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Handsworth Traditional, Sidmouth Folk Festival 2023. Credit: Sidmouth Folk Festival

Sword Dancing?! In Yorkshire?! You must be mad…

With the Sword Dance Union Longsword Competition coming to Sheffield next weekend, we take a look at one of our oldest dance traditions.

One day I’m going to get someone to commission my heartwarming movie about a group of misfits who get together to form a sword dance team after the steelworks closes down (think The Full Monty but with, er, bigger swords or Brassed Off with, again, swords). In it, our unlikely heroes will meet a mysterious stranger in a pub who will exclaim the headline of this article, while implying he has a dark sword-dancing past. There would then be some kind of montage scene as he trains them to compete against West Manchester United Sword Dancers for the World Sword Dancing Cup. They’d narrowly miss out, but then be awarded victory due to the West Manchester team testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

But as my movie-writing stardom seems quite distant, and with the Sword Dance Union Longsword Competition coming to Sheffield next weekend (14th October), I’m instead going to use it as the next best thing: the opening to a Tradfolk article about longsword dancing.

Plus, given I wrote about rapper and DERT, I should probably also cover the event I’m actually organising.

Imagine this, but with swords. (Incidentally, the room used to film the dole office in The Full Monty is actually where half of the morris and sword teams of Sheffield now practice.)

What do people think of as typically Yorkshire…?

“The chances are that most people will think of things such as Yorkshire pudding, pigeon racing, working men’s clubs, possibly rugby league or even the ailing woollen industry.

“What about longsword dancing? Never heard of it? …hence the reason for this booklet.”

Thus opens Trevor Stone’s 1980 booklet, Rattle Up My Boys: the story of Longsword dancing — a very old and fascinating Yorkshire tradition, (available to read online here) which remains the definitive (and only) attempt to write a history of Yorkshire longsword dancing.

43 years later, while the stereotypes have hopefully changed (I can’t remember the last time my wool ailed, for example), some things stay the same. Longsword dancing, despite being the emblem of the EFDSS (and its gold badge award), remains an enigma to not only the vast majority of the country, but also within the county it calls home.

The EFDSS Gold Badge, which recognises important contributions to English cultural life.

What is Longsword Dancing?

Longsword dancing, sometimes known as Yorkshire longsword, is a traditional form of dance originating from a number of villages and towns throughout Yorkshire, from Redcar in the north to Sheffield in the south. Much like its better-known cousin, Cotswold morris, over the years each village developed its own style, music and costume, making their dances unique to their area. 

It was largely (and to some extent still is) a mid-winter tradition, danced when there was less work around to help supplement the income of the performers.

Longsword is very old – far older than rapper sword dancing (the other northern English sword dance tradition), which probably evolved from longsword in the North East – with the oldest reference to the dance form coming in 1789.

Unlike rapper dancing, which uses flexible, double-handled swords, longsword is performed using rigid steel or wooden swords, around one metre in length, with a handle only on one end. The swords are not really swords – they’re more akin to a very big palette knife (although long-palette-knife dancing doesn’t really have the same ring to it). It is known as a ‘hilt and point’ dance, meaning each dance has the hilt of a sword in one hand and the point of their neighbour’s in the other.

It is a separate tradition to Scottish Highland dances, in which dancers dance around swords placed on the floor. However, there are similar hilt and point-style dances found in a number of cultures across Europe.

Read Trevor’s book linked above for a fuller history.

Speelschaar Ossaart from Belgium

Dance sets also tend to have more performers than the typical five in rapper; usually at least six (although Handsworth do have a dance for five, and Amble Sword, who are attending the competition, tell me the Northumbria longsword tradition, which they have revived, is also danced for five). Dances usually have a continuous flow at either a fast walk or a run and involve a series of intricate figures before the swords are ‘locked’ together and displayed in a lock. 

Who dances longsword today?

There are still a number of ‘traditional’ teams that have an unbroken heritage and can trace their roots back directly for hundreds of years, and who continue to dance the sword dance linked to their local area. These are the Goathland Plough Stots from North Yorkshire, Flamborough Longsword from the East Yorkshire coast, Grenoside and Handsworth Sword Dancers from Sheffield (who used to have punch-ups over the most lucrative local dance spots), and Papa Stour from the Shetlands. The latter of these is perhaps the most surprising; despite being from the extreme, and somewhat isolated, end of the country, the Papa Stour dance clearly has a similar heritage to dances that were developed in Yorkshire.

These teams all have very distinctive kits, which evolved with the teams and are a product of their place. Flamborough dance in thick knitted jumpers called ganseys, white trousers and knitted hats to represent 1900s fishermen, while Goathland wear pink and blue tunics, designed to offend neither the local Whigs nor the Tories in the 19th Century. Other teams, including Handsworth, have, or had, quasi-military uniforms, which were probably either bought as army surplus or designed to look as such to suit the trends of the day.

There are plenty of other ‘revival’ teams dancing both traditional dances and more recently-choreographed numbers. These teams are mostly in the north, ranging from Sullivan’s Sword in Nottingham, to Southport Swords in the northwest and Sallyport Sword Dancers from the northeast. There are also a fair few teams in North America doing really interesting things with the tradition. 

There are 26 unique longsword dances that we have enough notation to perform, although there are many more teams and dances mentioned in various sources which are now unfortunately lost to history. According to Trevor Stone: in 1980, Yorkshire boasted, “12 teams who specialise in Longsword dances, plus at least six other sides who mix Longsword with other dance forms”. Today, there are around 30 teams around the world who are either full-time longsword dancers, or count it as part of their repertoire.

Cutting Edge Sword of Washington DC with their dance Clockwork

How is longsword viewed?

Unfortunately, it’s not as popular as some of the other folk dance traditions we feature in TradFolk. While some teams are going strong, longsword is generally the poor relation of the folk dance/ morris world. Its performers tend to be somewhat older than average and there haven’t been any new longsword teams established for quite some time. It is often a small part of morris teams’ repertoires and danced only occasionally over winter. 

At the SDU competion this year, we’re trying to change that and encourage more teams to give it a go, which is why we’ve introduced a Longsword as a Second Language category.

It is often seen as slow and long; dances can take up to 10 minutes, the rough equivalent of three Cotswold or Border dances. A common joke when sharing a spot with a longsword team is it’s a good time to go to the bar, the loo, back to the bar… and still be back in time for your turn to perform.

An EFDSS Records recording of the Flamborough Sword Dance tune (1968), played by Bob Rundle. Note how it takes up half the total running time of the whole record…

However, in my view, lots of people underestimate the skill, stamina and mental aptitude longsword takes. The full Handsworth dance, for example, (see below) runs to around 10 minutes, during which performers are at a constant run from around a minute and a half in. Based on the beats in the dance, by my rough calculations, dancers cover around a third of a mile during every performance. Add to that the requirement to remember 10 seperate, intricate figures and the dance becomes a thorough mental and physical workout.

When it goes wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong, and for the whole set.

There’s also no place to hide in longsword if something goes wrong. Cotswold dancers can miss a step or end up at the completely wrong end of the set and dash across to correct themselves without any impact on other dancers. Take rapper dancing, for example: while often looking faster and more impressive, there is the opportunity to unravel the swords and step for a phrase or two while everyone works out what went wrong. In longsword, particularly running dances, there is no such opportunity, which means that when it goes wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong, and for the whole set.

What’s the SDU Longsword Competition?

As you might expect, the annual competition pits teams against each other in an attempt to raise the overall standard of longsword and generally have a bit of a longsword get-together. The competition is facilitated by the Sword Dance Union which exists to provide useful practical support to sword dance teams and develop a stronger public understanding of the traditions involved.

Teams take it in turns to host the competition in different cities each year. Last year’s competition – in Southport – was the first since the pandemic and numbers were considerably down. This year it’s being organised by the Handsworth Sword Dancers (ie, me and my teammates) and looks set to be the biggest competition for some years, so hopefully the tradition can kick on from here.

Handsworth’s winning dance in the Traditional Dance category at the 2022 SDU Competition

Categories up for grabs are:

  • Best Traditional Dance
  • Best Own / Non-Traditional Dance
  • Longsword as a Second Language
  • Best Overall Performance
  • Best Music
  • Audience Reaction

Who’s performing?

Find out more about the teams here.

Of special note is Twin Sword who, in what must be a world first, feature three sets of under-10s twins dancing in a sword dance set together. Future champions, without a doubt.

Where can I see it?

A banner showing the logo for the SDU longsword competition

Dancing will take place at Orchard Square, Winter Gardens and outside the Town Hall, 10:30 – 13:00. If you want to sit in one place and let the teams come to you, the place to be is Channing Hall, the morning competition venue, where each team will perform.

See the Handsworth Sword Dancers website for the full schedule.