Handsworth Longsword Dancers, South YorkshireIn the North East corner of England there are two sword dancing traditions, very different from the better-known Scottish sword dancing that may spring to mind first when the words sword and dance are coupled.
In Northumberland and County Durham the tradition is to use 'rappers', flexible metal 'swords' with a handle at either end. But in Yorkshire the longsword is king, generally a long wooden weapon with a single handle, though some are just laths, and others are metallic.
The longsword dance is known to have been performed in the 18th century, but may well be much older. As ever there are suggestions of fertility rites, or calling the sun back to earth - the dance is a Christmas custom, most often performed on Boxing Day - during the winter, but if truth be told it is far from clear what the purpose was originally.
The dance consists of six or eight men who perform various figures while joined in a circle by each holding the tip of their neighbour's sword.
Some places have a type of mummer play linked to the dance, which perhaps indicates a very ancient origin.
At Handsworth in the outskirts of Sheffield the dancers uniquely wear a pseudo-military uniform, said to be based on that of the Yorkshire Hussars in the first half of the 19th century. With white riding breeches, cavalry boots, and beautifully trimmed tunics, the dancers, their heads topped with cavalry caps, are a fine and colourful sight. Their movements are rather more rapid and springing than is the case with other teams in Yorkshire, and in stark contrast to their local rivals in Grenoside, another Sheffield suburb.
Part of the customary longsword dance is the finale, where the intertwined swords - known as 'the lock' - are held aloft by one of the team members, the shape of the combined weapons bearing comparison with a symbolic representation of the sun, one of the reasons for the belief that this was once a ritual to call for the sun's return.
The Handsworth eight-man team performs every Boxing Day, starting at Woodhouse Cross, moving on to Handsworth Church , and traditionally continuing widdershins around Sheffield, the sound of their button-accordion accompaniment signalling the cheerful progress.
More British Folk Customs?