EFDSS Gold Medal Citation
Phillip Heaton's rapper pedigree is not in question. Born in 1949 in Sedgefield, County Durham, his father was a pony putter working in the Dawdon Colliery, just to the South of Seaham Harbour. Although there is no record of a dance associated with Dawdon Colliery, just to the West lay Murton Colliery, the Murton dance being noted by Violet Orde in 1928.
Phil's family is certainly steeped in mining tradition. Many of his relatives worked in nearby Vane Tempest Colliery and his grandfather was Union Convenor at Seaham Colliery.
Phil's first contact with rapper dancing came in 1956. Whilst at a ceilidh in Durham Town Hall he was scared witless by a very large man, in a frock, called Betty; he promptly took refuge in the massive fireplace of the hall. He can't remember which rapper team was performing but Phil has been dressing up and scaring small children ever since.
Phil followed his father into the pits, working at nearby Murton Colliery until 1973. It was during this time, in 1970, that he joined Sallyport Sword Dancers. In the same year he suffered a serious ankle injury which ultimately curtailed his competitive dancing career.
After this initial foray, and in no particular order, he has also danced with Murton, Five Quarter, Black Cap, Snark, Phoenix, High Spen Blue Diamonds, Beltane, Addison, Redcar Sword Dancers and Stone Monkey. He has been “associated” with the Newcastle Kingsmen.
Pit closures in 1973 prompted Phil to move to the East Midlands and a new career as a teacher of children with special needs. They say that, “as one door closes another opens.” An unforeseen convergence of swords borrowed from Sallyport and some enthusiastic Derbyshire lads, led to the formation of Black Cap Rapper and subsequently in 1990, Stone Monkey Sword Dancers, who, and I quote a respected source, “made a step change to the way rapper was danced.”
In 1979 Black Cap decided to hold a ‘Feast’ and invite the best dancers as their guests, and so the idea of Dancing England was born. Held at the prestigious Derby Assembly Rooms, Dancing England was a show case event for traditional dance, bringing together the best of our ritual and ceremonial dancers for a unique annual celebration of our cultural heritage. Organising Dancing England was a massive undertaking, and it ran from 1979 to 1987, with a brief re-emergence as Daughter of Dancing England in 1991. Phil Heaton and Black Cap colleague John Shaw were undoubtedly the driving force behind these spectacular and much-missed events.
As you might expect, Dancing England featured a rapper dance tournament – the tradition has always been competitive – and with the demise of the main event, Phil encouraged the rapper fraternity to take this element and make it their own. Dancing England Rapper Tournament – DERT – had arrived. This annual competition is the high point of the rapper dancerís year, stimulating the development of new figures and promoting excellence in performance – a truly living and thriving tradition.
In 1984 Whitby Folk Week somehow managed to programme a rapper workshop without a team to teach it. Phil was invited to fill the breach at short notice and assembled a group of – I use the term advisedly – elite dancers, to teach and perform at the festival. Thus Snark rapper was born and another legend gathered momentum. Snark are still delighting audiences at home and abroad 22 years later. It remains every rapper dancers worst nightmare to be summoned for Snark duty!
Along the way, having passed his love of rapper on to his daughter Arwen, and recognising that his dancing days were limited by his ankle injury, Phil had taken up the art of the Tommy, and coincidentally met with Aubrey O'Brien in 1981. These two have formed a unique and highly entertaining double act, not only supporting the dancers in the time-honoured role of Tommy and Betty, but as rapper ambassadors extraordinary.
And so we come to the heart of this award. Many activists in many other areas of interest could point to just such an illustrious career as I have outlined; but few could match Phil's unparalleled contribution as an ambassador, teacher and enthusiast. It is for this that we are honouring Phil Heaton today.
He has tirelessly assisted and encouraged new teams, advised and taught at countless workshops, travelled the length and breadth of the country, not to mention abroad, to promote rapper dancing. Plotted and schemed to make things happen, taken on bookings without consulting the team, and persuaded and bullied the faint hearted to take up dancing. He has invented new figures and made them work, he has invented new figures that couldn't possibly work, and organised enough pub tours to fill a CAMRA directory – in short he is the epitome of the totally committed and dedicated enthusiast.
The vibrant and healthy state of rapper dancing today is in no small part due to Phil Heaton and it is particularly appropriate that it is at DERT 2006 that we are gathered to acknowledge his achievements.