Published in About Revels, 2000
The Sword Dances of England
The Sword Dances from England are not national dances. They were found in England, and the English preserved them, but they are exemplars of a human, pan-world ritual, and it is only by good fortune that some of the best examples were found in England.
They were discovered by Cecil Sharp who, beginning in 1910, collected fourteen dances, all published in the three parts of Sword Dances of Northern England. Most of the dances had not been performed for more than twenty years and Sharp saved them from extinction by tracking down individual dancers and musicians.
These dances were of two kinds: first, the long sword dances which used a sword about 29 inches long, with a wooden hilt of about 5 inches. Some swords were of stiff steel, without sharp edges, and about one inch wide, others were made of wood. There were either 6 or 8 dancers, always men. Second, the short sword dances, usually referred to as rapper sword, were performed with a flexible blade of about 24 inches, with a swivelling handle at one end and a flat wooden grip at the other. These dances were performed by a team of 5 men. The long sword dances are undoubtedly older.
(One dance that Sharp collected was from Flamborough, on the coast of the North Sea, but it was properly an implement or tool dance, the “sword” being carried in the left hand with the figures imitating the intricate making of fishing nets. It is usually classified as a long sword dance, however.)
The dance was performed after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The connection with the earth is indicated by a common name given to many of the dances –“Plough Stots”, “stot” being Old English for a young ox (which pulled the plough). Plough Monday, when many teams danced, was the first Monday after Twelfth Night.
It was pagan, but with an overlay of Christianity.
Originally, the long sword dance had been accompanied by a play, fragments of which have been preserved. The plot was invariable–it is of the conflict of dark and light, of evil and good, of death and resurrection; the names of the characters in the play vary from place to place and from time to time, depending partly on the current religious or political situation, but the outcome is always the re-birth of St George or whoever is currently the representative of the good.
St George may die, but he is brought back to life (as the earth is brought back to life) by a magical agency–a kind of medicine man, often with the title of Fool (or, more properly, Mr Fool). The death and resurrection of the play is connected with the several figures into which the long sword dance is usually divided, five or six being a common number.
The dancers link up into a “hilt-and-point ring” and dance most of the dance so joined. The step is a steady and rhythmical dance-walk, which can accelerate into a run at climactic moments, but the experience of the dance for me (and I have danced and taught long sword for more than sixty years) is the eternal circling to a steady beat, in company with other men, which produces an incredible image of eternity; the team is at one with the circle or cycle of the universe.
After the circlings and cross-circlings, the movements of single- and double-under and
-over, and the like, the side forms a shape of interwoven swords, a six or eight pointed star, which is raised by Number One, the leader of the side, at the end of each figure, while the whole set dances round at an increasing tempo. The “nut” or “knot” or “lock” as it is variously called is then lowered down so that each man can grasp the hilt of a sword, but in doing this the hole in the center of the lock is put over the head of a character–essentially the St George of the moment or Mr Fool–and the swords, when drawn in the final bar, symbolically decapitate him. Perhaps once it was not merely a symbol. In the play he is brought back to life.
The long sword dance is the expression of a community’s acceptance of its dependence on the bountiful (if uncontrollable) cycle of nature, the eternal round of life-death-resurrection. Even if we do not understand or accept the theology that may have accompanied this–and the villagers for whom the dance was done probably didn’t understand it either–we can feel the unity with the natural cycle. That is its perfection.
It would appear that the long sword dances all belong in the region around the ancient city of York. Around 900 A.D. this region was occupied by the Danes or Vikings, in an area called either Danish Mercia or the Danelagh. We do not know whether the long sword dances came with the Danes or not, but the geographical and historical connection is certainly highly suggestive.
Furthermore, while the Saxons invaded England (400-750 A.D.) from northern Europe before the Danes arrived (800-900 A.D.), both Saxons and Danes had a common ancestry (although they did not know it, and wouldn’t have cared if they had). This commonality was to be found in the Indo-European peoples who had been spreading both east and west from an area near the Caspian Sea since 3000 B.C.E. It is quite probable that they brought with them their ritual dances–the Cotswold Morris with the Saxons, and the long sword with the Danes. One thing is certain, and that is that the Cotswold Morris and the Long Sword have a common root somewhere in their history, and before they arrived in England. They are both circular nature dances, although the Morris has moved further away from the common origin than the Sword dance.