A new chapter for Handsworth sword dancers
Have you ever tried your hand at sword dancing?
I have, as it happens; five years ago now, in blazing sunshine at Sheffield Manor Lodge, I was lucky enough to be put through my paces by Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers.
From what I recall, sword dancing is not for the faint-hearted - it’s a fast-paced conga, crossed with a game of Twister, all while brandishing a blade. Yikes!
I remember holding my position as a flurry of men, outfitted in dragoon-type uniforms, wound in and around me, then my arms involuntarily unravelled themselves as, tripping over my own feet, I was pulled back into the moving line. Fifteen years of dance classes had done nothing to prepare me for my 15 minute dance lesson with Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers
But if you’re going to take a sword dancing lesson, believe me when I say that these are the chaps to take it with. After all, Handsworth is one of the few truly traditional teams left in the country, with a proud history stretching back at least 150 years. Not that I ever had any hope of joining the all-male team - until now, that is.
This week, the group proved it can still move with the times, as it revealed that - for the first time, from 2018 - it will become mixed club - meaning that after years of waiting in the wings, Sheffield women will finally get to join their menfolk on the sword dancing stage!
Handsworth team captain, Simon Brock, said: “We’ve seen a huge resurgence of interest in the team, and in traditional sword dancing generally, with many women attending our open workshops in the autumn. Yet despite Sheffield being the city of morris, with over a dozen active teams, there’s currently no opportunity for women to dance longsword regularly and we think this is a real shame. We hope we can help teach the dance to a new audience and get more people involved in this fantastic, living tradition.”
In order to preserve its heritage, the traditional Handsworth eight-man dance will remain all-male. However, all other dances performed by the team will have the opportunity to be mixed from now on, and it is hoped that, eventually, all-male, all-women and mixed dances will sit side-by-side in the repertoire.
Simon said: “We know that many people hold a special place in their hearts for the traditional Handsworth dance - not least the hundreds of people who come to watch us perform every Boxing Day at Woodhouse and Handsworth Church. As a traditional dance this will be preserved as all-male, but the rest of the club’s dances will be open to everyone - and we hope that eventually female members will feel confident enough to write new, all-female dances to add to the tradition - or even set up their own team if that’s what they wish to do.
“Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers are in a great position at the moment, with several new and young dancers joining in the last year or so. This allowed us to attend a number of festivals over the summer, including representing England at an international sword dance festival in Belgium alongside teams from Germany, the Czech Republic, Scotland and Belgium.”
Handsworth’s unbroken 150-year heritage is unusual in folk dance, as many dancers were killed during the wars and their teams folded. As most Handsworth dancers worked in either the local mines or steelworks their occupations were reserved and they were not conscripted.
Sword dancing began to dwindle in popularity from the beginning of the 20th century until 1913, when musician and writer Cecil Sharp published a book called The Sword Dances of Northern England. When I joined The Handsworth Sword dancers for a jig, that summer day back in 2013, they revealed that it was this very book that revived the tradition.
Longsword is a traditional English folk dance originating in Yorkshire thought to be at least several hundred years old. Dancers perform a number of fast and furious intricate figures using rigid, metre-long swords including a ‘lock’ of inter-weaved swords. The dances are traditionally performed over winter, particularly on Boxing Day.
This last year, the team has been incredibly active, attending a number of regional events, as well as an international festival in Belgium, where they paid tribute to men from Sheffield who died during the First World War. The team visited the town of Ypres in Flanders to take part in the daily Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, and later performed alongside other folk dance teams from across Europe at the Zwaarddanstreffen festival in the city of Sint-Niklaas.
James Merrylees, aged 32, has been dancing with the team for the past four years.
“The team is really strong right now, we’ve seen a real resurgence in the last couple of years,” he said.
“We knew there was this interest from a number of women, including the partners of many of our members, and there didn’t seem to be any good reason not to open the team up to them, and plenty of good reasons to do just that, so we decided that 2018 was the year.
“Our members have all been really supportive of the idea; we think it’s going to add another dynamic, and help make the team even more vibrant as we move forwards.”
Practices take place on Wednesday nights at the Burton Road Foundation, in Hillsborough, from 8pm to 10pm.
If you’re interested in knowing more, or getting involved, message the team on Facebook or Twitter.