American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 28, Number 2
September 1, 2008

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 In Celebration of Morris in America  

The Fifth International Sword Spectacular in York, 2008
Stephen D. Corrsin

The continuing series of International Sword Spectaculars are grand events, and have become almost - dare I say it? Yes! - the sword dancers' equivalent of the quadrennial Olympics or World Cup….

Well, maybe that's an exaggeration, but I had to get it out of my system. Back to real business - reporting, in my capacity as the American Morris Newsletter's International Correspondent. And I've got the badge to prove it.

The Fifth International Sword Spectacular was held in the historic city of York, 23-26 May 2008. It featured 14 "overseas" teams, from the US, the Basque country of Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, and Norway; and approximately (depending on how you count them) 40 UK sides. The US was represented by three Massachusetts teams - Orion, making a return appearance (its third?); Charles River Rapper (featuring their Balkan-music dance, "Newcastle-on-the-Danube"); and a youth team, Clownfish Rapper (from Newcastle-on-Cod). Other foreign teams included venerable and repeat visitors, such as the Uberlingen (Germany) "Sword Dance Company," which has documented roots back to the 17th century; Bal da Sabre Fenestrelle, from northern Italy, which can be seen in the surviving film fragments from the 1935 international folk dance festival held in London and sponsored by the EFDSS; the outstanding - no other word can apply - Lange Wapper, of Antwerp, Belgium, led by Renaat van Craenenbroeck till his untimely death in 2001; and a wonderful team from the Basque country of Spain which I had never seen before - Kezka Dantza Taldea. (Don't ask me what that means. I don't know any Basque, a language which has no known relations anywhere.) Their dance was spectacular, based on the detailed dance descriptions from the region of Guipuzcoa, published by Larramentdi and Iztueta in the 18th and 19th centuries. (See my Sword Dancing in Europe: A History, pp. 126-30. If you don't have a copy, buy one today. Better yet, buy two.)

One interesting point is the involvement of women, and girls, in the performances. Basically, the US, Canada, and the UK have been for some decades more open to female participation than the European continent has ever been. It is still an issue on the Continent! This time, however, Lange Wapper of Belgium had a girls' side; and the Kezka dancers included young women in what was, traditionally, a young men's dance. I took note of this but it seemed best not to inquire; female involvement can still be a sensitive issue. And heck, I'm a historian, and anything contemporary, to me, is just gossip and passing fads. Not my problem.

Which were the best dances, teams, and performances? Don't ask me; they all were great. I tend to get most caught up in watching the Continental dances, which I rarely have an opportunity to see, but I also can't resist the chance to watch Orion, whether in New or old York. The UK teams, traditional and non-traditional, are also a delight for me to watch. (An old teammate, Jody Kruskal, came with Orion; he said to me, "You must be in sword dance heaven." He was right.) Let me just settle for saying that the weather was beautiful, the city a delight for anyone like me, addicted to historical sights, the dancing great and various, and I saw both old friends and new performers. It can't get much better than that.
But if I have to choose among the UK sides, I'll take the safe route and point to the five which are recognized as traditional - High Spen Blue Diamonds (rapper), plus Flamborough, the Goathland Plough Stots, Grenoside, and Handsworth (longsword). And among them, I'll indicate Grenoside, resplendent in their new kits, paid for by an arts grant - they were so glorious, the team hardly needed to dance. They could just have stood there, and we, the spectators, would have wept in delight.

I attended as a non-dancer. My only responsibility to enjoy myself, and to speak at the small conference held at the camp site and event headquarters on Sunday morning. Ivor Allsop, the archivist of the Sword Dancers' Union, and I both spoke briefly, but the conference's star was Elsie Dunin, professor emerita from the University of California, Los Angeles, who presented video and other material on the sword dances of the island of Korcula on the coast of Croatia. These dances, along with those of another island, Lastovo, are little known elsewhere in Europe, much less in North America, but clearly provide a new angle to the "pan-European" (to crib from Roy Dommett) history of linked sword dances and related styles. Connected with this is the information which has recently surfaced, and been published, concerning Czech sword dance enthusiast and revolutionary ethnographic film maker Frantisek Pospisil (1885-1958). His films, made in the 1920s, were the basis for a BBC 4 documentary shown in the fall of 2007. It was apparently not seen anywhere in the US or Canada, but everyone should find a way to watch this fascinating film. (It was shown at the Sword Dance workshop run by Tom Kruskal, in March outside Boston, for example.)

A little history, personal and otherwise. The first Sword Spectacular was held in Scarborough, on the North Yorkshire coast, in 1996; the second through fourth, in Whitby, nearby on the North Sea coast, in 1998, 2000, and 2004. I've been able to attend only the 1996, 2000, and now 2008 events. For those interested in and concerned with the development of sword dances in the UK, on the European continent, and in North America, they are both crucial, and wonderful to attend, whether as dancer or spectator. I only wish more North Americans could attend - outside of the various Massachusetts groups, only Half Moon Sword (New York) and Toronto Women's Sword have attended, both in 1996. England also offers the annual DERT (Dancing England Rapper Tournament), and recently a longsword tournament has begun as well. US teams have participated in DERT, and there are rumors of a DART (Dancing America… etc.) in 2010, in Massachusetts. Regardless, it would be a wonderful thing if more North American dancers, US and Canadian, could attend any of these events. I know, funding is an issue, but you can rest assured that the UK hosts will be glad to see you.

I came away from York with renewed enthusiasm for my own studies and travels, as well as gratitude for the committee which set up this event. There were many trials and tribulations, to say the least. But we should all thank the organizers: Andy Smith, Jeff Lawson, Sally Atkinson, Andrew Kennedy; Stuart Higson, Ian Davies, Mike Smith, Vin Wynne, and Vince Rutland. We should also be grateful to the UK sides which paid so that overseas teams could attend.

And I can only hope, first, that there are more Spectaculars; and that I will be able to attend other events in the UK as well.

 © American Morris Newsletter  ISSN: 1074-2689