Tag Archives: sword dancing

Custom contrived: Grenoside Traipse

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“The team would go for many miles on foot to perform for the local gentry, calling at all the public houses on the way. Even if they arrived home at 2 or 3 in the morning, they still insisted on their white trousers being washed and pressed for the next day’s outing.”

Harrington Housely 1973 after 51 years of dancing!

Grenoside Sword Dancers are the other surviving Sheffield team, its earliest reference being in 1750. Sheffield was a stronghold of the custom which appears to have arisen as a means to make money for workers in the city’s cutlery industry who were often layed off over Christmas when the companies did their stock taking. This was a means to raise so much needed cash.

Walk this way

Like Wentworth Boxing Day is the famed outing for the Grenoside Sword Dancers, but this is a fairly recent invention for many years the main outing was the traipse – a walking tour of nearby houses. An account of the team visiting one of these houses is recorded in visitation is made by Lady Tweedsmuir of Wortley Hall in her The Lilac and the Rose:

“Before I leave the subject of Wortley, I would like to recall a strange little episode. We children were told that mummers were coming one evening to sing and dance. What that meant we had of course no idea, but we were allowed to sit up later than usual when they came, and that in itself gave us keen pleasure. We assembled in a room with a stone floor. In came a party of men dressed entrancingly in short coats with bright coloured patterns on them, and long dark trousers. Their leader wore a large rabbit-skin cap with a small rabbit’s head in front.

The songs and dances were charming, and the men’s faces interesting and serious. These mummers were the real thing, and their dances were not inscribed on any printed page, but had come down to them from their forebears. Harry Gust, who was married to our cousin, Nina Welby, was there, and he took down songs and stories from one of the mummers. The man was surprised and reluctant, but eventually told him in scraps and fragments something of his own and his friends’ mumming activities.       One of the songs began pleasantly with,

Tantiro Tantiro, the drums they do beat, The trumpets they do sound upon call, Methinks music’s here, some bold captain’s near, March on, my brave soldiers, away!

I remember now Harry Gust’s face alight with interest as he talked to the captain of the mummers. He wrote an article about them in the Pall Mall Gazette, which he was then editing for Waldorf Astor. I do not know if it interested people. It should have, because it was brilliantly written, but the cult of English folk lore had not dawned then on the horizon of the intelligentsia.

I remember in a childish way being interested in the mummers, realising dimly that they came from an alien world, quite different to the ordered and staid mode of life in that staid and orderly household of Wortley Hall, and that they represented something historical, rough, and elemental.”

A large area, well beyond the Parish would be covered on foot. The intention that between Christmas Eve and the end of January, all of the large manor houses and stately homes, like Wortley Hall would be visited, entertained and money would be given. Indeed the largess was considerable an article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1895 notes each team member could accrue 30 to 35 shillings over the period (which would be a staggering £530 in modern money). One notable visit to Wentworth Woodhouse managed to collect a staggering £25 at Earl Fitzwilliam’s Christmas party – around  a £1000 worth today!!.

After the Great War, the length and duration of the walking tours were less ambitious year by year until in 1937 the outing was restricted to a Boxing Day tour of the large houses of the Parish Whitley Hall, Greno Lodge, Chapeltown Club and the house of a Dr Moles at Ecclesfield, now the Boxing Day event is associated with only one pub – the Harrow! Then after 57 years a walking tour returned in a way, a custom more contrived to give an idea than a true revival – and it’s not surprising considering the distances! On the 8th of January 1994. A much shorter tour around the Parish’s pubs and some private houses but a homage to those great walks of yore.

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (92) Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (193)

At the sharp end

I first found them finishing a set at the ….well they were getting in their cars – not really a walking tour after all I thought. A bit of a shame but then again the members were not spring chickens!! At Stone house farm despite the remote location attracted quite a crowd of curious onlookers all enraptured and perhaps hypnotised by the ins and outs of the dance. Indeed, there was something quite evocative and magical watching and hearing the dancers, especially when their clogs tapped on the stone floor. Douglas Kennedy in his 1949 England’s Dancers records a scene that has little changed:

“…the dance is performed by six men wearing clogs and carrying straight swords. Associated with it is a certain amount of dialogue and a song ‘calling on’ the dancers, sung by the leader, who brandishes a curved sabre and wears a cap of rabbit’s skin, with the head of the animal set in front. The dancers tie the ‘lock’ at the beginning of their performance, the leader (or Captain as he is called) kneels down in the centre, and afterwards the ‘Lock’ has been placed around his neck the swords are drawn. His cap of skin is knocked off in the process and rolls on the ground, looking like a decapitated head.”

Interesting unlike 1949’s observation where:

“the captain himself does not fall down to become the centre of a dramatic resurrection but just slips away from the dance, which continues its course.”

Now a special sheet is laid and the captain comically falls dead and lays in a foetus position as if dead…although his resurrection still does not occur!

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (86)

What does the dance mean? One of the commonest explanations is that it has a pagan origin, a celebration of the turning year as this evocative account below recalls:

“The Captain sings a song of bravery and love and the dance proceeds with his symbolic beheading and death. The main part of the dance then starts and immediately the Captain revives and “rises from the dead” to lead the dancers in reviving the spirit of the New Year. The six dancers weave intricate patterns with their swords and equally complicated rhythms with their steel-shod clogs. The dance reaches its climax as the fiddler increases the tempo of the dance whilst the dancers perform a rolling figure. The dancers finally form a tight circle and perform a fervent tattoo on the floor before raising their swords, pointing upwards to the sky and, one hopes, a mid-winter sun.”

However convenient this would be the evidence is difficult to find. But do we need a reason?

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (89)

At the farm I finally met up with fellow folklorist Richard Bradley, we walked back to the Harrow to see the final dance talking of folk customs. As we arrived at the pub the Sword dancers began to arrive – they looked up as the drizzle became to form and become heavier – not sure if we’ll be doing it inside or out one remarked. We retreated inside for a cup of tea, at the other end of the bar the Sword dancers too rested…however we were so engrossed in our conversation that we did not notice that the dancers had gone. Rushing outside we just saw them finish their dance! Oh dear!

 

 

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Custom survived: Handsworth Sword Dancers

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Handsworth sword dancersBoxing Day…much has been said of it. The most depressing day of the year, after all it’s a whole year until Christmas Day, the turkey sandwiches pile up, broken toys and games you’re already bored of, crushing hangovers and the feeling you’ve over-indulged and don’t forget the sales! Ah yes the sales, a custom in its own right. I try to avoid them…after all you’ve spent so much over Christmas, why spend more? However, one year I convinced my wife to visit the shrine of Northern consumerism Meadowhall…so I could see the Handsworth Sword Dancers.

Cut above the rest

The Handsworth team are one of a select few of surviving long sword dancers. First reported in the late 1800s and despite the name originally they came from Woodhouse. This earliest notice appears to have been made by a local clergyman recanting seeing them dance in the 1870s when he was a boy. It was in 1880 when most of its members were from Handsworth that the move was made.  In 1913, the famous folk dance enthusiast and Morris dancing revivalist Cecil Sharp visited and documented the group and they producing recall how they are one of the few groups which have survived the years since. Fortunately, unlike other teams which fell into abeyance or died out during the wars, being miners they were never called up for the First nor Second World War and unlike other customs it survived unbroken during this period. However, this is not to say the subsequent periods were not problematic, aging members (a common theme), a lack of permanent musicians, were among the reasons why the custom was sporadically kept up in the intervening year.  Yet the team survived and by 1963 they became revitalised and it was then that they decided to formalise their custom. It was decided that rather than go out over the December period the event was firmly fixed to Boxing Day.

Handsworth sword dancers (18)

Strictly sword dancing!

The Handsworth team are sword dancers and although this is allied to Morris dancing there is a lot of difference. Firstly watching the dancers one is struck by the complexity of the dance. Secondly, the intensity and focus of the team and then thirdly the ritualistic nature. A dance can last for 9 minutes and during which the team will snake in and out, under and above their swords, swirl around and about, whilst in some cases doing some nifty footwork. Sharp (1913) described it as:

“This is a high springing, exuberant, running step, the dancers as they bound from one foot to the other freely raising the knee of the free leg. In movements like the ring (run around), and whenever the dancer has a clear space before him, the step is executed as vigorously as possible. At other and less favourable moments in the dance , it is modified and dance more quietly. Occasionally too, the dancers do a kind shuffling step, lazily dragging the free leg on the ground.”

This rather freeform nature has changed over the years and the dance has become more regimented but no less hypnotic in its nature.

I arrived at their dancing arena, which although traditionally was located in front of their parish church, it’s clear that over the intervening years, what may have been a picturesque location has been ruined by the dual carriage way behind to such an effect I wonder what the non –locals hurtling along this carriage way make of the dancers and their large group of bystanders. It was very cold and snow had settled slightly in areas and I was concerned that the ground may have been a bit too slippery…but I was reassured that its gone come what weather.

In come the clowns….and out again!

What is an enjoyable aspect of this team, compared to other similar events is that by attending we can celebrate three customs in one. Firstly there is the dance, there is a small break of some traditional Yorkshire Carols, at the time my first confused exposure to them..why were they singing different words? The other main aspect is the ‘mummer’s play’ this is a major attraction to the custom junkie and it usually rotates between two local plays: the Derby Tup and the Poor Owd Oss as below. When I visited there was a rendition of the Poor Owd Oss and a number of the group were dressed up as horse and riders. Their rendition was interesting and very amusing but didn’t appear to resemble that done elsewhere.

The play appeared to be done a differently dressed group. These I presumed were the clowns. These clowns were a regular feature of the team and their role appears to be to entertain the crowds during the dance, or probably between them, collect money and even get involved in the dance such as the lock. They were revived in the 1970s and were used to start the dance and clear the area with usual clown frivolity. The clowns appear now to be in the interludes, the plays and disappear or revert to dancers during the dancing part.

The striking thing about the Handsworth team is their uniforms which are based on a Hussars and suggest a military origin for the custom which seems likely of course, or otherwise it was done to make the group look more official.  The swords of course are not real swords but long strips of metal attached to a hilt. One wonders whether there did work with real swords.

As drifts of snow flowed across the dancing arena I became bewitched by that ritual rhythm of the custom. The dance frenetic yet fluid, the crowd cheering as it appeared to get more complex, one member jumps over another, in and out swirly around, and then the big cheer as the captain held the interlocked swords in the classic star shape. The team, made of an age from teen to geriatric were remarkable in their suppleness. Indeed, when I visited they had made flyers for new members disclosing that there was 70 years between the oldest and youngest. An account in the South Riding Folk Network News relates

“There are all sorts of reasons why we’re struggling for numbers” says their captain, John Pitts whose father Harry faced with similar problem back in the 1960s “some of the older ones are feeling aches and pains after 40 years of dancing. Several other regular dancers have moved away from Sheffield, two of them to University.”

They’ve survived since it appears. It’s such a shame I don’t live nearer as I fancy giving it a go!

Handsworth sword dancers (10)

– images copyright Pixyled Publications