Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us

Sheffield Steel rapper dancers, dancing at DERT, 2016. Two are tumbling, mid-dance.
Sheffield Steel. Photo credit: Ben Potton

‘WE WOZ ROBBED!’: competitive folk dance and DERT revealed

We get the low-down on the Dancing England Rapper Tournament, otherwise known as DERT, coming to Rochdale in March.

There are no losers, only winners and those robbed of victory.

As a morris dancer, there’s one question you get used to answering at any dance event involving more than a few teams: “is it a competition?”. 

Except for special events like the John Gasson Jig Competition at Sidmouth Folk Festival, morris is never competitive, so you get used to saying that, no, it’s not a competition; we just like getting together and dancing (but if it was competitive, we’d win, by the way).

However, there’s one form of traditional dance (I’ll avoid the term ‘morris’, as I know how some of its practitioners feel about the label) in which the annual competition is the focal point of the year for many teams. As Spring comes around, these dancers descend upon an unsuspecting town or city to spin, twirl, tumble and occasionally stumble their way around a series of fiercely competitive dance spots.

The dance is rapper and the competition is the Dancing England Rapper Tournament, more commonly known as DERT, which this year is heading to Rochdale. Unfortunately, I’m not able to attend DERT this year (due to parenting commitments as my wife is, er, competing with Sheffield Steel Rapper at DERT), so I thought I’d catch up with organisers Tom Besford and Stephanie West to get the low down on what I’ll be missing.

It is expected that you come home covered in someone else’s blood.

Stephanie West

We should probably start with the basics. For the uninitiated, what is rapper dancing?

Rapper dancing is a type of hilt and point sword dance from the coal mines of County Durham and Northumberland. It involves five dancers performing a number of intricate figures using flexible, double-handled ‘rapper’ swords. Dancers wear hard-soled shoes to tap out percussive stepping, accompanied by traditional folk music. 

For those that don’t know, hilt and point sword is where dancers join with each other by holding the point of their neighbour’s sword.

And in rapper there are characters involved, a bit like morris beasts and fools, correct?

Yes. Rapper likely came from an older form of sword dancing, longsword. Longsword dancing probably had some origins in mumming, and as a result, often had characters from the plays interacting in some way or other with the dances. 

Tommy and Betty [the characters] are maybe hangovers from this style of dance, essentially playing characters in a wider play or storyline of which the dance is from. Nowadays the characters serve a slightly different purpose – they are there to engage the crowd, to break the barrier between audience and dance team, to tell jokes, to cover if things go wrong, to keep out lairy punters and to have a spare sword to shove into the set in case one snaps.

What are the history and origins of the dance?

Hilt and point sword dancing is prevalent across most of Europe. There is a long history of longsword dancing across Yorkshire and the North East with evidence of longsword dancing on Tyneside in the 1800s. With the invention of spring steel and its use amongst mining communities, coupled with immigration from Ireland coming to the North East, rapper gradually began to emerge from the 1830s until it was fairly well established by the 1880s.

How popular is it today and has it had its ups and downs, like other forms of folk dance?

Rapper, like most traditional dances in England, has long been the bastion of middle-class, university-educated borderline alcoholics. Since the students of King’s College Durham were taught ‘Winlaton’ [a traditional rapper dance] by their teacher, Professor William ‘Fisher’ Cassie for Rag Week in 1949, the growth and popularity of the dance has increased steadily, especially amongst university communities, spreading internationally from there. Indeed, one way or another, pretty much every team in existence today can trace its lineage back to the aforementioned Newcastle Kingsmen. Even the only remaining ‘traditional’ (whatever that means) rapper team still going, the High Spen Blue Diamonds, would likely not be here without Kingsmen’s steady stream of dancers.

Unfortunately, like most dance teams, the pandemic has set back participation massively as people drifted off into other ventures. When we last ran a DERT in 2016, there were nearly 30 entrants to the competition. In 2023, we have 14. That said, there are rapper teams dotted throughout Great Britain and even teams overseas, including North America and Australia.

I have seen a few of the overseas teams. Candy Rapper’s incredible ‘ball’ lock stands out in particular, as well as the endearingly slightly crazy Danes, Red Mum Rapper. It’s definitely on the more fast and furious, and some would say, dangerous, side of folk dance isn’t it?

Rapper is the perfect balance between looking incredibly spectacular inside pubs, with the minimum technical ability for the dancers. It requires short-term fitness – more like a sprint than a marathon – and the ability to count to eight. It can be dangerous; if you land on your head trying to do a tumble (somersault) then you’re probably in trouble. The swords snap on a fairly regular basis and that can cause serious scars if one catches you in the face. Then there are the cuts, bruises and other risks associated with moving quickly in small spaces as a team whilst holding strips of metal.

If you dance rapper long enough, you’re going to pick up some injuries, black eyes, ripped cuticles, cruckled ankles and lots of bruises. But with any luck, the common anaesthetic which often accompanies most dancing will mean you don’t notice it until the next morning.

How many fingers must you lose before you can call yourself a real sword dancer? And are they a mark of shame, or a sign of a dance well done?

Some call it skill, others call it cowardice, but after nearly two decades of dancing, Tom’s hands are like silken rose petals, because he’s developed a sixth sense for avoiding horrible slashes and gouges. When we have newbies in the set, it is expected that you come home covered in someone else’s blood.

So, I take it you are both rapper dancers? Who with?

Big question. We have both danced rapper for a long time with many, many teams.

We’re both founding members of Four Corner Sword. Steph also founded Star and Shadow and has danced with teams including Triskele, Oakenhoof and Pengwyn Rapper.

Tom set up Medlock Rapper and the most recent side at Durham University, and has been a former Squire of both the Newcastle Kingsmen and Sallyport Sword Dancers. Tom’s skills are vast and plentiful so has been much in demand by many sides over the years (it’s definitely not that he’s just a big old rapper tart). In addition to those mentioned, he’s performed with Snark, High Spen Blue Diamonds, Stone Monkey Sword, Lamb & Flag, Crown Rapper, North British Sword Dancers and many, many more – even Black Swan once, who literally wiped the floor with him.

I’m beginning to regret asking.

Pocket Flyers from Boston, USA, tumbling at DERT, 2016

As a Cotswold and longsword dancer who also does a bit of rapper, I have to say there is nothing quite like performing in a rammed pub full of fairly inebriated punters (not to mention the dancers themselves), and having the place absolutely erupt after a tumble or a spin. No other folk dance gets the same reaction, but I’m wondering if we need to stage an intervention with Tom. Presumably you have to limit yourselves somewhat? Do you dance other forms of dance? 

Nowadays, Steph doesn’t do a lot of rapper, although is scheduled to make an appearance with Four Corner in Whitby this year. She is also a brilliant clog dancer.

Tom still dances with Medlock, the Kingsmen and Snark, and will play his concertina or Tommy at anyone who deserves it. Medlock are Manchester’s finest (and only) rapper team, the Kingsmen are smelly and Snark are secret.

Tom also dances North West Morris (his first love) where he still leads Horwich Prize Medal Morris (who really need some more dancers if they are to survive, #plug.)

Plus many rapper dancers also do longsword too.

Black Swan Rapper, DERT, 2016

Gorgeous floors in perfect pubs with yummy beers and a great atmosphere all within a short walk. Everything you could ever want from a classic DERT in a no-nonsense Lancashire town.

OK, onto the competition. Can you tell us a bit about the history of DERT?

The Dancing England Rapper Tournament has been going for about 30 years and has changed from a small competition where teams perform one dance and the winner takes it all, to the sprawling unwieldy and complex beast it is today. It was originally part of the bigger Dancing England showcases of English traditional dance held in Derby between 1979 and 1987. When these events ended, the rapper competition continued under the same name. 

It’s peripatetic and in recent years has an overarching Steering Group who are supposed to provide stability and resolute answers to some of the more challenging aspects of the competition.

How many teams are going to be competing this year?

14, which is a proper small DERT. 

What are the categories up for grabs?

  • The Steve Marris Trophy
    Awarded to the team with the highest overall score, including character scores, from any category.
  • The Tyzack Shield
    Awarded to the team with the highest marks for buzz factor (the excitement of the dance).
  • Premier / Championship / Open Winners
    Competing teams will be arranged into three divisions (Premier, Championship and Open) with a trophy awarded to the highest-scoring team in each division, excluding character scores.
  • DERTy
    Awarded to the highest-scoring team in the youth (17-13 years) and junior (12 years and under) competitions.
  • Traditional Competition
    Awarded to the highest-scoring team in the Traditional competition.
  • Spotlight
    Awarded to the highest-scoring team for their dance in the Spotlight.
  • Veteran Competition (The Adrienne Moss Trophy)
    Awarded to the highest-scoring team with a combined age of 250 years.
  • Best Newcomer (The Rapperlympic Flame Trophy)
    Awarded to the highest-scoring team in the main competition that hasn’t competed at a previous DERT.
    Awarded to the highest scoring team in the main competition performing rapper as an alternative to their main dance forms.
  • Music (The Angela Lee Trophy)
    Awarded to the team with the highest scores for music.
  • Characters
    Awarded to the team with the highest scores for characters: Tommy, Betty or both.

Plus, each DERT host has to invent their own prize unique to that year:

  • The Pioneer Trophy (DERT 2023 host’s competition)
    The cooperative movement was founded in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers on Toad Lane (next to The Baum). This prize is awarded for the best example of cooperative working at DERT 2023. There are no other rules, make something up that is worthy of winning then get it to us however you think puts you in the best light.

This means there are 14 prizes to be won, and we hope, very much like a school sports day, that everyone goes home with something.

What are teams judged on?

Teams are judged on the following categories:

  • Sword Handling
  • Dance Technique
  • Stepping
  • Presentation
  • Buzz
  • Music
  • Characters

What’s the format of the day? I assume pubs are involved…

Well basically, the teams have a bit of a warm-up dance in some of the pubs. Then they make their way around five competition pubs and one ‘Spotlight’ venue (Touchstones Rochdale – the local museum). They dance in front of judges in each of these places and are marked accordingly.

At the end of the formal competition, there’s a separate one for the Traditional Competition and for the Veterans Competition. In the evening, we all gather in a fancy place to see everyone perform once and the results are revealed. Following that, one team drinks the tears of their vanquished competitors amid cries of “WE WUZ ROBBED” and the inevitable bad feeling which comes from a day on the booze, putting your very best foot forward only to have someone tell you it wasn’t good enough or not to understand the genius you put before them.

Some teams say things like, “we only want to win the Tyzack, we don’t care about the other trophies” or “well of course we could win if we wanted to, we just choose not to compromise what we do for the sake of DERT” and other such common excuses to mask any dancing failures. Either way, there are lots of numbers to crunch, data to analyse and tired, emotional corners to sit in.

On Sunday morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, everyone gathers again to learn some rapper from the rightful victors, giving competitors all the tips they might need to be able to do better next year.

Who should we be looking out for (apart from, in my unbiased view, Sheffield Steel Rapper, obviously)? Who’s the smart money on? Are there any first-time entrants?

Hmm, this is tricky. We’ve long said that the winners of DERT one year are actually the team who deserved to win the year before. But given the turmoil of the past few years, that’s not as clear cut. Some of the big names in rapper aren’t fielding sides this year so it really is open to anyone. There’s even a good chance that the winners this year might not even come from the Premiership class… 

Oooohhh, sounds wide open. Are your teams entering?

No, it’s pretty hectic to organise a DERT with just the two of us. Trying to compete at the same time would be pretty much impossible.

Any news on where DERT 2024 is going to be…?

We’ve heard rumours but are keeping our fish and chips close to our pirate chests. We don’t want any bloodsuckers to hunt us down and Captain Cook us.

Well, on that note we will Endeavour not to spoil the surprise, but I’m sure we will all have a whalebone of a time…

Big thanks to Tom and Steph for speaking to us. I can personally attest to DERT being one of the best dance-related days out of the year, and would highly recommend anyone with nothing to do on Saturday 11th March getting themselves to Rochdale.

For more information, to download the event app and to buy tickets to the evening showcase, visit dert2023.com.