The Short-Sword Dance
The introductory comments on the rapper dance, from Cecil Sharp's The Sword Dances of Northern England.
It is not easy to account for the substitution of the short sword, or rapper, for the long sword in the Northumberland and Durham sword dances; nor to determine at what period in the history of the dance the change was effected. The Captain of the Earsdon dancers, Mr. Armstrong, told me, on the authority of an old dancer who died many years ago at a great age, that the rapper was certainly used in his district at least a hundred years ago. Mr. Armstrong also added, on the same authority, that up to fifty years ago the rapper was fitted with two revolving handles, one at each end, so that there was no difference between hilt and point.
Now, the figures of the present Northumbrian dance cannot be executed with ordinary swords, or with any instruments less flexible than rappers, so that the introduction of the latter cannot have taken place at a later date than that of the present method of dancing.
But Brand, in his “Popular Antiquities of Great Britain” (1795), after quoting the description of the sword dance given by Olaus Magnus in his “History of the Northern Nations,” makes the following comment: “I have been a frequent spectator of the dance, which is now, or was lately, performed with few or no alterations in Northumberland and the adjoining counties.” It will be remembered, however, that in the Scandinavian dance the performers “sheath their swords” and “hold them erect,” and this, of course, they could not have done had they carried rappers. It is, at any rate, difficult to believe that Brand intended the words “few or no alterations” to cover such a vast and fundamental change in the form of the dance as the substitution of the rapper for the long sword would involve. It is reasonable, therefore, to conclude that the rapper had not been introduced into the Northumbrian dance when Brand saw it, i.e. some time prior to 1795.
The evidence of Brand, who was an accurate and trustworthy observer, is, therefore, in direct conflict with the testimony of Mr. Armstrong. Unfortunately, I do not know of a single written description of a sword dance in which the use of the rapper is unmistakably implied, so that no assistance can be derived from printed sources.
The Yorkshire sword dance was, however, at one time known as the “rapier dance,” for it is so described by R. Willan in his list of “Ancient words used in the West Riding of Yorkshire” (Archaeologia, 1814, vol. xvii., p. 155). But there is nothing in Willan's description of the dance to warrant the assumption that the flexible rapper was used in its performance.
The word “rapier” was introduced into this country in the 16th century and was originally used to denote a light and narrow cut-and-thrust weapon, as opposed to the heavy broad-sword. We may assume, moreover, that it was at first pronounced as rappier or rapper, more probably the latter; just as the French drapier was in England pronounced drapper until about a century ago. There is no evidence, apparently, to show when the word became specialised in the sense in which it is now used in Northumberland and Durham.
There is a further point which presents some difficulty. The invention of the intricate bi-circle type of dance figure must have been the product of extraordinarily ingenious minds, and it is not easy, therefore, to explain its genesis by any theory of evolution. It would be easier to postulate the direct personal influence of some ingenious individual, and that at a comparatively late period in the history of the dance. The question is a very puzzling one, and I confess that, at present, I have no reasonable or satisfactory solution to offer.
The Northumberland and Durham dances, though extremely interesting, are, it seems to me, in a sense decadent. There is a kind of perverse ingenuity about them, a striving for effect in detail at the expense of broader features, which is very closely parallel to the rather tortured cleverness of art and of literature, which has begun to go downhill. Markedly decadent, too, are the rappers, subordinated to the purposes of complex motion until they have lost nearly all the character of the sword. Again, what the dance gains in complexity, it loses in the closer massing of the men, due partly to the shortness of the rappers themselves. On the whole, therefore, the Yorkshire dances should, I think, be placed higher in artistic and traditional truth, in spite of the great fascination of the more elaborate figures of the Northumberland dances.
Whatever its origin and history there is no doubt that the rapper has now completely supplanted the sword in the Tyneside district. It is true that, like other forms of popular and traditional entertainment, short-sword dancing is rapidly dying out. But this is quite a recent phase. There is plenty of evidence to show that within the last ten years it was very generally practised in the neighbourhood of Newcastle-on-Tyne. So far, too, as my own investigations have gone, the dance itself seems to have varied but little. The number of figures that were performed in different villages varied very much, but in every sense I noticed that the figures themselves had apparently been drawn from a common stock.