sword dances

   Those found in England are called 'linked' or 'hilt and point' dances to distinguish them from other types of dance using real swords. In the linked sword dance, participants hold the handle of their own 'sword' in one hand, and the point of their neighbour's sword in the other, thus making a linked circle. The 'swords' are either long thin lathes of wood or strips of flexible metal with a swivelling wooden handle at each end. The type of sword also distinguishes the two basic types of dance, respectively: Longsword and Rapper. Longsword is danced with a basic walking step, while Rapper dancers execute a special step which beats a staccato rhythm on the floor, and as the Rappers are shorter than the wooden swords their dance is much tighter and apparently faster.
   Examples of linked sword dances have been widely documented over most of Europe since the Middle Ages, with the earliest being found in the Low Countries in the late 14th century. Excellent pictorial evidence exists in the form of paintings such as The Fair of St George's Day by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1560) (reproduced in Corrsin, 1997: plate 1). Evidence from England, however, is extremely rare from before the 18th century, and the earliest references are ambiguous. In John Marston's play The Malcontent (1604), a character claims he can 'doe the sword dance with any morris-dauncer in Christendom', and the Lancashire gentleman William Blundell recorded a 'Prologue to a sword dance, spoken at Lathom upon Ash Wednesday, 1638'. His grandson, Nicholas Blundell, recorded in his diary for July 1712 the preparations for events to celebrate the completion of a marl-pit on his farm, including garlands, maypole, and sword dance. Blundell records making the costumes and teaching the dance to the men (all quoted in Corrsin, 1997: 93-4). These do not add up to strong evidence for an indigenous custom, and more convincing references do not start appearing until much later in the 18th century. Commenting on the paucity of evidence before that time, Corrsin writes: 'It is as though sword dancing suddenly blossomed in the second half of the 18th century without antecedents' (p. 183). The fact that this could also be said of the *mumming play must at present be put down to coincidence, but may prove more significant after further research.
   Sword dance scholarship on the Continent was marred by romanticism and extreme nationalism, and although English commentators avoided the excesses of the latter they had no qualms about the former. Until quite recently, almost without exception, writers have assumed that the dances are a *survival of an ancient custom, concerned with fertility, midwinter sun worship, ritual death and resurrection, and so on. Even on the Continent there is little reason to believe that the sword dance is any older than the Middle Ages, and in England, as has been seen, there is no evidence that it is much more than 200 years old. Attempts to prove a connection between the dances and early trade guilds have also proved unconvincing. The first systematic collection of English sword dances was made by Cecil *Sharp, whose books remain a key source of information on the movements and music of the dances. Sharp was, however, primarily interested in the dances as performance and his publications are thus essential for practitioners but his speculations on history and development are now outmoded. Earlier material was often vague and unsystematic, but it is clear that the tradition was only active in the north of England, in Yorkshire, Northumberland, and County Durham, although some tantalizing references indicate possible dances in Cumberland. In these counties, the dancers are mentioned frequently by 19th-century folklorists and other writers as an essential part of *Christmas or *New Year celebrations, *visiting homes and farms and performing in town and village streets. The 20th century found the traditions in definite decline. Many teams had ceased to function completely, and others performed intermittently. It is certainly true that the interest engendered by the work of Sharp and others enthused by his example resulted in the survival or revival of a number of teams which would have otherwise simply faded away.
   There are strong connections between the sword dancers and two other *calendar customs - *plough stots and *mumming plays. In some areas the sword dancers accompanied, or were part of, the groups of farmworkers who carried round a plough at Christmas or *Plough Monday, collecting money to be used for a feast or dance, or simply for drink for themselves. Terminology is also confusing - the sword dancers could be called morris dancers, plough stots, mummers, and so on. Some sword dance traditions included a dramatic element in their performance, and these are normally counted as one of the three distinct types of *mumming play, in which a character is killed by having the swords placed around his neck. Even where there is no developed play, sword dance teams often included extra characters, such as a Fool and Female (a man dressed as a woman) called Bessy or Besty, and many also had 'calling-on songs' in which the dancers were introduced
   ■ Corrsin, 1997; Sharp, 1911-13; Helm, 1981; E. C. Cawte, FMJ 4:2 (1982), 79-116.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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