The Longsword Dance Tradition
There are records of longsword dances having been performed in 60 to 70 places in Yorkshire and the Tees valley, but virtually nowhere else in Britain. The ritual sword dances north of the Tees were performed with short, flexible swords and are called “rapper dances”. Longsword and rapper dances are undoubtedly English, but they are not national dances. It is an oddity that although longsword is a unique Yorkshire tradition, it is almost unknown, even in Yorkshire!
The dances were discovered by Cecil Sharp who, beginning in 1910, collected fourteen dances, all published in the three volumes entitled Sword Dances of Northern England. When Sharp and others collected them, most of the dances had not been performed for many years. Modern research has found references to longsword dancing in the mid 1500s (which is about the time of Henry VIII), but not before that.
Longsword dances use a sword about 30 inches (80cm long), with a wooden hilt. Some swords were of steel, without sharp cutting edges, and about one inch (2½ cm) wide, others were made of wood. There were either 6 or 8 dancers, traditionally, always men. (My wife, herself a clog dancer, says this is because the women had better things to do!)
Originally longsword dances were accompanied by a play. Fragments of these plays from many places have been preserved, including from Gainford. The plot was always the same — it is of the conflict of dark and light, of evil and good, of death and resurrection. The names of the characters in the play vary from place to place and from time to time, but the outcome is always the re-birth of St George, or whoever is the character representing “good” or “us”. Some teams performing today have a play and many teams have a “calling-on song”.
The dance was mostly performed after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in December. Many teams dance on Boxing Day or Plough Monday (Plough Monday is the first Monday after Twelfth Night). There is some evidence to suggest that the performance of a short play, a dance and music and song was a good opportunity for the dancers and musicians to make some money and get drink and food, so they might have been performed, in part or as a whole, whenever there was an opportunity with a generous audience.
Virtually all longsword dances start with clashing the swords in time with the music. The dancers then link up into a “hilt-and-point ring”. In most dances the step is a steady and rhythmical dance-walk, some are performed almost at a steady run. The dances continue with a variety of moves with the dancers stepping over, or moving under the swords and moving in patterns, always in time to the music.
Longsword is always a team performance. The swords are always held. They are never placed on the ground while the dancers perform solo dances, as is the case in Highland Scots dances.
At some point in the dance the side forms a shape of interwoven swords, usually a six or eight pointed star, which is raised by “Number One”, the leader of the side, at the end. The “nut” or “knot” or “lock”, as it is variously called, is then lowered down so that each person can grasp the hilt of a sword. When doing this the lock is often put over the head of a character — essentially the St George of the moment or Mr Fool — and the swords, when drawn in the final bar, symbolically decapitate him.
In the plays which accompany the dances he is brought back to life. Perhaps once it was not merely a symbol, but a ritual midwinter sacrifice, where one person was sacrificed to ensure the lengthening of the days and the rebirth of life in the depths of winter. However, this is pure speculation. The fact is that the origins of the dances are not known.
M@HoT Longsword Dance tutor