Rapper goes Dutch!
Utrecht Morris Men foray into Rapper
The Utrecht Morris Team (UMT) started dancing in 1979. as a traditional Cotswold Morris men's side. We were joined in 1984 by the women's side The Maids of the Mill. After about 25 years of Cotswold Morris, we decided we needed some change to avoid being in too much of a rut.
An attempt at Border Dancing never got off the ground so we focused on Rapper Sword Dancing instead. The problem in The Netherlands is where to get some good advice and - if possible - some tutoring. An attempt by ourselves without any real working knowledge of a Rapper dance had little success.
Fortunately in the Fall of 2005, The Morris Ring announced in The Newsletter that Stafford Morris Men would be hosting a weekend workshop of Rapper Sword. This was too good a chance to be missed!
Five dancers of Utrecht joined the workshop in March 2006. Hosted by Stafford Morris Men the organisation was flawless. Excellent accommodation (a private garden house for the five of us) and even better food and drink. Being tutored by Brian Padgett and Paul Wesson of Stockton Morris Men (Stockton Blue and Gold) meant that we were in more than capable hands. With a combined experience of nearly a century, the two of them succeeded in explaining the basics (stepping, sword handling) and about 20 figures from five or six traditions. At the same time they told us to be confident and not to worry about the traditions too much for now, since the most important part was to get the Rapper Sword going within our own side. On the Saturday evening in the local pub of Wybunbury, we were tricked into performing what we had learned. It may have been a brave effort but it certainly was a humbling experience!
We discussed all the information we had collected over the weekend on the ferry back home from Harwich to Hook.
At the start of the workshop everyone was given a booklet with all of, and more than, the figures we had practiced, so we made a list of our own comprising only those we were taught. Some of us already had strong views about some of the figures - but then we decided to call it a day (and order a final round).
Within two weeks the five of us had decided which figures we wanted to incorporate in one dance. Most of this discussion was done by e-mail, but we gathered once just to dance the whole lot (without any music). The result was going to be our base for the next six months.
As a rule, every regular practice evening was ended with about 20 minutes of Rapper. Everybody of our side got his shot at Rapper, though as a rule the ‘original’ five had their fixed positions in the set (with sometimes up to three substitutes). Avoiding change of position made it a lot easier to master the dance. The DVD from the workshop which we received later on was helpful and in some respects we've not even reached our level from that weekend yet. After the workshop we felt that we really had a working knowledge of a Rapper set. As a matter of fact, we were a bit amazed at ‘how easy’ it suddenly seemed to be! But after months of ‘save the last dance for Rapper’ practice evenings, we found that progress was slow. It would take ages to get us up to speed for a proper performance so more concentrated practice was needed.
The new target was to perform our Rapper dance during the special Christmas fair in the National Railway Museum in Utrecht. Each year we dance on several evenings, one with the Maids of the Mill. We decided one evening would be exclusively for Rapper (so no need for hasty kit changes).
We did some rethinking of the first design, omitted some of the figures, and added one new one (one not taught at the workshop) and changed the order. The musicians decided on the tunes, Hexham Races and Morrison's Jig. Most important, we started practising a few times on a different evening with just the seven most advanced Rapper dancers (the original five) and the musicians.
Two dancers, numbers one and five, always kept that same position. Two dancers took turns on position three, the remaining three dancers shared positions two and four. Between the seven of us (no Tommies or Betties yet!) two to scrutinise the dance for some direct feedback. This arrangement made it a lot easier to make headway. Some attention was given to getting on and for the moment instead of an introductory song just our regular announcer (conveniently dancing number three). Nevertheless, the timing of the figures still proved difficult and stepping even more so.
But the show had to go on. Two additional evenings were planned for designing and sewing kit. We decided on white shirts, black knee-breeches, long white socks and black shoes - just like the basics from our Morris kit. A blue cummerbund is worn round the waist with the ‘tail’ at the left hand side, showing the red and white shield of the city of Utrecht, signifying the half red cloak of the city's patron saint, Martin.
On the Wednesday evening before Christmas we gave it our best shot - four shots that is, since we didn't think we could get away with just performing it once after all our efforts. We were reasonably pleased, though we didn't feel we were any challenge for the coming DERT. Even so, we felt we vindicated ourselves regarding that Saturday evening in Wybunbury!
Two days later, on the Friday evening, the Utrecht Morris Men and the Maids of the Mill performed together at the Christmas fair. This time we showed the Rapper dance just once, so everyone from both sides has seen the dance.
We borrowed from several traditions, dancing everything in single step at a leisurely tempo of around 130 beats per minute.
Performing for the first time in front of an audience really drew particular attention to a few points.
First of all, without the usual bell pads from our Morris kit, the socks tend to slide down. A thin shoelace or elastic band solved that problem. Next, we had practised getting on - but not off! This resulted in an awkward scattering the first time. A bow and a walk off with number one leading sorted that. And finally, the Dutch audience doesn't know what to expect or do, which might mean they think we're pretty good but also leaves us without the usual applause at the normally expected moments (showing the star). Bringing your own audience to set an example for the rest of the crowd might not always be a practical solution.
This final sprint qave us a dance and seven people more or less capable (or so they like to think). We find it much easier now to teach the dance to the rest of the side, as seven dancers know exactly what to do, and the pitfalls to avoid.
The Utrecht Morris Men regard themselves as a Morris side that does some Rapper, not a specialist sword side. We do feel that it adds to the spectacle, especially when we are booked for an entire evening of Morris dancing. And last but not least, it is good fun. There is still a good deal of work to do, since the movements of both dancers and figures should be a lot smoother. And the regular Morris needs attention too, because we found we were slipping. In 2007, we might yet be tempted to try our Rapper dance just once in England!
We already had some swords well suited for practice, made by Bart Tent for the Dutch Folk Dance Society NVS. From the start we knew we would be going ‘live’ eventually, performing in front of an audience. To do so required some decent swords, so we ordered a set from Frank Lee. But despite the European Community, it's still difficult to get some modern-day Euro's diverted through the banking system into old-fashioned Pounds. So we shipped an envelope with some money, together with one of the Maids of the Mill, to England. The girl handed it over to a member of Whapweasel - who in his turn gave it to Frank. This solution did the trick (great people those folkies!) and Utrecht acquired their own set of initialised swords!