Introduction to the rapper sword dance
The rapper dance is a fast traditional English dance whose origins lie 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 a chain. Without breaking this chain the dancers weave in and out of one another twisting the swords to form locks and breastplates, sometimes jumping or even 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. At intervals throughout the dance the dancers step or ‘jig’ in a characteristic way derived from the clog dance tradition of the local area.
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 displays formed from the rappers, 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 rapper dance can develop a dramatic element from the sequence of the figures, an element which is enhanced by the addition of acrobatic elements such as backward or forward somersaults. Traditional dances had a chorus figure such as a lock between each running figure, while modern and evolved dances generally have a free flow through the figures used.
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 ideally bearded, man in a dress who emerges part way into the dance and interacts with the Tommy.
Rapper dances normally conclude with a star being tied and displayed to the audience, the dancers facing forward. Sometimes the characters take part in this final figure, so that a six or seven-sword star can be tied in place of the five-sword stars displayed previously in the dance.
Despite its comparative obscurity now, it was very popular in the period between the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars, with the already fierce rivalry between villages encouraged by the sword dance competitions at North of England Musical Tournament which took place annually in Newcastle from 1919. The EFDS later encouraged rapper sides to perform in the Albert Hall in London and one team, Westerhope, was even offered a touring contract in the USA.
Unfortunately, the dance almost died out after the Second World War and has never fully recovered in its home area, 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.
However, despite the decline of rapper in its heartland, there was and is a rapper revival more generally in England and abroad, partly through teams started by or taught by members of the Newcastle Kingsmen or High Spen Blue Diamonds, partly from sides who have taught themselves from the published notations, and more recently from sides who have learnt the dance at festival workshops. There are now more teams than ever, and the outlook for rapper is bright.
This is based in part on a page in the Newcastle Kingsmen site.