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PHIL HEATON - Rapper: The Miners Sword Dance Of North East England

PHIL HEATON - Rapper: The Miners Sword Dance Of North East England
EFDSS ISBN: 9780854182121

This book and DVD chronicles the history of traditional rapper dance in the north east of England. The Short Sword dance originated in the pits and collieries and was once a pastime purely for the men of the coalface. It is now a fast, entertaining and skillful dance practised by thousands of people, not just in the UK, but in the USA, Canada, Australia and increasingly in Europe. This new book pulls together a collection of newspaper cuttings, documents, family histories and tales from the former Northumberland and Durham coal fields.

Although well known as a particularly northern pastime, growing numbers of miners adopted the old rural sword dance as the coal fields expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries to feed the expanded Industrial Revolution. In the hands of the miners, the dance changed character and became shorter, faster and more of an indoor spectacle. This book tells the tale of rapper from its roots through its Geordie development and its adoption and massive success among younger dancers and enthusiasts worldwide. It has developed in style and performance and has spawned ruthless competitions in the UK and USA showing spectacular speed and precision.

The chapters cover the Sword Dance to 1900; the Pitman’s Sword Dance After 1900; Cecil Sharp and the sword dancers of north east England; the various competitions; the differences of County Durham and Northumberland dances; the sword dance after the war; the American connection. The chapter devoted to the swords tells that the earliest accurate description of a short sword used in dance came from the Rev. E. L. Blenkinsopp. He observed in 1828, “swords which were of flexible iron, with a handle at each end.” Some swords would have been home-made as shown in the photo of Walbottle c1908. The Newcastle Kingsmen chapter traces their history from Kings College Newcastle in 1949 to present day. Also shown is a broadsheet of the Shilbottle Colliers, A Descriptive Song, tune: The Keel Row, instructions: to be sung by them when sword dancing!

At the end of each chapter there are references of information and the whole book is a wealth of photographs and prints. These show the differences of the original pit rappers and the modern day dances. The appendices go through the music, stepping dance notations and swords.

This book must surely be one of the most comprehensive rapper compilations, not only for the intricate detail of origin and history, but for the wealth of information on how to perform them and music to go with them. A one stop rapper reference, it also provides infinite material for any folkie, dancer or social historian. A good interesting read, even for the non-dancer – you might be inspired to take it up.

Kathy and Bob Drage

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This album was reviewed in Issue 96 of The Living Tradition magazine.