Rapper Characters

The rapper dance would not be complete without its two associated comic characters or fools, called Tommy and Betty (formerly generally called The Captain and Bessy). They are an integral part of the tradition, described in all the earliest published accounts of the dance – accounts which pre-date the introduction of the flexible rapper sword which today defines the tradition.

Painting of The Sword Dancers, by Ralph Hedley
“The Sword Dancers” by Ralph Hedley (1880)
Tommy and Betty solicit coin from the onlookers

Tommy is usually formally dressed, with top hat and tailcoat, although in the villages of Murton and Wylam he was dressed as a policeman. His role is to introduce the dancers, usually with a traditional calling-on song, and then to provide a comical running commentary to engage the audience or to divert their attention from mistakes made by the dancers!

Betty is a man dressed in women's clothing, and complements Tommy's performance (but rarely compliments it). In modern times, the role is preserved for comical effect, but it one of the oldest parts of the tradition, and such man-woman characters are found in many dance and folk play traditions throughout Northern Europe; it is widely believed to be a symbolic role derived from pre-Christian fertility rites, but of course there is only circumstantial evidence for this.

Characters in the modern dance

Photograph of a Tommy

The Newcastle Kingsmen provide a good example of the use of characters in the modern dance. In the Kingsmen's interpretation of the tradition, the Tommy runs on with the dancers, briefly introduces the side to the sometimes startled audience, and sings the first verse of the traditional calling-on song. The dance then starts, and Tommy takes the audience through the performance figure by figure; at this stage Betty has yet to make an appearance. Tommy's commentary relies heavily on jokes, and as an environmentally-conscious side, it is Kingsmen team policy that a minimum of 75% of the jokes are recycled.

Photograph of a Betty

The Kingsmen's Betty first appears at some point into the dance, and contrives to make his (her?) entrance as dramatically as possible, often using whatever props are to hand – typically a mop or brush to “clean” the floor being danced upon, or entering riding a bicycle. Betty then appears to get in the dancers' way as much as possible, and especially at the worst possible moments – such as running through the set and under a dancer performing a back somersault! This obviously requires an impeccable sense of timing: actually obstructing the dancers would lead to mistakes in place or timing, while the nature of the rapper dance with its unbroken chain offers virtually no tolerance for error.

At the conclusion of the performance, one or both characters may join in the dance itself, allowing the dance to end with a star tied from six or seven rappers, rather than the usual five. The early North Walbottle dance included a few figures for six and seven dancers, so the characters could be assimilated into the performance earlier.

Other modern rapper sides use characters to varying extents. Many use characters in a way similar to the Kingsmen, while other sides may dispense with Betty, or give Tommy a more passive role – perhaps just introducing the dancers and retiring gracefully. Many of the less traditionally-minded sides do not use characters at all.

Further information