Press Release, 21 January 2014
Longsword dancing has returned to Teesdale—perhaps for the first time in over a century!
If asked about traditional dancing in Britain, while many people have heard of Morris dancing, which was largely performed down south originally, very few would ever remember or even know about such long-lost practices as the Longsword dance here in the north. But now, thanks to the work of “M@HoT”, the Music at The Heart of Teesdale project, it has returned.
Longsword dancing is relatively slow, rhythmical, almost hypnotic, and involves making quite complicated shapes with the swords held at both ends, the hilt and the point. It is closely associated with “Mummers” plays, and usually involved a group of 6–8 men who would often have performed the dance around Christmas time. The earliest records of the dance are from the 15th century and it has been found in an area stretching from Sheffield to County Durham. It is thought that the tradition probably died out in Teesdale around the time of the First World War, when most of the men who would have performed it were sent to the trenches and very few of them were to return.
Now, thanks to research lead by M@HoT’s Mike Bettison and with the help of Patrick Langdon and Helen Bishop, local dance tutors and enthusiasts, Longsword dancing is making a comeback! Following a day long workshop lead by tutor Tom Redman from the English Folk Dance and Song Society, the M@HoT tutors have established regular lunchtime sessions for the children from years 7 and 8 of Teesdale School. A Longsword dance was performed in Teesdale for the first time in over a century at the school’s Christmas concert last December to the accompaniment of music from M@HoT’s youth folk band, Cream Tees. Mike said, “We hope that we can build on this “first” and find a permanent place for this Teesdale tradition at the school.”
Mike’s research has established that the dance was certainly recorded in the 1860s in both Startforth and Gainford. He also discovered, for example, that in November 1893, Alice Edleston, the daughter of Joseph Edleston, the vicar of Gainford, wrote to Thomas Ordish – an expert in the field who had a passionate interest in Mummers plays and sword dancing – and sent him descriptions of costumes, tunes and transcripts of the plays. Sadly, much of that has since been lost, though the children were able to wear costumes, or “tatters”, loosely based on Alice’s descriptions for their Christmas performance.
The children themselves have certainly had a lot of fun learning the dance. Year 7 student Heather McLachlan is really enthusiastic about it and said, “Longsword dancing is so unusual. I”m looking forward to learning new moves, finding how it works and becoming more comfortable with the dancing. I like it because you can be creative at the same time as you are learning.” Andrew Oliver, from Year 8, has had a lot of fun learning the different moves at the sessions too and said, “I really enjoy the actual dancing and now I want to learn more and expand our routines!” Mike added that, “Its reintroduction to this area is exciting and I hope that the Teesdale Longsword Dancers, a fine group of 12 and 13 year old dancers, will go from strength to strength.”