Rapper dancing is a fast-paced hilt-and-point sword dance originating in coal mining villages in northern England during the 19th century. Five dancers use short, flexible double-handled swords made from sprung steel to perform tightly intricate figures while wearing hard-soled shoes for percussive stepping. They are sometimes accompanied by one or more other characters who interact humorously with the audience and dancers. There are dozen, if not hundreds of figures in rapper dance, which involve passing over and under the sword or twisting the swords into various formations (referred to as knots or nuts) that are presented to the audiences. Some teams even include acrobatic elements such as flips and jumps. Usually a lead dancer will “call” these figures during the dance to remind the dancers of what they are supposed to be doing. Most dances end with the presentation of a sword lock, in which the swords are woven into the shape of a star and held aloft. Rapper swords range from 24-28 inches (60-70cm) in length and are made from sprung steel with wooden handles on each end. Modern swords use one fixed square handle and one round handle that can freely swivel to facilitate easier movement. Today rapper sword dance has spread from its Tyneside home and teams performing rapper dancing can be found worldwide.
Although rapper is a percussive dance in its own right, music coordinates the dancers’ movements, drives the dance and can add excitement for the audience. Although in the early days of rapper (until the 1920s) the dance was performed to a variety of time signatures including jigs, hornpipes, and reels, it has since been dominated by double jigs (in 6/8 time). These tunes are predominantly Irish, with English, Scottish and American tunes featuring to a lesser extent.
Rapper sword dancing is most commonly accompanied by a fiddle, but this is by no means a requirement. Melodian, whistle, accordion, pipes, and even piano have been used. In recent times, teams have incorporated everything from cellos to techno into their music.
The speed of dancing varies between teams and has changed over the years. Today, most rapper sides dance around 140-160 beats-per minute. Unlike many other European sword dances, most teams do not perform to specific tunes, rather any jig can be used. Modern teams have begun to experiment with different time signatures, notably in 7/8 time and 9/8 slip-jig time, to varying degrees of success.
The adoption of the 6/8 double jig as the accompaniment to modern rapper was likely caused by the incorporation of percussive footwork brought by Irish coal workers seeking jobs in northern England. The modern rapper step consists of a weight change and step onto the ball left foot and then the right toe striking (or brushing) forward and back. The reverse is then performed, with the weight shifting to the right foot and the left toe striking forward and back. This takes up one bar of music, with each tap (ball, toe, toe) exactly on the beat and even with the others. In the basic version this sequence is repeated four times, with the last step onto the right foot emphasized and omitting the left shuffle. This is called a “break.” Teams use variations on this step including double stepping (two shuffles per weight change), inserting or omitting breaks within the steps, or adding stomps. Obviously, changing the time signature requires teams to break from these patterns and invent new ways of stepping.
The Tommy, Betty, and Fool:
Rapper dancing often includes other characters that must be distinguished from the sword dancers. First, (and most common) is the Tommy. The Tommy is usually dressed up in fancy clothes and has the task of being the announcer, comic relief, and crowd control for the team. The dance generally starts with a “calling-on song” by the Tommy, introducing the group. Throughout the dance the Tommy will act as a humorous commentator on the figures and dancers, seeming to risk life and limb by walking through the middle of figures, only to appear unscathed on the other side (occasionally missing a rubber hand!) If the audience isn’t particularly friendly or if an overly enthusiastic spectator is keen on joining in the fun, the Tommy will use humor to redirect them and keep the dancers unobstructed.
The man-woman, called Betty, is the second traditional character in rapper and usually wears a dress. The Betty has a less specific role but entertains by “getting in the way,” flirting with dancers, cleaning the floor, the bar or the Tommy. According to Cecil Sharp’s early notation, the Tommy and Betty used to be called the Captain and Bessie, and some dances, such as the Earsdon Sword Dance included a “hanging the Bessie” in which “Betty would step into the centre of the ring and the swords would be locked tightly around his throat.”
The third character is the Fool, which seems to be a more recent addition to sword dancing. While it can be seen as a combination of the other two, the Fool is distinguished from Tommy and Betty by relying primarily on physical humor and specific storylines or sketches as opposed to simply reacting to the dance and audience or telling jokes.
Rapper dance costume (referred to as kit) varies between groups but always includes hard-soled shoes for stepping. Kit usually consisted of a white shirt and colorful trousers or hoggers, a knee-length pair of shorts worn by workers at the time which would be worn with knee socks. This clothing would be supplemented with other accessories, most commonly a colorful sash worn about the wait, but also neckties, vests, rosettes, ribbons, or pins. Today teams dance in many different styles of kit. As more women’s rapper sides have started, teams have started creating new styles of kit, dancing in everything from hoggers to mini-skirts! A good kit is eye-catching and gives the team a sense of identity and uniformity, while still being comfortable to dance in.