Lucas's Studies in Nidderdale
THE SWORD DANCE. Mr. Grainge, in his History of Nidderdale says : The graceful and martial Sword Dance is yet practiced at Christmas Tide by the young men of the Dale. Their dresses for this purpose are of many colours, and their persons are adorned with a profusion of ribbons and other ornaments". He has kindly supplied the following for these Studies : My recollections of time sword danceas performed some forty years agoare, that the performers were from eight to twelve in number. They are young men, one dressed like a clown, with a wooden sword, the others all in white trousers, and jackets of red, yellow, or some very showy colour, decorated with sashes and rosettes of ribbon, their caps were also decorated with ribbon. Along with the dancers was always a fiddle. First, the performers stood on one side of the room in a line, with their swords in their belts ; the clown thenas the leading manwalked round and began his nominy, something in the style of the boys Christmas play of St. George of England, telling the audience that he is some wonderful great man,Sampson for instance,and that he has brought his valiant sons to make them sport. Then he calls on the first by the name of Alexander the Great, or some other mighty man, to follow him. Alexander draws his sword and follows his leader ; the same process is repeated until all the performers are on the floor following each other with drawn swords ; when, at the words of their leader they face each other, clattering their swords against each other above their heads, at the same time dancing round in a circle. Afterwards each man grasps hold of the point of another s sword when held horizontally say two feet above the ground, when they all jump over them in q uick succession,a feat requiring much agility. This continues for some time. Afterwards one of them holds his sword upright, when by some means the others interlock theirs with his, and form the whole into a kind of square lattice work, which the leader holding up carries round the ring some twice or thrice, dancing all the time then he throws down the lot in the centre, and each man regains his own sword. Lastly, they clatter them against each other above their heads, as at the beginning, and after continuing this for some time the dance ends. The steps are timed to the music, which all the time keeps rattling away.. I have no recollection of any particular song, although some of them sung all together at the end of the performance, something like the following rhyme Now ladies fair and gentlemen, Our dance is at an end, We do our best to please you, We come not to offend. We thank you for your kindness We thank you for your cheer; We wish you all a merry Christmas, And a happy new year. I have seen many parties of sword dancers, but the best and most respectable was trained at Grantley, and George Watson, who once kept the George Inn, at Pateley Bridge, and his brother William, were two of them, and the music man was "Fiddler Leeming", of Sawley. Mr. Grainge has also obligingly communicated the following Notes on the Sword Dance from Brands "Popular Antiquities:" There is a curious and very minute description of the Sword Dance in Olaus Magnus's History of the Northern Nations. He tells us that the Northern Goths and Swedes have a sport wherein they exercise their youth, consisting of a dance with swords in the following manner First, with their swords sheathed and erect in their hands, they dance in a triple round; then, with their drawn swords held erect as before: afterwards, extending them from hand to hand, they lay hold of each other s hilts and points, and while they are wheeling more moderately round and changing their order, throw themselves into the figure of a hexagon, which they call a rose; but, presently raising and drawing back their swords they undo that figure, in order to form with them a four-square rose, that they nay rebound over the head of each other. Lastly, they dance rapidly backwards, and, vehemently rattling the sides of their swords together, conclude their sport. Pipes or songs, (sometimes both) direct the measure, which at first is slow, but, increasing afterwards, becomes very quick towards the conclusion. Henry, in his History of Britain, says: "The Germans, and probably the Gauls and Britons, had a kind of martial dance which was exhibited at every entertainment. This was performed by certain young men, who, by long practice, had acquired the art of dancing amongst the sharp points of swords and spears." A writer in the Gentleman s Magazine in 1811, states that in the North Riding of Yorkshire, the sword dance is performed from St. Stephen s Day till New Year s Day. The dancers usually consist of six youths dressed in white with ribbons, attended by a fiddler, a youth with the name of "Bessy," and one who personates a doctor. They travel from village to village. One of the six youths acts the past of king in a kind of farce, which consists of singing and dancing, when the Bessy interferes while they are making a hexagon with their swords, and is killed. Wallis writes that the Saltatio armata of the Roman Militia on their festival Armilistrium, celebrated on the 19th October, was practiced by the common people in the neighbourhood of Northumberland on the annual festivity of Christmas, the yule-tide of the Druids.young men march from village to village, and from house to house, with music before them, dressed in an antic attire, and before the vestibulum or entrance of every house, entertain the family with the Motus incompositus, the antic dance, or Chorus Armatus, with swords or spears in their hands erect and shining. This they call the Sword Dance. For their pains they are presented with a small gratuity in money, more or less, according to every householder's, ability; their gratitude is expressed by firing a gun. One of the company is distinguished from the rest by a more antic dress; a fox s skin generally serving him for a covering and ornament to his head, the tail hanging down his back. This droll figure is their chief or leader. He does not mingle in the dance. Strutt, in his "Sports and Pastimes of the People of England," says: "There is a dance which was probably in great repute among the Anglo-Saxons, because it was derived from their ancestors, the ancient Germans it is called the Sword Dance, and the performance is thus described by Tacitus: One public diversion was constantly exhibited at all their meetings, young men, who, by frequent exercise, have attained to great perfection in that pastime, strip themselves, and dance among the points of swords and spears with most wonderful agility, and even with the most elegant and graceful motions. They do not perform this dance for hire, but for the entertainment of the spectators, esteeming their applause as sufficient reward. " To these Notes I add the following :- The Rev. G. Young says: " There was usually an extra band of six to dance the Sword Dance at Whitby. With the music of violin or flute, they formed a ring with swords raised in the air. They then went through a series of evolutions, at first slow, afterwards quick. Towards the close each one catches the point of his neighbour s sword, and various movements follow, one of which consists in forming or plaiting the swords into the form of a hexagon or rose in the centre of the ring, when one holds it up above their heads. The dance closes with taking it to pieces each man laying hold of his sword. During the dance two or three Toms or Clowns make antic gestures, while another set called Madgies, or Madgy pegs, dressed like women, collect money" It is quite evident that the modern celebration of the Sword Dance comprises another feast formerly celebrated on Plough Monday, as appears from the following description: "The first Monday after Twelfth Day is called Plough Monday. On this day the people went in procession to gather money for Plough Lights, or candles kept burning before certain images in churches, to obtain a blessing on their work. The reformation put out the lights. But till lately the festival was kept up. A plough, called the Fool Plough was decorated with ribbons. Thirty or forty swains, wills their shirts over their jackets, and hats and shoulders covered with ribbons, dragged it from house to house, proceeded by one in the dress of an old woman, called Bessy, who carried the money box. There was also a Fool in fantastic attire. Occasionally some reproduction of the Ancient Scandinavian Sword Dance added to the means of persuading money out of the pockets of the lieges. One of the mummers generally wears a fox s skin in the form of a hood. The feast originated probably with the priests as a means of collecting the Plough Alms, or money for maintaining the Plough Lights (Book of Days, Vol. I., p. 94-96.) When the feast of Plough Monday fell into disuse, part of the ceremony appears to have been grafted on to the festivities of Yule, and the Sword Dance.