Rapper delight
August 3, 2013 12:51 PM   Subscribe

The 2013 Dancing England Rapper Tournament was held last March in Burton upon Trent, but rather than featuring quick flows and clever rhymes, were all about five people keeping hold of flexible swords while doing intricate dance figures, often in a pub.

Rapper dancing evolved out of older sword dances practised in the coal mining villages of Durham and Northumberland, dating back to at least 1715. The modern revival started in 1949, when Bill Cassie, professor of mechanical engineering at Kings College Newcastle, persuaded a group of students to take it up for rag week. Those students became the Newcastle Kingsmen rapper group, still going strong today.

Apart from the five dancers, there are also two characters involved in the dance: the Molly, who narrates the dance, not always accurately and the Betty, preferably a large bearded men in a dress (because come on, it's not an English folk dance without a bit of crossdressing) to interact with the Tommy. Music is usually provided by fiddle, flute or bagpipes. Each dance ends with the rapper swords being tied in a star and presented to the audience, the dancers facing forwards.

Though originating in the Northeast, there are now rapper dance teams all over England, as well as further afield, in Norway, Holland and the USA.
posted by MartinWisse (11 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Heh - knew a guy at work who was into rapper sword dancing. Sometimes had the odd injury from doing it - those rappers have a sharp enough edge if you're not careful.
posted by YAMWAK at 1:13 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Excellent. And that group in the third link somehow perform smoothly in spite of having one tall and one short.
posted by Segundus at 1:18 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love how intimate the pub makes it. Obviously the world needs more sword dancing in pubs.

Thanks, MartinWisse!
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:18 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Why do British dancrs always wear such... interesting... costumes? These guys look like they have mugged some extras from an opera set in Spain, only they each selected someone slightly smaller than themselves.

On the other hand, I am really impressed how the accommodate radically different heights of dancers. That's choreography!
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:43 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

If I have learned one thing from The Wicker Man, it is that they are searching for the next harvest festival sacrifice.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:10 PM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

As someone who was an Irish stepdancer for a number of years, there are few things I love seeing more than men who freely, unselfconsciously, and rather adeptly dance in traditional modes like this.

posted by oflinkey at 2:37 PM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Agreed, oflinkey; well-turned calves in colorful stockings, sashes, tiny swords, and zero fucks given for anyone who doesn't like it. Very rowr.
posted by emjaybee at 3:31 PM on August 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Very nice. Nice to see the lasses competing as well - them lasses in blue sashes won, did they? I've been rifling through my bookmarks to find an old black-and-white film of some rappers but without success - and I can't even remember if old means 1940s or 1970s. (a mind is a terrible thing to mislay.) But there was a Tommy and a very tall Betty with a handbag.

The Unthank sisters did a great documentary for the BBC, Still Folk Dancing After All These Years, which touched on the rappers - among a great many other things like clog dancing, Romany step dancing, many many festivals.

They've done another since: A Very English Winter. "200 years of political intrigue and clashes with police authorities in Lewes on Guy Fawkes Night have created an awe-inspiring procession of burning popes and other effigies of the enemies of the bonfire, not to mention a heavy police presence to this day. Throwing the Yorkshire carols of Sheffield out of the church repertoire has only served to enhance the heart-stopping show of unrestrained joy found in the powerful singing at the Royal Hotel pub in Dungworth."

Unfortunately neither is still on i-Player - I hope they'll be available to buy at some point.
posted by glasseyes at 4:20 PM on August 3, 2013

Why do British dancers always wear such... interesting... costumes?
The Burry Man.
And again.
Molly Dancers.
posted by glasseyes at 4:40 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Burry Man.

So... it's to appease their vengeful vegetative masters?
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:58 PM on August 3, 2013

....appeasing isn't the first thing that comes to mind with British folk traditions. Dress up with ribbons, drink beer, break things, set things on fire, run about dressed up and drinking beer and breaking things and setting things on fire, somersault down hills in pursuit of cheese, kick a few shins....
posted by glasseyes at 5:45 PM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

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