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The American Morris Newsletter

April, 2007 -- Volume 27, Number 1


Dancing with Swords in the DVRA Part 2: Rapper

Anthony G. Barrand

Last summer (2006), for my series of essays on the resources available in the Digital Video Research Archive , I decided to examine the clips on sword dancing. To my surprise, I found they are sufficiently extensive and varied enough to require three reports: one each on longsword, rapper and continental European dancing. The August 2006 issue of the American Morris Newsletter carried Part I: a report on clips of teams dancing with longswords, i.e. relatively inflexible tools of wood or steel roughly 30" in length ("Dancing with Swords in the DVRA Part 1: Longsword", American Morris Newsletter, Volume 26, Number 2, August, 2006).

Where and when did I first encounter rapper sword dancing?

My first experiences with rapper were in 1974 at English Dance Week of the Country Dance and Song Society at Pinewoods Camp, of course, near Plymouth, MA. My first video recording of rapper was soon afterwards and unexpected: when I took my B&W reel-to-reel equipment in 1976 to record the Headington Quarry Morris Men at the Smithsonian Bicentennial Folklife Festival.

Figure 1: Headington Quarry Morris Men, ca. 1895 1

Eager to record the descendants of the springtime Cotswold Morris first seen in 1899 (see Figure 1) by Cecil Sharp, I wanted to fill every bit of (then expensive) videotape with Headington repertoire. I confess, then, that I was "miffed" when they launched into dances from the villages and towns of Adderbury, Bledington and Brackley. That was, however, nothing compared with my indignation at the legendary Morris team from Headington Quarry performing Christmas-time rapper  (I believe from Winlaton--described in Sharp, Cecil. The Sword Dances of Northern England, Part III, pp. 91-102, 2nd edition, 1951, revised by Maud Karpeles, reprinted by EP Publishing Limited, 1977).

Rapper sword dancing was only found historically in the northeast mining communities of Northumberland and County Durham (see map of Figure 2). This is the northernmost dance form found in England, adjacent to the Scottish border and just north of the county of Yorkshire, the epicenter of longsword dancing. [In the figure 2 maps, Headington Quarry is under the "g" of "England" at the eastern side of the black blob of Cotswold Morris locations. In American terms, this is a separation of about 200 miles between the two: a three hour drive on the interstate; in English terms, it's a vast cultural gulf between cottages with thatched roofs and mining villages with slag heaps.

Figure 2: Distribution of English Display Dance Types [Rapper locations highlighted in red; longsword locations in blue] 2

The rapper sword dances of the coal mining communities are very different even from the nearby longsword dances of Yorkshire. The men from Earsdon rapper are pictured in 1910 in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Earsdon Rapper Sword in 1910

Do the men in Figure 1 from Headington look like coal miners? No, they don't, and neither did their descendants eighty years later in 1976. Fortunately, despite my inexperience as a fieldworker, I remembered the words of my friend, the great folklorist Ken Goldstein, and kept filming. Goldstein's philosophy was that in fieldwork one should be like a garbage collector and take everything.

The Headington men, I realized later, were trying to represent more of English dance to Americans than just their corner of England and, as a team that cared about how they looked, did a creditable job. Their rapper, taken, I think, from the Winlaton dance published by Sharp 3, was clean and precise with good stepping.

I saw these rapper dancers from the county of Oxfordshire near London in 1976, but in 1977 had my first rapper lessons from a Geordie, Peter Brown of Monkseaton Morris Men near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. You'll see an immediate difference in the speed of their dancing.  I got an insight into their aesthetic about rapper when I went on a fund-raising pub crawl around Tyneside with them doing this dance in the summer of 1979. They'd burst unannounced into some of the roughest public bars I'd ever seen, unplug the juke-box, blast through the dance elbowing people holding precious pints of bitter out of the way, and collect as much money as a Catholic church on a Sunday morning. These crowds knew their rapper and showed their appreciation.

At Pinewoods Camp in 1977, Peter taught the North Walbottle dance for seven (reported in Sharp's Sword Dances Part III, pp. 103-115). It has a Mother figure, "Betty", and an ineffectual father, "Tommy" with five "sons". It's a dance that Peter (it has to be said with a glottal stop) "Broon" insisted be done fast and well but it's also a soap opera. This was a revelation not just about rapper but also about an approach to all display dancing: it can be and has to be good and entertaining. But what is known about it?

Where does the rapper sword come from?

The dance implements consist of strips of very flexible steel about an inch (2.5 cm) wide and 18-24 inches (45-60 cm) long with a handle at both ends, one of which is fixed while the other can rotate (see Figure 4):

Figure 4: Rapper Sword 4

English longswords were made of wood or steel. Wooden ones, such as from the fishing village of Flamborough, were demonstrably tools for mending nets not weapons. Even the steel ones were likely only called "swords" because that was the name used to refer to the yard-long strips of iron supplied to blacksmiths, from which they made hinges, locks, iron fences and, yes, swords. As anyone knows who has taught longsword dancing to children (or even college students), the implements look enough like a sword that stopping duels from breaking out is an inevitable chore.

The rapper, however, doesn't look much like a sword of any kind. Was it a tool? A very interesting account of what is known about rapper sword dancing can be found at "Rapper Online".  Anyone interested in both the origin of sword dance implements from tools and the name, "rapper" could also usefully read Melusine Wood's (admittedly dated --1945) essay reprinted in my edition of Ivor Allsop's collection of longsword notations. 5  The evidence is scarce and controversial but it seems indisputable that the rapper sword was a 19th-century innovation, probably an adaptation from a mining tool. The primary limiting factor was that British iron ore was not suited for making flexible steel, because:

...until the invention of the Bessemer converter in 1878, steel had to be made from imported iron ore [from Sweden--AGB], so purpose-made rappers would have been prohibitively expensive, and it is therefore likely that early rappers were fashioned from old pit tools. There is certainly evidence that some teams in the late nineteenth century did indeed make their rappers from old saw blades and bed laths. 6

We have no idea why (probably at some point in the 1830s or 1840s) the rapper sword dancing, based primarily on an odd number of dancers (5), evolved from the mostly even numbers (6 or 8) of the longsword. 7 Perhaps it was just someone's good idea? At any rate, it is curious that the percussive stepping became a distinctive part of the dancing. It explains nothing to say that rhythmic dancing in clogs was a local art form in Northumberland and Durham because it also was common in parts of Yorkshire, as can be seen by the Grenoside longsword dance.

Are Rapper dances constructed like Longsword dances?

Are rapper dances constructed like their longsword cousins? It always seemed to me that Mr. Sharp published notations of what he called "Short-sword" dances as if they were similarly made up of a fixed, even invariable set of figures. When I was first taught rapper at Pinewoods Camp, this view was reinforced. Peter Brown regarded the North Walbottle dance as a finished, recognizable and proven sequence that needed no tinkering.

I suspect that the Headington Quarry Morris Men thought of their rapper in the same way. On seeing either a rapper or a longsword team, in other words, you could appropriately ask upon which "tradition" the performance was based.

As I pointed out in my previous essay, however, that is increasingly problematic for longsword teams as more and more new dance are created. However, while the dance may not relater to anything that Sharp or anyone else published as collected from a specific location, it I still true that there is an "Ur" form of the dance against which any performance can be compared. If you claim, for example, that, you're doing the Bampton Weavers dance you can check it against the way the dance is done by its creators, Carlisle Sword

How is it with American Rapper?

In the last ten years on the U.S. east coast at least, largely thanks to the tireless efforts of Tom Kruskal, rapper has become the central catalyst for an explosion of teams of teenage and, now, college-age young dancers. The many teams that began in 1999 as "Team X" have danced since 2002 under the umbrella name of Great Meadows Morris and Sword. Their first rapper side at the 1999 Marlboro Morris Ale, Velocirapper, was a practiced but predictably cautious group dancing a set of figures straight out of Sharp or the Pinewoods/CDSS playbook.

The next incarnation, Candyrapper (formed in 2001), similarly drew from the same playbook but added what has become a distinctive Great Meadows, and very American, "snap".  Two fiddles and a start with unaccompanied stepping alerted the crowd at the 2003 Marlboro Ale that something new was unfolding. After that, several other Great Meadows rapper sides appeared such as Beside the Point, Slightly Green and Scrapper Rapper along with Candyrapper, often dancing together. 

(N.B.-- You can also learn more about these young rapper teams from Kem Stewart in our very first online issue. -- Ed.)

At the Marlboro Ale, the mass rapper act really unleashed the Great Meadows creative juices in Brattleboro at the Marlboro Ale and even more at Newfane on the proceeding Sunday.

So it was a progression from Sharp to "Anything Goes"?

I had the perfect summary, then, in the archive from Headington Quarry and Monkseaton to the Great Meadows free invention. Clearly. I thought, rapper in the collection moved from fixed routines as published by Sharp to an aesthetic based on teams inventing their own routines. A look at Greenwich Guard, the first rapper team invited to the Marlboro Ale in 1984, quickly showed the error and even folly of that assumption

They do a seven-sword dance that begins with an original calling-on song tailored to the individual dancers. For all their wonderful invention, the Great Meadows crowd have not taken advantage of the possibilities of songs, characters, or of seven swords. Most interestingly, Rhett Krause from the Greenwich Guard group told me that Tony Poile, their teacher, never taught a pre-existing, published routine. Their first sequence, in fact, was invented.

I confess that this was a wonderful surprise to me and it left me wondering if, before Sharp, invention was always the rule for rapper teams. The answer to that must rest with someone more knowledgeable about the history of rapper in England. For now, it's enough to know that rapper in America, perhaps especially outside Pinewoods/CDSS, carried the idea that one was expected to take possession of it and invent routines to suit the current needs.

Certainly Rhett Krause's next team, Longwood Sword in 1988, carried on where Greenwich Guard left off. When Rhett donned the Betty skirt and shawl, the calling-on song was back in with the grand addition of a chorus

Women's teams have been an important presence, and more numerous in U.S. than teams of men, notably Toronto Women's Sword seen here performing a version of the Winlaton dance, and Half Moon Sword, whose various performances of their Butcher and the Pig adventures are among the best fooling shows seen anywhere--characters are brought in and out of the set with ease and humor. By the way, in case anyone chooses or is able to watch, the five-sword rapper is good, too.

Clips of English Teams Several clips of men's teams in England can be seen on the DVRA (search on +England +rapper ). Some, such as the Dorset Buttons dancing in clogs probably won't inspire American imitators. Others, such as the (sadly silent) film of High Spen (taken in the early 1930s) shown on the occasion of Morris Ring Rapper Instructional on November 21-23, 1988 merit study. 8  It appears that the Tommy performed a "calling-on" song with two dancers, on film, walking around the rest of the set who are standing in line. An oddity I noticed after re-reading Sharp's Sword Dances (Part III, p. 115) was that the High Spen men set up a double back-somersault but jumped backwards over the swords. Sharp wrote:

N.B.--Dancers, other than skilled gymnasts, are advised to substitute a backward jump for the back somersault which... is a dangerous movement.

Were they new dancers? Out of practice? Or did they never tumble?

They may not have tumbled, then, but even for a silent film the High Spen Tommy thought it an essential part of the performance to introduce the dancers with a song. Despite the use of singing by Longwood Rapper, this is another feature more commonly found among English teams than American, both for longsword and rapper. A favorite example is that of Barnsley Sword who sing a rarely heard calling-on set of verses with their Newbiggen rapper.

Beginning with Peter Brown singing with Monkseaton and ending with Jack Ledger at Barnsley gives us a good pair of bookends for this look at rapper via the DVRA. There's plenty more to be discovered on the current topic with a search on "rapper". There are more than 70 clips for that keyword. They can all be seen quickly as the search engine lists the first 150 clips in chronological order.

Next, however, I will examine the sword forms from what we English parochially call "Continental" Europe, beginning with the appearance of the Flemish Boerke Naas ("Farmer Naas") team dancing the Trawantel with staves and hoops at the Abingdon Mayor Making in June 1979. That was a big but thrilling surprise, but only the beginning of a whole series of unexpected dance ideas found in these very non-British dances.

  1. Taken from the Morris Ring web site at
  2. from Cawte, E. C., Alex Helm, R. J. Marriott and Norman Peacock. "A Geographical Index of the English Ceremonial Dance in Great Britain, Part One", Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, IX (1), 1960, pp. 1-41.
  3. Sharp, Cecil J. The Sword Dances of Northern England, Part III London: Novello, 1913 (reprinted EP Publishing 1977), 91-102.
  4. Image from "Rapper Swords" by Frank Lee
  5. Wood, Melusine. "Some Notes on Trade Tools and Ritual Dance", in Barrand, Anthony G. (Ed), Longsword Dances from Traditional and Manuscript Sources as Collated and Notated by Ivor Allsop, Brattleboro, VT: Northern Harmony Publishing Company, 1996. It first appeared in Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, IV (6), 247-253, 1945.
  6. Taken from and further interesting discussion can be seen at the web site of the Newcastle Kingsmen:
  7. The one British exception being the 7-sword dance from Papa Stour in the Shetlands--which has cultural connections to England, though an argument can be made that the dance has Norwegian or Danish roots because Sir Walter Scott's description in Waverley Novels: Vol.XXIV: The Pirate (Edinburgh, Robert Cadell, 1831) has the play begin with: {"WORDS USED AS A PRELUDE TO THE SWORD-DANCE, A DANISH OR NORWEGIAN BALLET, COMPOSED SOME CENTURIES AGO, AND PRESERVED IN PAPA STOUR, ZETLAND." See full text at
  8. Tape prepared for Morris Ring Instructional (with Monkseaton Morris Men teaching) copied and donated by Ivor Allsop, Morris Ring Archivist. Ivor notes that none of these BBC films from the period are dated nor the people identified who made the films.