The rapper sword dance

If you are looking at this page, then I assume you do not know what the “Northumbrian rapper sword dance” is. Don't worry though, most people don't know either! Really you have to have seen it to know what it is, but here is a brief description intended to give you some idea.

The rapper dance was traditionally performed in the mining villages of the Northumberland and Durham coalfield of England and involves five people connected by short, two-handled, flexible swords (called rappers) forming an unbroken chain.

Without breaking this chain the dancers weave in and out of one another twisting the swords to form locks and breastplates, sometimes even jumping or somersaulting over the swords. The dance commences by the five dancers forming a circle each holding one sword in his right hand, often clashing their swords together before grasping in their left hands the free end of the sword held by the dancer in front. The only time this chain is broken is to present a star of five interlocked swords. The dancers step or ‘jig’ in a characteristic way throughout the dance.

Intricate figures are danced with the dancers passing between and around each other, under and over the swords, seemingly into an irretrievable tangle which resolves at intervals into open circles with the swords linking the dancers or into a closed circle with the swords interlocked into the star which is presented aloft to the audience.

The dance also includes two supporting characters, known as ‘Tommy’ and ‘Betty’. The Tommy introduces the dance with a traditional song and provides a running commentary on the dance and the dancers, where facts are not allowed to get in the way of a good story. The Betty is a large, and preferably bearded, man in a dress who emerges part way into the dance and interacts with the Tommy.

Despite its comparative obscurity now, it was very popular in the period between the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars, with fierce competition between villages, and even performances in the Albert Hall in London. Some teams were even offered touring contracts abroad.

Unfortunately, the dance almost died out after the Second World War and has never fully recovered, despite a minor revival initiated by students at King's College in Newcastle upon Tyne, who later became the Newcastle Kingsmen. Members of the Newcastle Kingsmen and some of the older sides have caused something of a revival, with groups across the country, but only one of the pre-war sides, High Spen Blue Diamonds, still dances today.

This is based in part on a page on the Newcastle Kingsmen site.