a review of collecting in the North East
Between 1910 and 1913 when Sharp was in the North East of England he collected five dances. He noted a range of figures, simple, as at Swalwell, and polished and intricate at Earsdon. The variation between the five traditions are of interest in that North Walbottle and Earsdon were in areas with a well developed set of collieries where the miners had built up a strong network of Clubs and Institutes with stages and performing areas for local concert parties and entertainments. Both of these dances are strong forward facing exhibitions while the simpler Winlaton, Swalwell and Beadnell performances have the look of older, circular dances and were probably more often performed in less organised venues.
Royal Earsdon, so named after dancing for King Edward VII at Alnwick in 1906, had an elaborate dance when Sharp was collecting. The team continued to develop their excellent figures and were considered to be the doyens of the tradition, appearing many times at EFDSS events around the country, but especially at the annual Albert Hall celebrations. They were also present at the annual Newcastle Musical Tournament and were consistent winners of the prestigious men's Traditional Short Sword competition. They continued strongly for a time as part of the Northumbrian Traditional Group led by Joe Bennett. The group included musicians, singers and country dancers carrying the ‘Geordie’ torch around the world. Included in the package were the amazing Shiremoor Marras, a knockabout trio led by the indefatigable ‘Nibs’ Pearson, a dancer and the Captain of Royal Earsdon after Geordie Osborne. Royal Earsdon are not currently performing but Dave ‘Nibs’ Pearson has hopes of a return to practice soon.
The Winlaton tradition was probably the first short sword dance to be widely seen. The old men, who won the Cowen Trophy outright in 1922, starred in many films shown all around the world, especially in the Pathe News shorts which described them as remnants of `Merrie England' Their dance, using a circle chorus, was extant around the turn of the 19C. when the Betty first appeared...
“All patch'd and torn. With tail and horn Just like a De'el in dressy-O”
As they got older, although they used the same figures in the same order, the set began to revolve around the Number 1, the oldest and least nimble. The effect was that he had to move less while the youngsters (all over 60) did more to make the turns. By the time he was 81, Number 1 became almost static. The (Winlaton) White Stars continued dancing until the late thirties and even though their special day was Christmas Day, they would turn out every Saturday “Come rain or shine. Starting at the crack of dawn.”
The thread that connected the older and newer Winlaton traditions was Jack Atkin. Starting as a boy, and graduating to a dancer, he became the tradition bearer subsequently teaching the dance to later generations. As a boy he would bribe the old men with the promise of beer if they would teach him some of the figures.
“They used to call of me while it was still dark in the morning and away we'd go. We danced at farms, big houses and especially at pubs and clubs where the old men would expect pints lined up for them on the bar. Well I was always very popular since I was a Rechabite – a Blue Ribboner and swore off the drink. The old chaps used to try and bribe me for my share and sometimes they would end up fighting. Most times more than one of them had to be taken home by cart in the early hours.”
In time, The White Stars, faded away and in the 1950's, Jacky taught and led the Blue Stars who danced out in 1956 with a slightly different set of figures but based on the old dance.
In his time Jack taught most of the villagers at the Mary and Bessy Youth Club, the school, the local Scouts, Cubs and Guides, the Church groups and especially at the W.I. He sent teams of teenagers ~lads in white shirts and trousers with a stripe and girls in tartan skirts and tops - to the Annual competitions in Durham, Darlington and Newcastle where the dance was always recognizable as from the Winlaton tradition. In later years he taught Beltane Rapper from Edinburgh, describing them as the best he had ever seen.
Every Rapper team should plan to dance in Winlaton. How wonderful it is to finish a spot chuffed with yourself and then some old lady will wander up and say, “Mind pet, ye nearly turned the wrang way coming out of Curly at the end. Aah wad show you how te dee it propley but me hip's bad the day.”
Perhaps it's because of this exposure to the Rapper in the past that there is no dance in the village today. Nor is there a team at Swalwell, two miles away.
According to Cassie and Peacock, who were writing mainly as observers and who had danced with only a limited number of teams, “the knots are largely of common stock.”
The reality is that every dance team is unique and rarely are there any ‘stock’ figures apart from the very simple ones.
Westerhope, which was part of the Throckley. Leamington & Walbottle family of pits, and near to Newcastle, had a revival in the 70's when the local history society and the Librarian, Tony Wilson dug up the local dance, an offshoot from North Walbottle which Sharp had collected 60 years earlier. The boys under Les Williamson, Squire of Sallyport Swords, danced for a few seasons but eventually grew up and at least two of them joined men's teams. The research in the Walbottle area has thrown up many teams known to dance in the area and especially to compete in the Newcastle Tournament. Probably the most famous team of the area, who danced under various names, eventually made a big impression on the Music Hall and danced at the London Palladium. They turned down the chance of a tour of Britain and the USA on the grounds that they weren't offered enough money. In the late twenties, a team from Callerton, in the same area, was disqualified at the Newcastle Tournament for being too gymnastic after an explosion of forward and backward somersaults.
One of the most unusual characters involved in many of the Walbottle teams was Billy Clark. He is reputed to have often entered but never won at the Tournament and he became determined to achieve some success. He moved to Newbiggin on the coast and started the team there. His ideas and simpler figures have almost become the standard Rapper dance as taught, until a few years ago, at most Festival and Weekend workshops. This is probably because it is still in print after 70 years. Billy Clark failed to find reward at the competitions. On the eve of the 1929 competition, two of his team were killed in the pit.
Sharp collected the dance at Beadnell in March 1912 spending a short time there with George Butterworth. The dance is simple in relation to its Tyneside neighbours. Sharp considered it more of a fisherman's dance, there being no obvious relationship with coal and miners. Subsequent research by Chris Clarke, has shown that the area, like the vast majority of the Northumberland and Durham coastal plane, is sitting on a raft of coal workings. The dance itself has a flowing look to it and although not difficult it shows a different style.
After Alan Brown moved on from King's College at Newcastle where he was instrumental in forming the ‘49'ers,’ he took his performing ideas based on the miner's philosophy, and so the Monkseaton Morrismen were born. Their speciality is the North Walbottle dance as collected by Sharp with some input from later dancers such as Charlie Bland in the fifties. Alan was much taken with the Walbottle dance which had last been seen during the 1926 General strike and considered by many to be the best example of a complete dance that Sharp collected. Some of the more striking features of the dance are the different ways of tying the nut, the fantastic build up as the figures become more complex. and then the climax with Tommy tied in to the dance and a raucous Betty, usually Peter Brown these days, tumbling in a line of three as the audience hold their collective breath which provides the “emotional involvement between dancers and watchers which is the hallmark of authentic Rapper.”