Joyce Allsop were regular parts of Father Ken's Christmas. It was my privilege to meet this larger-than-life character on the visit to film the clips shown at the Barnsley links.

Third, and perhaps most interestingly, the 1982 Grenoside link is to the performance used to honor the late Fred Myers (#3 in the set that day) for forty-five continuous years of dancing with the team on Boxing Day. I got to visit with Fred and his family on my first two visits in 1976 and 1979. When I first saw the team dance, I noticed that they performed the "shuffle-off" or "break" at the end of each phrase in a circular formation. This surprised me because Sharp's notation clearly specified a rectangle. I filmed them twice in the summer of 1979, once on the Turnpike outside the Harrow pub and again on plywood boards outside the relatively new Community Centre. On the road they made a circle; on the boards, it was closer to a rectangle. Nothing significant about it; they made the shape that suited the space. Mr. Myers said they used to practice in the bar of the Harrow. There wasn't much room in the Harrow, especially in December with a blazing fire in the fireplace. Squeezed between the bar and the fireplace, a rectangle was the safest solution. When the Community Centre was built, that became their practice site and they slipped readily into a circular formation.  The now defunct Loftus team merits further mention. They performed all of the figures of the dance for the video camera when I visited them in January, 1983, shepherded there by Peter Brown of the Monkseaton Morris Men. More than any other group I have filmed before or since, they wanted to watch the recording and used it for purposes of self-criticism. I treasure (and wish I had recorded) that discussion. It was clearly not the first time they had gone back and forth with comments about their own, each other's, and the team's dancing. For me, that group skill of reflection explains they success they enjoyed at dance competitions in Europe and at the Llandudno festival in Wales.


In the 1970s, when I began filming, there was a persistent taboo in England and the US against inventing Morris dances. It was only allowable if the idea was based on historical information. I remember a conversation with David Welti of the Bedford Morris Men, a former Squire of the Morris Ring, who gave me an extended justification for one Brackley dance in their repertoire that was not "traditional" but was hinted at in the known information. That hesitance to invent was even more entrenched for the sword repertoire. Not any more. On both sides of the Atlantic, teams are making up dances either using fragmentary historical information or creating entirely new choreography from fresh ideas. Local names, historical stories and legends are a good place to begin inventing a dance; it gives a team ownership and establishes links to the community. Many such examples by English teams are in the archive thanks to the "Sword Spectaculars" that gathered many teams into one place. I filmed at the 1996 event in Scarborough and Ivor Allsop gave me copies of his films from the 1998 and 2000 Spectaculars. One notable example is the Kirkburton Rapier Dancers, a Huddersfield-based team who perform their own dances inspired by a calling-on song contained in a book, Forty Years Ago, by A. L. (Arthur Lodge, a local historian), published in Huddersfield in 1869. From this starting point, using both existing and invented longsword figures, they have created several dances that they call "Number 1", "Number 2", etc.  Carlisle Sword, Morris and Clog are a light-footed, graceful team with new dances that stretch the known longsword repertoire, notably their Cumberland Sword Dance (for six)  and the Bampton Weavers' Dance for five.  In complete contrast, Bishop Gundulf's Morris, dancing with a heavy stamp in clogs, have three dances with only five dancers, including Six Bells and a version of Papa Stour. I suspect the latter (normally for seven dancers) was done out of necessity in a dancing season with only five active bodies. Any team that has been around for a few years has been forced to get inventive with repertoire when faced with too few dancers. Some teams chose unusual sword locks as devices for new dances. I included Rhett Krause's systematic examination of alternative locks with my edition of Ivor Allsop's notations (see above, Barrand 1996). The "traditional" notations reference several different locks and ways of making them, some of which are not commonly used. The Brompton Scorpers (a self-styled "occasional" side from Brompton, Nr, Northallerton, North Yorkshire) use both hexagonal and triangle locks (poor sound on the clip) and Stone Monkey (from nr. Nottingham in the East Midlands) dance their "Stillingfleet" with a set of short swords and end with a portcullis lock.   Other new dances can be seen by West Riding/Yorkshire Gentlemen, Seven Stars Sword and Step Dancers of Wigan, Lancashire,  and Southport Swords of Southport, Lancashire.  I take note, though, of the well-known English singer Pete Coe's inventiveness and work with children and adults in Ryeburn Longsword from Ripponden, England. I've chosen Kate's Progress (for 6) because of the integrated singing by Pete Coe and chorus. 

No accounting of invented longsword dances can proceed for long before having to mention Judy Erickson's choreography with Orion Sword of Boston. Orion began as a conventional team performing North Skelton and, as shown above, Askham Richard. When Judy took over the team, she borrowed little from the known repertoire. Her dances include "Judy's Dance" (for 6 plus Captain), "Sandy Boys", "Dual Pelican - No Bleepers" (named after an English traffic sign), "North Shirley Volunteers" (for 6 plus Captain, written at a workshop by English sword scholar/dancer/zealot, Trevor Stone, when he visited the US), and a recent dance added to utilize a new set of swords, "Mr. Halpern's Boutanier". My personal favorite is Take Five using Dave Brubeck's classic composition and I've linked my favorite performance of it in the pourjng rain on Elliot Street in Brattleboro, VT. Judy is now giving workshops on creating new sword dances, for example at Pinewoods Camp. One result of this is the New Dance debuted last year by Marlboro Morris and Sword to replace their Handsworth. It is a work in progress and eventually may even get a name.


My first encounter with a sword team from Europe was in 1979 in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. I was there to witness the festivities and dancing associated with the Election of the Mayor of Ock Street. The "Mayor" formally becomes the leader of the Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers (ATMD). Having been denied permission to film ATMD, I was surprised and delighted to see a team from Abingdon's sister town in Belgium and followed them all day. Boerke Naas performed a longsword dance for seven,  with a counter-clockwise circle and a very un-English "lock" wrapped around the neck of one of the set dancers. They also showed solo and coordinated exhibitions of flag waving that has become a feature of Belgian sword dances.

I was most struck, however, with the Trawantel, a sword-like stave-and-hoop dance. It was very different from any English dance, and not just because the accompaniment was a solo snare drum. I was fascinated and made notations for both Boerke Naas dances so I could teach them at Pinewoods Camp. At the 1996 Sword Spectacular in Scarborough, I was fortunate to meet Renaat von Craenenbroeck and learned he had collected the Trawantel dance in rural Belgium. It was a key part of his inspiration for the creation of the dance for his team, Lange Wapper.  The dance concludes with Renaat standing on a sword-lock platform unfurling and waving a flag. The clip is incomplete and ends with poor quality video (there are other performances in the archive) but I chose it to show this important man who died in 2001. A creative talent, Renaat created two other dances for the French teams Quevaucamps (also with flag waving on the lock)  and In de Kring

Renaat von Craenenbroeck does not seem to be responsible for ALL sword dances in Belgium and France, however. Some features are to be seen that do not appear in his choreography. Another Belgian team, Nele, has figures and a star lock that are more familiar to an eye used to Yorkshire dances. Note, though, that it ends with a man effortlessly raised on the star lock, by only six men, and waving a flag. I have taught this at Pinewoods camp using the heftiest men and the lightest woman in the class and it is not easy. The French team, Bacchu-Ber has a dance for nine with a slow shuffling 1-2-3 step and sung accompaniment by a chorus of women.  Women have non-sword roles in presentations by several European teams: for example, the Moravian group, Bobkovnici, have a dance for two sets of four men with swords in which the women have no part except to look good; Komna from Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, have four men dancing with swords who appear as part of a presentation of a village celebration with a brass band and couples of men and women social dancing; in contrast, the Basque team, Markina, have a Harvest dance perfomed by women with sickles

Sadly, due to a failing (but new) camera I have no film of the athletic men's dance with swords.  Defying comparison with any other form of sword dance is the Italian team from Il Bagnasco. Their dance has everything: twelve men with sabers, drum accompaniment, a speech given standing on top of the cluster of swords, and a maypole, all culminating in the dramatic and realistic hanging of the Fool. The speech-making on top of a sword lock also occurs in the militaristic presentation and dancing of Sankt Martin.  Note, however, that the Fool in this dance is not hung. The Fool does get hung in the dance from Baden-Würtemmburg. The Fool in this dance is one of the most brilliant I have seen anywhere in seasonal dance performances. He does get hung, probably deservedly. A great Fool at times pushes the margins of tolerance among the dancers. There have been times with the outstanding Fool and Tommy of the Green Mountain Mummers when, despite my admiration of their timing and creativity, I wanted to hang them myself. In the Baden-Würtemmburg performance, I love how he dances off rhythm with his big, noisy bells; I don't know how the dancers can stand it. The swords are wrapped around the Fool's neck in a similar fashion to that seen in the Boerke-Naas sword dance. The mechanics of how the hanging actually happens, though, is a genuine mystery. I have had sword classes experiment with ways of doing it but haven't approached anything like the effortless drama seen in the clip.

5. Rapper sword dance performances 

My plan had been to finish this piece with an examination of the rapper sword dancing in the archive. I counted the number of clips that came up when I searched on the word "rapper" but I stopped after I reached seventy-five. The range of styles and types also was so varied with invention being the norm rather than the exception that I decided the rapper had its own story totally separate from that of the longsword and deserved its own treatment. That will be Part II.

 AMN, Vol. 26, No.2, August, 2006  ISSN: 1074-2689