From the start, a clear distinction has been made between the Morrismen, performing all-male masculine ritual Morris and sword dances, and the folk Dance Club of men and women, performing the social country dances. Essential traditional characteristics of the respective dances have been respected and preserved.
The dances are all authentic traditional folklore, a part of the rich fabric of life in the communities, preserved and handed on from generation to generation.
Ritual Dances of England
The Morris and Sword Dances, for generations have only been danced by the men of the villages and as a result, they have evolved as virile, masculine dances.
These originate from a wide area of England, stretching through the Midlands and into Lancashire in the north-west. Traditionally performed in the Spring or early Summer when the crops were beginning to grow. The jingling bells, the waving handkerchiefs and clashing sticks were believed to disperse evil spirits, while the leaping of the dancers encouraged the crops to grow.
The Sword Dances and Mummers’ Play
Found in the Yorkshire and the North East of England. They reflect the theme of death and resurrection, a very common theme in folklore, often symbolising the death of the old year and the re-birth of the sun for the new season of fertility. The “Father” and “Mother” characters as seen in some of the Rapper sword dances are remnants from the mummers’ plays which used to be part of the ceremony.
The picture above shows some of the key characters in the mumming play, namely the Clown, the Doctor, the King and the Musician, who has been killed off by the other dancers seen crouching in the back ground.
In Yorkshire the dances are performed with long stiff swords. In Northumberland and Durham the swords are short and flexible and are called “Rapper” swords.
Monkseaton are renowned for their performances of the Rapper sword dance, and they specialise in dances from two villages namely Walbottle and Winlaton
Walbottle, a village on the north side of the Tyne, about 5 miles west of Newcastle, with Winlaton just to the south west of Newcastle on the south side of the Tyne.
The earliest account of hilt-and-point sword dancing in the north east dates back to an article in 1715 describing a dance in the Tyne Valley to the west of Newcastle upon Tyne. The dance described closely resembles linked sword dances of the Yorkshire and continental type rather than the rapper dance. Later accounts in the same century describe the dance in greater detail, and although rigid swords continue to be used, some elements of the modern dance already exist, including the male and “female” characters and the close association between the dance and coal mining.
At this stage, the dance was only performed in midwinter and was the major part of a longer performance starting with a short play. The play resembled a mummers play with historical characters, mock executions and revivals of the dead by doctors – these were meant to symbolise death and rebirth, and such symbolic midwinter rituals were common in much of northern Europe. Mock executions were sometimes also part of the dance, just as they still are in many longsword and continental sword dances.
The introduction of the flexible rapper to replace the rigid sword occurred at some time in the nineteenth century following the invention of the flexible spring steel. The exact date is unknown, but the rapper was certainly in use by 1880, and there is some unreliable evidence that it may have been as early as 1820. Nor do we know how the rapper was discovered – but it is most likely that it was discovered by accident when mining tools were adapted to be used as improvised swords.
The coal mining communities where the rapper sword dances developed were tight knit places brought closer together through the tough and uncompromising working conditions. It was out of these adverse conditions that a spirit of solidarity grew between the miners. Coupled with this was the desire to make the most out of every moment of their limited free time – and so pastimes, including rapper, were taken very seriously indeed and practiced to the point of perfection.
The solidarity between miners in a pit village was exceeded only by the bitter rivalry between adjacent pit villages, sometimes only hundreds of yards apart. This rivalry led to hard-fought competitions between villages, whether in football, leek growing, chess or rapper.
A sword dance has been danced there every Christmas within living memory, though of late years the performances have become rather irregular.
As described by Cecil Sharp; “The dance is, perhaps, the most primitive example of its kind now to be seen in the North of England. It would be difficult to exaggerate the force and energy with which it was executed when I saw it in December, 1912. The performers were men well-advanced in years-the leader, Mr. William Prudhoe, is sixty-five years old-and, although the dance is a short one, they were quite exhausted by their efforts.
“Although its figures are few in number, and none of them, technically, of special intricacy-compared, at least, with those of the Earsdon and other dances-the dance is by no means an easy one. The great difficulty is to catch its barbaric spirit, to reproduce the breathless speed, the sureness and economy of movement, the vigor and abandonment of the “stepping” displayed by the Winlaton men. The movements must be absolutely continuous, and, from the conclusion of the Calling-on Song to the final exhibition of the Nut, there must be no stop or pause of any kind”.
This is the Monkseaton Morris men interpretation of the original dance, which only slightly deviates in that we don’t utilise the Betty character in this dance. This is reserved for the Walbottle dance.