Rapper sword dancing

Gemma Hall finds out more about this traditional form of dancing still popular in the North East.

Not the latest dance/music craze to hit the inner-city streets of Newcastle, but a traditional North East sword dance going back to at least the early 18th century. Performed mostly by men, it shares similarities with Morris dancing, both in dress and movement, though it is somewhat more masculine, and not just because the dancers wield swords instead of handkerchiefs.

Long, flexible swords are interlocked and crossed, and various turns and the occasional flip are performed arout a central point or in lines. The dance contains smooth transitions from one knitted sword position to another, with foot-taps and kicks not dissimilar to clog dancing.

Rapper competitions were popular in the 1800s in coal mining villages such as Winlaton, Swalwell, Westerhope and High Spen, but the tradition began to wane at the turn of the 20th century. It was momentarily saved by the intervention of English folk revivalist, Cecil Sharp, who recorded many of the near extinct rapper dances and encouraged teams to compete. Despite his efforts though, almost every group died out during World War II. The High Spen Blue Diamonds is the only historic team that survives to this day.

In 1949, the tradition was again given a boost, this time by a professor from King’s College, Durham, who founded the Newcastle Kingsmen. They still perform at festivals and public events and you can also see them practising at The Cumberland Arms in Byker on Wednesday evenings from 21.00–23.00. The dancers are, of course, mostly university students, not coal miners, though they share the same fondness for performing in pubs. Surprisingly, rapper dancing has become popular beyond the Tyne and there are now teams elsewhere in England and overseas.


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