A non-rapper dancer's perspective
on the rapper
For those of you who have been in hibernation for a while, let me state that the Fifth International Sword Spectacular was held in the historic city of York, 23-26 May 2008. (While there, I introduced myself as coming from “the other York,” by which I meant New York, but hardly any locals seemed to get the joke. Oh, well.) I attended as a non-dancer, footloose and fancy-free to coin a clichť. My only responsibility, besides enjoying myself, was to show up and say something at the small conference held on Sunday morning at the event's camp site and headquarters. 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 canít get much better than that.
Anyhow, to work. I was standing idlely in the bar of the Theatre Royal during the Sunday afternoon and evening gala, when all teams were appearing on stage. I was performing the traditional dancers' ritual of drinking a beer and ignoring the actual performances. Suddenly, Ron Day, who was engaged in the same ritual, introduced himself. It took me a couple of moments to understand him, because it seemed to me he said he was from the “Knot” or even “Nought.” I felt a distinct connection to what Mr Sharp may have felt when he collected sword and rapper dances in 1910-12: the need for a translator whilst on a visit to the North of England.
Ron asked me to write a piece on the Spectacular for The Nut. But what do I have to say that would interest its readers? Outside of my historical interests and my enjoyment of watching, my connection with rapper is tenuous, limited to a few workshops and classes. Speaking frankly, while I enjoy rapper, I don't get it, except as an outsider and spectator; I feel a much greater affinity for English longsword, as well as for the great variety of Continental dances which similarly rely on rigid sword surrogates. Among the wide range of European linked sword dance styles, rapper is very unusual, the distinctly English contribution to the field. But like I say, Ron asked, and who am I to say “no?”
First of all, rapper at the Spectacular was clearly at a very high level. One must always point to the High Spen Blue Diamonds, for openers. I have watched them only a few times, since the 1996 Spectacular in Scarborough; they dance today at the same high and consistent level as then. Among the many newer, “non-traditional” sides (and donít get me started on the meaning of “traditional” vs “nontraditional!”), High Spen stands (sic!) out for its adherence to its own style and standards. Its very conservatism, in fact, has become a refreshing kind of innovation. No backflips, no newly invented figures; just clean stepping, a high standard of presentation, music, and announcing, and a firm sense of ownership of their style.
With regard to the many “non-traditional” UK sides, I donít feel able to comment or judge much. Iíll admit to enjoying Mabel Gubbins, Pengwyn, and Sallyport the most, and just leave it at that. Actually, no; I also greatly enjoyed watching the kids from Larks Hill, on their world tour, to York and back again to school. It's always great to see children dancing. (My wife has been a professional musician for part of her childhood and all of her adult life. She says that there is a firm adage among her guild: “Never go up against performing children or animals. Youíll lose.” Itís true.)
Several overseas teams presented rapper as well. They included the now-almost-venerable Jack the Rapper of Norway, and a German university girls' side, A Series of Unfortunate Rapperettes. I'll just say I wonder what is going on with the German world of children's books' translation, and how Lemony Snicket got dragged into rapper. (Does that translate? Are his books popular in the UK?) Two of the three visiting American sides presented rapper: Charles River (which is a river in Boston, Massachusetts), and Clownfish, also from Massachusetts, but in the Cape Cod-Woods Hole area of the state. Speaking as a New Yorker... No. I wonít say it. There must be a reason why people settled and remained in Massachusetts, and I won't presume to question that. Not today.
Anyhow, a revelation for me was Charles River Rapper's dance, “Newcastle-on-the-Danube.” It used Serbian tunes, the musician told me. I was struck with the ways in which the unusual music – unusual, that is, for rapper – drove and changed the nature of the dance. One of rapper's shortcomings, for me, is the repetitive and limited nature of the music; I'd be glad if more groups pursued less common musical options.
I will slip in the question of once you've got a bunch of rapper sides, what have you got? There tends to appear a sameness, broken, if you the spectator are lucky, by unusual music and cute kids. I recognize that this can be said of too-much-longsword as well, though I think that well done longsword offers greater opportunities for innovation, in part because the dance is rarely driven by the overpowering need for speed. I'm a great believer in variety of presentation, for the sake of the audience more than the performers. It's noteworthy that when the five English sides which are recognized as traditional performed – High Spen, plus Flamborough, Goathland, Grenoside, and Handsworth – they more than satisfied my wish for variety as a group.
Maybe what I really need is to attend DERT next year. And if it happens, DART in 2010.
On that I conclude.