Origins and History of RapperPlease click here to return to the Durham University Rapper home page.
***This is a fairly detailed history of rapper, copied somewhat from the website www.rapper.org.uk The highlighted bit is where Durham's contribution comes from (remember, Durham and Newcastle were originally the same university, much like Durham and Stockton's campus)***
Hilt-and-point sword dances exist all over Europe, with the forms practiced in Germany, Austria and Flanders bearing the greatest resemblance to the forms existing in this country - the rapper dance of Northumberland and Durham, and the longsword dance of Yorkshire, which uses rigid swords.
The earliest account of hilt-and-point sword dancing in England dates back to an article in 1715 describing a dance in the Tyne Valley to the west of Newcastle upon Tyne. The dance described closely resembles linked sword dances of the Yorkshire and continental type rather than the rapper dance. Later accounts in the same century describe the dance in greater detail, and although rigid swords continue to be used, some elements of the modern dance already exist, including the male and 'female' characters and the close association between the dance and coal mining.
The introduction of the flexible rapper to replace the rigid sword occurred at some time in the nineteenth century. The exact date is unknown, but the rapper was certainly in use by 1880, and there is some anecdotal evidence that it may have been as early as 1820. A rapper was a flexible sheet of metal used to scrape coal dust off pit ponies' backs.
The discovery of flexible swords unleashed the potential for major innovations in the form and style of the dance, to the point where it became completely different from the dances like longsword. Indeed the very basic structure of the dance changed from dancers moving around in a single circle to a pair of circles meeting together to form a figure-of-eight pattern. This radical change in the form of the dance and the common stock of a few basic figures used in most traditional dances suggest that the changes to the dance were invented in one place, possibly by one clever person, and later spread out.
The pit villages of Northumberland and Durham had their own social order, the product of the living and working conditions of the miners. At the time of the greatest evolution of the rapper dance, industrialists increasingly exploited the great resource that was the Northumberland and Durham coalfield.
It was out of the terrible working and living conditions of the miners that a spirit of solidarity grew between them - a solidarity that was essential when relying on your marrer, or work partner, to keep you alive in the dangerous conditions below the ground. Coupled with this was the desire to make the most out of every moment of their limited free time - and so pastimes, including rapper, were taken very seriously indeed and practiced to the point of perfection.
The solidarity between miners in a pit village was exceeded only by the bitter rivalry between adjacent pit villages, sometimes only hundreds of yards apart. This rivalry led to hard-fought competitions between villages, whether in football, handball, pigeon racing, leek growing, chess, rapper or simply drunken brawls in the streets.
By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the rapper dance was slowly going into decline as village traditions were beginning to die out. However, it is at this time that Cecil Sharp, the great collector of traditional English songs and dances, arrives on the scene.
Cecil Sharp recorded notations of a number of rapper dances, and published notations of five of them in the three volumes that made up his book The Sword Dances of Northern England. Although Cecil Sharp preferred the longsword dance, and even called the rapper dance "decadent", he did make an effort to encourage a revival of the rapper dance by holding annual competitions in Newcastle upon Tyne and by teaching rapper at workshops around the country.
The new competitive edge and rappers made from better steels encouraged the development of faster, more elaborate, exciting figures designed to impress, and the rapper dance became much more like the dance we know and love today.
Traditionally performed for beer money, rapper became a temporary source of some income during the long strikes and periods of unemployment of the difficult inter-war years. Teams would go on tour and perform for donations, with varying rates of success. However, as the Second World War started, rapper had to take a back seat for a while.
Following the war, rapper began to go into decline again in its homeland. Although competitions were held throughout the 1950s, interest in them began to flag and they never reached the level of the Newcastle Competitions.
In 1949 at King's College in Newcastle upon Tyne, then a college of the University of Durham, a professor of mechanical engineering called Bill Cassie persuaded a group of students to learn the rapper dances of some local villages to perform during Rag Week, the week of the year where students raise money for charities. The students continued to perform the dance afterwards, calling themselves the Newcastle Kingsmen, and became the main force behind the second revival of the dance.
Bill Cassie, founder of the Newcastle Kingsmen, started to collect local rapper dances and publish their notations. He received a lot of support in this from Fred Forster of the High Spen Blue Diamonds. Brian Hayden and E C Cawte, also of the Newcastle Kingsmen, also collected and published notations of dances.
Members of the Newcastle Kingsmen were university students, and as they graduated and moved away from Newcastle, some set up rapper sides in the areas where they settled, spreading rapper throughout the country. Some of the sides were set up in other universities, such as the Keele University team and the team at the Saddler Hall of Residence at Leeds University, both teams now sadly demised.
However, the development of rapper was not static in Tyneside either! With the help of the Newcastle Kingsmen, High Spen and individual rapper dancers, new sides were set up in the rapper homeland, including Sallyport in 1969, who have also had a major influence in the setting up of rapper sides around the country.
Although competitions continued to be held in Darlington and Whitby, they were poorly attended, and serious competitions did not start until a rapper class was introduced to the Dancing England tournaments in Derby in the 1980s. The Derby Competitions, which later became called the Dancing England Rapper Tournament, or DERT, led to further growth of rapper around the country.
There are now rapper sides all over England, and sides in Scotland, Norway, Belgium, New Zealand and the USA as well. Rapper is now danced by both men and women, with a few mixed sides as well. Although women dancing rapper has provoked criticism from some quarters, women are known to have danced rapper in Tyneside since at least the early 1950s. Pengwyn Rapper, from Newcastle upon Tyne, made history in 1999 as the first women's team to win a Premier class at DERT.
Most rapper teams today perform dances of their own composition, using a pick and mix selection of invented and (mostly) borrowed figures. However, traditional notated dances remain popular, especially among teams in the north-east of England, and three teams from the south sometimes perform the Beadnell dance, one of the dances notated by Cecil Sharp.
The rapper dance is relatively young when compared to related sword dances, and is really still developing. It is not appropriate for the dance to be set in stone and performed as a dry museum piece; nor would it be right to forget the roots of the dance. Fortunately, many sides, including the most influential, have managed to achieve the right balance between innovation and tradition, and the outlook for rapper is very good.
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