The Longsword dance
The longsword dance comes from Yorkshire in England, with at least one dance from County Durham as well. It has been practised all over the old county of Yorkshire, from Sheffield in the south-west to numerous villages in Cleveland in the north-east. Although the earliest record of sword dancing in Yorkshire dates back only to 1789, the widespread distribution of the dance suggests that it may be much older. The old, now extinct, rigid sword dance from the Tyne Valley, first recorded in 1715 and from which rapper evolved, was probably very similar to the modern longsword dance.
The fundamental difference between rapper and all other sword dances, including longsword, is that only rapper uses and requires flexible swords. As longswords are rigid, they need not be made from steel, and some of the traditional longsword teams – including Askham Richard, Bellerby, Flamborough, Haxby, Poppleton and Riccall – used wooden swords.
Compared with rapper, there is much more variation in the styles of longsword dances. Some are performed to a slower tempo, as a more measured and dignified dance, sometimes militaristic, such as the dance from Grenoside, near Sheffield. Others are performed more rapidly with a lighter step, such as Kirkby Malzeard and North Skelton.
There are still a number of village-based teams in existence who continue their local tradition – the Goathland Plough Stots, Flamborough, Grenoside and Handsworth.
Goathland Plough Stots
The small village of Goathland in the North York Moors may have an unfamiliar name but is far from obscure; better known as “Aidensfield” from the TV series Heartbeat, the village railway station has reached more worldwide fame as the setting for the Hogwarts station in the Harry Potter films. It is also the home of one of Yorkshire's most significant longsword traditions – the Goathland Plough Stots.
The date of foundation for the original longsword dance is unknown, but probably over 200 years ago, and the ancient tradition had it that a plough was dragged around the village on Plough Monday, followed by the dancers. At each house the dancers performed for money, and if this was not forthcoming from the householder, then his lawn would be dug up with the plough. This tradition is remarkably similar to that described in the early accounts of the sword dance in the Tyne Valley, as described by Wallis (1769), Brand (1777) and most especially Hutchinson (1778) who also recorded that the Tyne Valley dancers pulled a “stot plow” around the villages.
The traditional date of Plough Monday probably became established in both the Esk and Tyne valleys for pragmatic rather than mystical reasons: it was in the middle of the agricultural off-season, when farm hands would have been laid off and in need of an income to sustain them until they were re-employed.
The Goathland team traditionally wear either pale blue or pink tunics. This was to avoid causing political offence, by representing the colours of both the old Whig and Tory parties. Today the team is made up of an equal number in each colour, but previously it was said that they could always muster two teams, each in one of the colours, and the team of the appropriate colour danced depending on the political affiliation of the targeted household.
The Goathland dance, which had fallen into decline over the years, was revived in 1923 by Frank Dowson, using a reconstruction based largely on the dance from the nearby village of Sleights, down in the Esk Valley; this had been taught to the Goathland men by one of the Sleights dancers, who was subsequently thrown out of side, who were so protective of their dance. Earlier, members of the Goathland Plough Stots who moved away from the village in the mid-nineteenth century founded longsword teams in Egton and Loftus, leading on the foundation of Great Ayton, Lingdale and revived North Skelton teams in the early twentieth century.
The Sleights team had another proud local tradition, and were likewise known locally Plough Stots. They had a procession with the plough and dancers, led by a King and Queen, with boys pulling the plough and a number of characters called “Toms” who wore blackface and clothing covered with bright coloured patches as well as hats covered with flowers, ribbons and feathers. The Sleights team ceased performing in 1936, but had been visited by Cecil Sharp in 1912, who published the notation of their dance.
“I accompanied them from Sleights to Whitby and saw them stop men driving carts, pedestrians, hail men working in the fields or on horses and bring toll upon them all. In the old days if a farmer or householder refused to pay up they would plough a furrow through his garden or his best pasture field. The Toms would climb through windows if the doors were barred.”
The same traditional dance with plough was formerly widely practised in the area of Goathland, with dances reported in Aisalby, Egton Bridge, Robin Hood's Bay and Fylingthorpe as well as Goathland and Sleights. Sharp believed that the dances in this area were one local tradition, and quoted “Egton Bridge has long been the chief rendezvous for sword-dancers in the vicinity” (Rev. George Young, A History of Whitby and Streonshalgh Abbey, 1817, pp.880-1.).
The fishing village of Flamborough is home to a longsword tradition still practiced locally today. The dance was traditionally performed a few days before and after Christmas by local fishermen, with an appropriate costume of dark blue jerseys and cloth caps, white trousers and black shoes.
The Flamborough dance is performed with wooden swords, and is not known to have ever used supporting characters. Some of the figures, such as Double-Threedling and the Straight Hey are said to be inspired by the movements required to make and repair fishing nets!
Cecil Sharp visited Flamborough and published the notation of the dance in The Sword Dances of Northern England (volume 2, 1912), and since then the Flamborough dance has been very popular with revival groups.
Grenoside and Handsworth
There are two further active traditional longsword teams in South Yorkshire in Grenoside and Handsworth, now suburbs of the city of Sheffield, but separate villages at the time of Sharp's visits in 1910 and 1911.
The Grenoside dance is very formal and militaristic, although performed in a decidedly non-military kit including paisley jackets. It is a dance of two halves performed to prescribed tunes, the first half containing standard longsword figures passing over or under single and double swords, followed by a brief pause, a song and a second half with a heys figure called The Reel and and a dip-and-dive figure called The Roll, which starts slowly and accelerates until the dancers break out and form a high basket with the swords. Clogs are worn to provide a rhythmic stomp throughout the dance, with a characteristic break step and the end of each figure.
“... Some say that it is sombre (but not serious)...”
“... Crowd enjoyment is heightened by the ritual beheading of the Captain and by the final rushing climax – quite a symbolic dance really.”
The Grenoside dance is traditionally performed on Boxing Day outside the “Old Harrow” pub, with a Captain, six dancers and musician. The dancers then continue from Grenoside (to the north-west of Sheffield) through the nearby villages in a clockwise direction around Sheffield.
The Handsworth team, who perform in military style uniforms inspired by the Yorkshire Hussars' uniform of 1825 (see photograph below), nonetheless have a less militaristic dance style than Grenoside, with a high-springing running step. They are traditionally accompanied by button accordions. Their team prefer to maintain the dance as their own, and do not allow the current dance to be published; the notations in Sharp's and Allsop's books are of an older version of the dance (which the team do not mind people learning, but do not want others to dance out).
Handsworth is located to the east of Sheffield, and like Grenoside the team traditionally performs on Boxing Day, but then continues in an anti-clockwise direction around Sheffield. In the past the teams met each other at Wentworth, and it seems that occasionally they would fight over who could perform there – rather like the rivalry between the traditional rapper sides in Winlaton and Swalwell to perform at the big houses on Christmas Eve.
The Cleveland sword dances
A significant cluster of longsword dances exists in the mining villages of East Cleveland, with old dance traditions known to exist in Skelton and North Skelton, although most of the traditional teams of the area were founded as offshoots of the Loftus team founded in around 1860 by John Featherstone, a dancer from Egton who had been taught longsword by a Mr Ventress, a former Goathland Plough Stot who moved to Egton and started a team there. For this reason, the Cleveland dances are all related to the Goathland tradition.
The Cleveland teams were closely associated with the local ironstone mining industry, and the formation and folding of teams would have depended on movement of sword dancing miners from pit to pit as old seams were exhausted and new ones worked. A local miners' strike in 1890 significantly disrupted the sword dancers, as many had to move away to Derbyshire to find employment; fortunately most had returned by 1892. It is interesting to speculate as to what might have happened if they had not returned: perhaps we would now think of longsword as being a mainly Derbyshire tradition with some isolated exclaves in Yorkshire to confuse the folklorists!
The original Loftus team stopped in 1917, but former members had founded teams in Lingdale, Boosbeck and Great Ayton, as well as a group lead by Joe Winspear who revived the earlier longsword dance in North Skelton. Fortunately the Loftus team was revived in 1950 by Harold Norminton, the headmaster of a local school, and Arthur Marshall, a former dancer from Guisborough, and have been active since then until fairly recently.
“About three o'clock the miners come in, one by one or in pairs, unobtrusively, quickly. They were all neatly dressed, with clean white scarves around the throat, and cloth caps. Since six in the morning they had been in the pits: the shift was over at two. They were distinctive types of men, with interesting individual faces, and were very quiet, hushed, a curious expectant light in their eyes. One jaunty looking fair haired man, a blend of Cornish and Dane, carried a box containing his accordion; another held the swords, shining steel weapons beautifully tempered, about forty inches long and very heavy.
“Presently they took off their coats and stood in their white shirts and black trousers that reached rather high up the waist. Each wore a black tie that neatly fastened with a gold badge. They then took up their swords feeling them from end to end, partly as if to regain familiarity with their shape and weight, partly as if to test them.
“The musician held his accordion on his knees. He gave a sly, sidelong glance at the dancers, then he drew out the concertina with a long deep note like a mighty inbreath. The men were looking towards the tips of their swords, concentrating. The tune came suddenly, quickly, passionately. The dancers were away in a flash, stepping round in a circle, clashing the swords above its centre, a glinting cone of metal in movement. The effect was electrifying.”
The revived North Skelton dance was popular with folklorists researching longsword, and often visited in the 1920s and 1930s. The team stopped in 1950, but their dance notation had been published and the North Skelton dance remains popular with revival sides.
- Northern Harmony Publishing Company, 1996 Longsword Dances: from traditional and manuscript sources Brattleboro:
- Novello, 1911-1913 The Sword Dances of Northern England parts I-III, London:
- published privately, 1980 Rattle Up, My Boys: the story of Longsword dancing – a Yorkshire tradition
- Rattle Up My Boys 1989; 2(3):1-4 Goathland Plough Stots: an important village tradition
- Rattle Up My Boys 1992; 3(5):1-8 Seventy Years of the Goathland Plough Stots