Dancing England Rapper Tournament

The Dancing England Rapper Tournament, also referred to as DERT, is a major competition in which teams compete by performing a style of folk dance using short flexible swords referred to as rappers. The annual Tournament is organised by the Sword Dance Union.

Absolute certainty and fine detail about the origins of rapper dancing is lacking, but there is some accumulated and largely accepted information available.

Dances utilising rigid swords were in proliferation throughout Europe in the 18th century. The Rapper Dance is largely believed to have developed in England’s Northumbria. The precise date at which the dance appeared in its modern form is not known, but it believed that by the late 18th century there were dances that contained many elements of the Rapper Dance. The Rapper itself is thought to have been in use by around 1820, a flexible sword that allowed dancers to bend them and fully integrate them into their dance.

The Rapper Dance is very closely associated with the mining industry in Northumbria, and early dance teams were formed by miners, the rapper dance joining other old folk customs.

The Dance

The actual dance routine is fast and involves five people. The dancers hold the rapper swords which have handles at either end, thus connecting the dancers. At the start of the routine dancers hold a sword in their right hand before taking the free handle at the end of another dancer’s sword in their left hand.

Throughout the dance the dancers remain connected to each other through the flexible swords unless it is to form a dramatic shape. The dance can be very energetic, sometimes involving somersaults or other impressive gymnastics with the dancers weaving in and out of the group whilst still holding onto the swords.

The dance can also involve energetic ‘jigging’ reminiscent of the style of traditional clog dancing in the Northumberland and Durham areas.

Dancers wear shoes with hard soles that allow them to make rhythmic noises in the same way that traditional clog or tap dancing does.

Rapper dancing is accompanied by lively, fast-paced music in the folk tradition played on traditional instruments such as the fiddle, accordion and tin whistle.

In addition to the five dancers, rapper dances can also involve the use of two other characters, traditionally known as ‘Betty’ and ‘Tommy’, who interact with the audience and are usually played by someone of the opposite gender to the character.

Because of the close formation the dancers keep, rapper dancing is very suited to indoor venues such as public houses, although rapper dancing is also to be seen in outside settings at events with other traditional dancing such as Morris.

The Rapper

Today’s rappers are tailor-made for the purpose of the dance. In earlier times miners would fashion rappers from old mining tools, saws or other implements as they could not afford to have them specially made.

The rapper is a short length of flattened flexible steel with a wooden handle at either end. These handles rotate to assist the dancers in performing their complex dance moves without letting go of the handles they hold which would break the physical connection between them.

Whilst the rapper ‘sword’ is in reality a piece of unsharpened flexible steel, because of the hectic pace and energetic movements involved in the dance there still remains an element of risk. Rapper dancers need to be extremely agile and perform with precision and accurate timing in order to avoid potential injury.

Performance

Pic 01

The Past

Traditionally, rapper dancers were miners and therefore they were not wealthy enough to be able to afford to have special costumes made. They wore white shirts and knee-length working trousers known as ‘hoggers’. Ribbons and other decorative materials were attached to the shirts and a sash of a brightly coloured material was usually worn around the waist. This is the costume that has now been largely adopted for modern rapper dancing.

The use of different coloured decorative materials allows a rapper dance team to create its own variant of the accepted modern day costume.

In the nineteenth century rapper dance groups would visit the towns of Durham, Sunderland and Newcastle Upon Tyne where they would perform for the public, sometimes asking for monetary reward. By the early twentieth century rapper dancing had become a rarity but it became a way of supplementing income during the strikes and redundancies of the Great Depression during the 1930s.

After World War I rapper dancing saw a revival with the villages where mining pits were located competing with each other in rapper dance contests that were part of the North of England Musical Tournament in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Following World War II the tradition went into another decline until it was revived by students of what is now the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne. From there the rapper dance moved beyond the local area and steadily grew in popularity.
Pic 02

The Present

The annual Dance England Rapper Tournament attracts visitors from around the world and is held across the country at a different location each year.

There is also a Dance America Rapper Tournament, based upon DERT, with the first having been held in Boston in 2010.

Rapper dancing has enjoyed a renaissance over the past few decades and it is now performed across the world. As a traditional form of folk dance Rapper dancing has become firmly based in the world of folk arts.

Although rapper dances were traditionally performed by male miners, there are now a number of teams consisting of female dancers.

With its lively music and intricate and demanding physical movement, rapper dancing continues to draw audiences across the world. A familiar event at many folk and other festivals, rapper dancing is firmly placed in the folk scene. It is as relevant as other traditional dance forms such as Morris, recalling an age long past and living through dedicated exponents who keep its rich heritage alive.