Sword dance plea

RESEARCHERS are seeking information on a unique aspect of North East traditional culture – the historic rapper sword dances.

Until the 1930s, sword dancing could only be found in the North East. Usually danced by coal miners in street performances or pubs, it became the subject of fiercely competitive tournaments and was at its peak in the 1920s.

Teams of five dancers, with their musicians and comic characters known as Tommy and Betty, originated in pit villages such as Winlaton, High Spen, Walbottle and Newbiggin by the Sea. Today, although at least eight local rapper teams still perform in the region, the dance has spread far beyond its boundaries.

But relics of its origins are becoming harder to find as every year passes. Researcher Phil Heaton, who is currently writing a book detailing the surviving history of rapper sword dancing, explained: “Only one of the pre-war ‘traditional’ teams still performs regularly, the High Spen Blue Diamonds, founded in 1926.

“So where once it was possible to meet the old dancers and hear their tales and experiences first hand, most if not all have now sadly passed away. But it is likely that some people have inherited artefacts, such as old photographs.”

The researchers are looking for old photographs, newspaper cuttings, swords or other artefacts, particularly from the first half of the 20th century.

If you help, contact Phil on 01332 874186.