Origins and history of rapper

Sound evidence about the origins and development of the Northumbrian rapper sword dance is scarce, giving room for a number of theories – some more plausible than others – encouraging discourse among enthusiasts and permitting the wild tales of that most bold of bar-room orators – the rapper raconteur. It is thus difficult to produce an account of the origins and history of the tradition that will be completely accurate and will not inspire controversy, but what follows is an attempt refined over many years to do so.

Origins of the dance

Hilt-and-point sword dances exist all over Europe, with the forms practised in Germany, Austria and Flanders bearing the greatest resemblance to the forms existing in this country – the rapper dance of Northumberland and Durham, and the longsword dance of Yorkshire, which uses rigid swords.

The earliest definite account of hilt-and-point sword dancing in England dates back to an article in 1715 describing a dance in the Tyne Valley to the west of Newcastle upon Tyne. The dance described closely resembles linked sword dances of the Yorkshire and continental type rather than the rapper dance. Later accounts in the same century describe the dance in greater detail, and although rigid swords continue to be used, some elements of the modern dance already exist, including the male and ‘female’ characters and the close association between the dance and coal mining.

At this stage, the dance was only performed in midwinter and was the major part of a longer performance starting with a short play. The play resembled a mummers play with historical characters, mock executions and revivals of the dead by doctors – these were meant to symbolise death and rebirth, and such symbolic midwinter rituals were common in much of northern Europe. Mock executions were sometimes also part of the dance, just as they still are in many longsword and continental sword dances.

The introduction of the flexible rapper to replace the rigid sword occurred at some time in the nineteenth century. The exact date is unknown, but the rapper was certainly in use by 1880, and there is some anecdotal evidence that it may have been as early as 1820. Nor do we know how the rapper was discovered – but it is most likely that it was discovered by accident when mining tools were adapted to be used as improvised swords. It is certainly known that later on, rapper teams improvised rappers from bed laths or by filing down the teeth of saw blades; occasionally these pit tools were donated by a sympathetic manager at the mine, but they otherwise probably just recycled discarded old tools.

Prior to the invention of the Gilchrist-Thomas lining for the Bessemer converter in the 1878, high quality steel was expensive, as British iron ore had too high a phosphorus content for the manufacture of steel, and so iron ore was imported from Sweden for steel-making. Steel of the quality necessary for rappers was therefore very expensive, so it was almost certainly beyond the means of the average coal miner to purchase purpose-made rappers; and the Earsdon team had been performing regularly with flexible rappers for 20 years before this. This also supports the theory that rappers were improvised from old mining tools.

The discovery of flexible swords unleashed the potential for major innovations in the form and style of the dance, to the point where it became completely different from the dances like longsword. Indeed the very basic structure of the dance changed from dancers moving around in a single circle to a pair of circles meeting together to form a figure-of-eight pattern. The radical change in the form of the dance and the common stock of a few basic figures used in most traditional dances suggest that the changes to the dance were invented in one place, possibly by one clever person, and later spread out.

The early days of the dance

However and whenever the rapper dance started, by the end of the nineteenth century it had supplanted the earlier rigid sword dance so completely that the older dance was extinct. As the early dances were recorded in the Tyne Valley, whereas the rapper dances were recorded in Tyneside – some 20 miles (30 km) downstream – it is quite possible that the two co-existed for part of the 19th century, the rapper dance thriving in one location while its ancestor died out in another.

Little is actually known about how the dance evolved over the course of the remainder of the nineteenth century, as no notations or accurate descriptions have yet been found. The only evidence is accounts of the existence of early teams, such as Winlaton and Earsdon, although local press coverage of a rapper tournament in Blyth in 1881 suggests that rapper was quite widespread and well-known in the region by the late nineteenth century.

The dance was always associated with coal mining communities, and the true essence of the dance cannot be appreciated without an understanding of the social context in which it developed.

The social context

The pit villages of Northumberland and Durham had their own social order, the product of the living and working conditions of the miners. At the time of the greatest evolution of the rapper dance, industrialists increasingly exploited the great resource that was the Northumberland and Durham coalfield. The development of the rapper dance cannot be fully understood without referring to the conditions in which it evolved.

Conditions for the workers were harsh – shifts lasting twelve hours or longer were worked in conditions of damp and darkness deep below the ground, the miners paid a pittance on piece-work rates. Safety procedures were often non-existent, and major accidents occurred frequently, occasionally claiming hundreds of lives. Prior to a change in the law in 1863, mine owners commonly saved money by only having a single shaft; on 16th January 1862, the single shaft at New Hartley Colliery was blocked when the beam of the pumping engine broke, and the 204 men and boys in the mine were trapped and died.

Above ground, life was little better, families being crammed into slum housing with basic outdoor sanitation shared between many. Initially, houses were often built without staircases, access to the upper floor afforded by a ladder! A visitor to South Hetton in 1842 noted that there were only five water taps to serve 190 houses, and in the same village in 1892, there was only one privy to serve 154 houses! Workers were sometimes paid part of their wages in vouchers called “Tommy Ticket” which could only be exchanged for goods at inflated prices in the “Tommy Shop,” owned by the mine owner. Until the Great Strike of 1844, miners were typically employed on annual indentures, with no long term job security. Worker dissent was not tolerated, and anyone sacked would find it difficult to feed his family, in an age before the welfare state.

It was out of these adverse conditions that a spirit of solidarity grew between the miners – a solidarity that was essential when relying on your marrer, or work partner, to keep you alive in the dangerous conditions below the ground. Coupled with this was the desire to make the most out of every moment of their limited free time – and so pastimes, including rapper, were taken very seriously indeed and practised to the point of perfection.

The solidarity between miners in a pit village was exceeded only by the bitter rivalry between adjacent pit villages, sometimes only hundreds of yards apart. This rivalry led to hard-fought competitions between villages, whether in football, handball, pigeon racing, leek growing, chess, rapper or simply drunken brawls in the streets.

Rapper in the late 1800s

The late 19th century is a period poorly documented in the history of rapper. Previously all that had been known about this era came from the oral histories of teams such as Earsdon, and inferences from accounts of teams in the early 20th century.

A major discovery in the research into rapper in this period was the discovery of contemporary articles in the local press describing a "monster sword dancing competition" held in Blyth in 1881. The articles in the Blyth Weekly News and also the Newcastle newspapers described the competition, but not the dance, and the newsworthy fact was that the result of the competition was a draw leading to a dance off a week later. The articles provide a long list of the competing teams, mostly from the immediate area around Blyth, and it has been commented elsewhere that this indicates the sword dance was much more prevalent at that time than is now appreciated. It is also notable, however, that none of these newspaper writers felt it necessary to describe the dance to their readers, who were presumably assumed to be familiar enough with sword dancing for a description of the sword dance to be superfluous.

It would seem reasonable to assume that if a monster sword dancing competition would draw crowds in Blyth, similar competitions would also have taken place in the music halls of Newcastle and Sunderland. Perhaps the sword dance was so well known that it would not have been reported except in the drama of an dead heat. But was the late nineteenth century a high point in the popularity of rapper? Perhaps not, as John Stokoe in his 1887 article on the Sword Dancers Song and Interlude from the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend stated that the sword dance was in decline compared with previously.

The first revival

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the rapper dance was slowly going into decline as village traditions were beginning to die out. However, it is at this time that Cecil Sharp, the great collector of traditional English songs and dances, arrives on the scene.

Cecil Sharp recorded notations of a number of rapper dances, and published notations of five of them in the three volumes that made up his book The Sword Dances of Northern England. Although Cecil Sharp preferred the longsword dance, and even called the rapper dance decadent, he did make an effort to encourage a revival of the rapper dance by holding annual competitions in Newcastle upon Tyne and by teaching rapper at workshops around the country.

The Newcastle Competitions were passionately hard-fought affairs, with a very high standard of dance performed. The competitive spirit encouraged new developments in the form of the dance, probably including the introduction of modern more-elaborate rapper stepping by clog-dancing members of rapper teams, especially Earsdon and Newbiggin. One competition winner of this time, Westerhope, was actually offered a professional contract for three years, including one year in the USA, with pay several times greater than their coal mining wages, but they turned the offer down!

Many new teams, now regarded as traditional, were set up at this time. Some of these, like Newbiggin, were genuinely new teams. Others, like Callerton, were offshoots of established teams entered as B sides! Others, like the High Spen Blue Diamonds, were new teams reviving an older tradition from the same location.

The new competitive edge and purpose-made rappers fashioned from better steels encouraged the development of faster, more elaborate, exciting figures designed to impress, and the rapper dance became much more like the dance we know and love today.

Traditionally performed for beer money, rapper became a temporary source of some income during the long strikes and periods of unemployment of the difficult inter-war years. Teams would go on tour and perform for donations, with varying rates of success. Teams also busked for charitable causes, such as Westerhope to raise funds for widows and orphans after the Montagu pit disaster in 1925. However, as the Second World War started, rapper had to take a back seat for a while.

After the war

Following the war, rapper began to go into decline again in its homeland. Although competitions were held throughout the 1950s, interest in them began to flag and they never reached the level of the Newcastle Competitions.

Social changes also had their effects. As coal mining became less important to the national economy, the government realised that the pit villages were likely to go into decline, with massive unemployment, and introduced the “D Schedules,” a set of measures to relocate the populations of designated pit villages to new towns with more diverse economies such as Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe. The D Schedules were well-intentioned, and probably prevented (or delayed) some severe social problems, but they destroyed the close-knit social structure of the pit villages, and their effect on village rapper dancing traditions was catastrophic.

In 1949 at King's College in Newcastle upon Tyne, then the Newcastle Division of the University of Durham, Bill Cassie, the professor of mechanical engineering, persuaded a group of students to learn the rapper dances of some local villages to perform during Rag Week, the week of the year where students raise money for charities. The students continued to perform the dance afterwards, later calling themselves the Newcastle Kingsmen, and became the main force behind the second revival of the dance.

The second revival

Bill Cassie, founder of the Newcastle Kingsmen, encouraged the students to collect local rapper dances and published their notations. He received a lot of support in this from Fred Forster of the High Spen Blue Diamonds. Brian Hayden and E C Cawte, also of the Newcastle Kingsmen, also collected and published notations of dances.

Members of the Newcastle Kingsmen were university students, and as they graduated and moved away from Newcastle, some set up rapper sides in the areas where they settled, spreading rapper throughout the country. Some of the sides were set up in other universities, such as the Keele University team and the team at the Sadler Hall of Residence at Leeds University, both teams now sadly demised.

However, the development of rapper was not static in Tyneside either! With the help of the Newcastle Kingsmen, High Spen and individual rapper dancers, new sides were set up in the rapper homeland, including Sallyport in 1969, who have also had a major influence in the setting up of rapper sides around the country.

Although competitions continued to be held in Darlington and Whitby, they were poorly attended, and serious competitions did not start until a rapper class was introduced to the Dancing England tournaments in Derby in the 1980s. The Derby Competitions, which later became called the Dancing England Rapper Tournament, or DERT, led to further growth of rapper around the country.

The 1990s and onward...

An encouraging feature in the continuing evolution of the rapper tradition is that teams continued to be formed around country in the 1990s, followed by an almost exponential growth since the millennium. Thankfully, only a few teams have folded in the same period, which has meant that we have experienced a period of very healthy growth, reflected by the much larger participation at DERT in the last few years.

There are now rapper sides all over England, and sides in Scotland, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, New Zealand and the USA as well. Rapper is now danced by both men and women, with a few mixed sides as well. Although women dancing rapper has provoked criticism from some quarters, mainly from outside the rapper community, women are known to have danced rapper in Tyneside since at least the early 1950s. Pengwyn Rapper, from Newcastle upon Tyne, made history in 1999 as the first women's team to win a Premier class at DERT.

Most rapper teams today perform dances of their own composition, using a pick and mix selection of invented and (mostly) borrowed figures. However, traditional notated dances remain popular, especially among teams in the north-east of England, and three teams from the south sometimes perform the Beadnell dance, one of the dances notated by Cecil Sharp.

The rapper dance is relatively young when compared to related sword dances, and is really still developing. It is not appropriate for the dance to be set in stone and performed as a dry museum piece; nor would it be right to forget the roots of the dance. Fortunately, many sides, including the most influential, have managed to achieve the right balance between innovation and tradition, and the outlook for rapper is very good.