“To see how they handle their swords”

by Mike Baldock

Ex-Captain and Foreman of Keele Rapper; Co-founder Izaak Walton's Compleat Rapper

[This article originally appeared in English Dance & Song, Summer 1977, as part of a series of articles under the title ‘Morris Workshop’ edited by Russell Wortley]

When you march briskly on at the start of your rapper dance, beautifully in step, the first thing any audience looks at is you: the breeches might be miners' huggers but there's no need to look as if you've just come from the pit! If the kit is good then the dance itself is off to an excellent start. Of course, on a wooden floor the stepping will make all the difference: if the taps are as one the sound will seem to resonate. The only way to achieve this is through long stepping practices: listen to each other stepping solo, or in twos and threes, and criticise! Perhaps use one man as a sort of stepping standard.

If your dance is formed from a mixture of traditional knots, or those developed yourselves, rather than a true ‘traditional’ dance, there are a number of things to consider. For instance, is the dance balanced? Does it build up to a climax? To balance a dance, try to have an equal numbers of (a) static knots, where there is a good deal of standing and stepping, e.g. Moving Fixy (Newbiggin), and (b) running knots, where you are continually moving, e.g. Fast Fiddler (Newbiggin) ; and order the knots to give a pleasing degree of contrast. It is also good to separate the knots themselves with a chorus movement such as Single Guard (Earsdon). On the subject of complexity: knots like Bulldog (High Spen) the swords were brought down smartly onto no. 3's chest from above his head exactly together.

At Keele we tried to build up excitement by progressing from simple looking knots, such as Moving Fixy, through to the more showy, e.g. Doughnuts (Newbiggin), and then onto Double Tumbles or Coups as a climax. We also relied very heavily on precision timing. Movements from one position to another are counted by everyone: we all knew at the end of a knot that after exactly eight beats the swords were going to be slammed into the Nut and the Rose pushed high at the same instant - it wasn't a matter of waiting until everyone looked as if they were ready. When we danced Breastplate (High Spen) the swords were brought down smartly onto no. 3's chest from above his head exactly together.

The effect of the whole dance must not be neglected. For instance, Tommy and Betty are historical figures and so are very important. However, their antics must be of a high standard and must not be allowed to detract from the highlights of the actual dance. The sword clash is also important, as it is this that supposedly drives off the evil spirits. If the music is fast the dance should still not appear rushed. An impression of speed can be given by dancing with a very compact set, rather than dashing around, flailing arms, legs and swords!

All movements should be made comfortably and “the whole dance should have a smooth inevitability” (Bill Cassie). As Douglas Kennedy put it, “The whole manner of performance is very swift and lively, at times quite acrobatic with its somersaults and jumps, yet controlled throughout with a striking ease and economy of movement.” If the side is in a rush, it looks as if something must go wrong. Faces should be calm, hands should be held high – it is the swords dancing rather than the men. Again, keep the set tight; as Nibs Pearson, Captain of Royal Earsdon said “If a man steps wide, kick him into place.”

If you take a ‘traditional’ dance rather than concoct your own, it may not instantly enthuse. Many say these dances as originally published have a peculiar feel of their own, because so much time went into developing that progression, the contrast and the climax. To bring such a dance alive will take time as you have to dance it, so often it becomes natural and can be danced with complete confidence.

Always try to think what the rapper dance looks like from outside the set. A faultless rapper dance is an unlikely occurrence so there is always opportunity for improvement. Better dancing comes through practising as a team, and it's the enthusiasm of the dancers for the particular dance that gives it that bit of extra fire.