The Rapper Sword Dances at Newcastle

This article about judging one of the Newcastle Competitions was written by Douglas Kennedy and originally published in the EFDS News no. 6 in November 1923. It was unearthed by John Asher and is reproduced by kind permission of EFDSS.

When Mr. Sharp found himself unable, because of a previous engagement, to judge the traditional sword dancing at the North of England Music Festival, he invited me to go, together with Miss Maud Karpeles, in his stead.

I had only seen one traditional Rapper team, the North Walbottle, which came to Cheltenham in the summer of 1920, and so I was only too glad to avail myself of such an opportunity, both because I had heard so much of the excellence of the sword dancing generally and because I wished to see the traditional sword dancing particularly.

I had always been aware that our execution of the Earsdon dance was farther from the traditional style than our performance of such long-sword dances as Kirby or Sleights, but I had never quite understood in what particular details of technique we were chiefly lacking.

The first team that took to the floor in Newcastle on the opening morning of the Festival, gave me the answer immediately. It was a team of very small boys - the average age would be around about eight years; and they had been taught by a schoolmaster well versed in local tradition. The boys were sprucely dressed in the customary costume of shirt, breeches, stockings and shiny black shoes. The shoes caught the eye because they flickered as the diminutive dancers ‘stepped’.

That was it - the ‘stepping’. It gave that slightly stiff very upright carriage as if the heads were all hung on strings from the roof. The body scarcely moved as the feet flickered to and fro tapping out the rhythm. I thought to myself “Here is the home of rhythm, and these small boys have it concentrated in their blood when they are born”.

Now the general style of the dance, apart from the stepping, performed by those children was what I shall call the Walbottle style. To make clear what I mean by the Walbottle style I shall describe the performance of the second team in the same class.

This was composed of North Walbottle boys who had been taught by one of the senior dancers, and their style of dancing was quite different from the majority of the teams I was to see later in the day. These were, if anything, smaller than those in the first team; but their leader had been stricken down with whooping-cough or measles, and a relatively giant substitute had to take his place.

There was little to choose between this and the first team, except that the style was more pronounced. The character of the dance was gymnastic. The dominating thought in all their small heads was to do each figure with a bang. Most of the figures could be compared with the discharge of a rocket: a bang, followed by a breathless period on the part of the audience, and then a second crash, bringing a great sense of relief, when the nut was tied. Several back somersaults occurred with great clatter of feet.

This was the most junior of the Walbottle teams, and I trembled when I thought that I had to witness and pass judgment on three teams senior to this; and each time in all probability with an increasing concentration of fireworks.

I will confess now, that I personally did not like this style; and the more teams I saw belonging to the ‘other school’ the less did I like it. But there was one boy of the Walbottle team who won both our hearts. He was the ‘Betty’ and stepped with the team but took no part in the figures. His age could not have been more than six years and his step was beautiful. In spite of my dislike of their style, the Walbottle team won the prize in this, the youngest, class.

The next class was for slightly older boys. I should think that the average age would be fourteen years in this case – and here we got some excellent examples of the ‘other school’. There was one team, and it was the winner in this class, which gave us exquisite delight to watch. The boys belonged to a club, in one of the numerous little mining towns near Newcastle. They were already miners, doing their daily work in the pit shafts; and the gentleman who managed the club told me afterwards that he found these sword dances of the greatest value, both to the boys and to the club. They had been taught, at his instigation, by one of the original Earsdon dancers and they had caught the ‘Earsdon style’ to life. There was a quiet restraint about their dancing that reminded me of gentleness, although there was really none there. They moved smoothly and fluently but did not lack speed. The movements of their arms, as they wielded the swords, were beautiful to watch and yet there was a fierceness in their tense grip. These Tyneside boys are all very developed about the chest and shoulders and spare of the lower limb. It is no doubt their occupation that causes this development and it fits them admirably for the Rapper dance. I found it a pleasant change, after the strain of the successive bombardments of the North Walbottle dancers.

Later in the morning we saw an adult team of so-called novices. They were lads of twenty years, or thereabouts, and burly fellows too. They had been taught by a traditional dancer and had only taken it up relatively late in life. At the time we thought it a splendid performance and it was only later in the evening, when watching the ‘stars’, that I realised that to Newcastle folk they were novices, clumsy and unskilled, but to Miss Karpeles and myself, they were delightful dancers.

The prospect of the evening frightened me. I had to award a ‘trophy’ to the best of the traditional teams entering the open competition. I had been warned that it was an impossible task to decide which was the best team. They were all quite different. Each team had its own particular style and method, and who was I, to say that one was better than another. It was like having to say that Yorkshire was better than Lancashire, or Devonshire better than Somerset. However, there was no escape and I approached my task, with a humble and conscientious determination, to do my best and fairest.

There were five teams to compete. Three of them were truly traditional, namely Royal Earsdon, North Walbottle, and the holders, Winlaton White Star. The other two teams, which had been trained by traditional sword dancers from neighbouring villages, were from Newbiggin and another village, the name of which I have forgotten but which I shall call ‘Another’.

The first team was Newbiggin and they had the ‘Earsdon style’. They were young men and delightful dancers, with all the fluency of movement and the gentle fierceness as well. I was quite prepared for them to win the trophy, although I had never heard of the team before. I heard afterwards to my great astonishment that they had been learning from an Earsdon man for only eighteen months.

The second team was the North Walbottle seniors. Some of the men I had seen at Cheltenham, but one or two faces were new to me. Mr. Hall was of course playing the concertina, as he had done for the junior teams in the morning, and with his usual dexterity and sympathy. It had been borne in on me by this time that the Rapper dances were as remarkable for their musicians as for their dancers. I had heard concertinas and melodeons played, as I should never have believed they could have been.

I had heard a mouth organ, which I would have sworn was a deftly played concertina, if I had not seen the executant. Now I heard Mr. Hall and he was splendid.

Of course there were rockets. North Walbottle had made up its mind to empty its magazine. One marvel followed another, each successive one bettering the last. Then North Walbottle ran amok. They made the mistake of going on too long and they had included every figure that had ever been done in any Rapper dance. One man had his shirt torn half off his back and there was a dreadful moment when Number 3 was within an inch of decapitation. If his head had come off I don't believe the other dancers would have noticed it. Here was an amazing performance, but it left me and, I believe, the majority of the audience quite cold.

Royal Earsdon were next and muffed it. They made a mistake at the beginning, lost their heads, and never recovered. I was very sorry. They showed all the delightful qualities that I had seen in other teams with their style, and I gained great profit from their performance. The trophy, however, was not for them, and of this the poor fellows were only too well aware.

Number 4 team was ‘Another,’ but they were not in the same genre as the others. They were an interesting team, however, because they attempted to outdo North Walbottle. They did ‘Tumble’ all the way round. It became positively monotonous watching somersault after somersault and every one was glad when they stopped. Finally came the holders of the Trophy, the Winlaton ‘White Star’. In spite of my determination to be fair, I hoped that some other team would win the trophy on this occasion and, when I saw the cock-sureness of Winlaton, I hoped still more. Winlaton's representatives were, each one of them, old enough to have fathered any one team that had danced before, and bore unmistakable signs of having lived, not unwisely, but fully. There was a ‘Betty’, who surveyed me with a roguish eye and an Oxford Professor of Egyptology, or so he appeared to me, who carried a tin whistle, as the professor carries his umbrella. A song had to be sung and I had the greatest difficulty in restraining the Captain until I was quite ready, for I had been making hasty notes of the merits of each team.

When at length I was, the Captain in top hat and frock-coat began his song. In the Winlaton song, the dancers sing the last line of each verse and then step, while the dance refrain is played once through. I was so occupied in watching the Captain, who was very entertaining as he strutted about, that I was unprepared for the shock the Professor gave us with the tin whistle. As soon as the dancers' mouths had shaped themselves for the final word, he blew. He did so with all his strength and he was evidently very, very strong.

The ‘Betty’ leapt, very high for a woman, high even for a man, and then ‘Betty’, dancers, audience and judge for a few seconds went mad. When the Oxford gentleman had played his refrain, which after the first blast he did consumately, the ‘Betty’ and the dancers stopped, as suddenly as they had begun. The audience and judge partly regained their composure a little later.

The Captain immediately sang his second verse, as though nothing had happened, and then it all happened again. In spite of the warning, and of a watchful survey of the Egyptologist, who, with legs planted firmly apart and with tin whistle close to his bottom lip, peered over his spectacles at the Captain, I was again badly shaken. This time, however, I was sensible enough to realise that the ‘Betty’ and the dancers were ‘stepping,’ and were not, as I had vaguely imagined, bewitched by the Egyptologist. Now this ‘stepping’ was quite different from the other ‘stepping.’ It was more than ‘stepping’; it was dancing. The ‘Betty’ was the best. She picked up her skirts and capered about the room, but always minded her ‘step’. The sword dancers too were not so cold, or dispassionate, about it. They seemed to fall in love with their feet, as they flickered them. I believe now that the secret was in the keeping of the Professor of Egyptology, and he had bewitched them. Anyone within a hundred yards of his pipe would dance with same abandon. The audience did although they remained partially seated.

The Winlaton is a simple dance, with a few relatively easy figures and no back-somersaults. The nut is not even displayed until the end of the dance. But these things have nothing to do with the dancing which is what I was there to judge. My task had been made easy for me and, when later I was explaining to the audience the points on which my judgment was based, I felt that they were as definite as I was, that the winning team was to be the Winlaton ‘White Star’. Theirs was the simplest of the dances and yet, I should think, the hardest to emulate. I believe that if anyone wishes to become a Rapper dancer he must first arrange to be born near Newcastle, of Newcastle parents, and then, when he is old enough to wield a pick, hew coal on the face of a Tyneside mine.

Note from John Asher: the team which Kennedy called ‘Another’ was the Callerton side (also known as Whorlton). At this time they were still associated with the Westerhope side. The Westerhope side were employed at North Walbottle pit, and hence were called North Walbottle when notated by Cecil Sharp; the ‘North Walbottle’ side in the 1923 competition were actually from Westerhope. For more information, see Williamson, Les: “Westerhope Traditional Prize Sword Dancers” Folk Music Journal, vol. 2 (1973), no. 4, pp. 297-304.