High Spen Blue Diamonds
“You are invited to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the team...”
The invitation simply said, in quiet understatement. The celebration to mark the occasion was typical of the Forster family, being that brilliant mix of unique sword dance history and Club formality that has marked the Blue Diamond sword dynasty for eighty years.
The event was held at the Barley Mow Community Centre in Birtley, near Gateshead, where the Forster family moved to from the colliery village of High Spen situated between the Tyne and the Derwent. The Derwent area of Northern Co. Durham contains not just High Spen but the famous rapper villages of Winlaton and Swalwell and is where the cementation process for making spring steel (used for the manufacture of rapper blades) was reputedly developed.
The Birtley gathering was a significant milestone in the history of both the High Spen dance and the wider history of the rapper sword dance, for there are precious few of yesteryears's dancers and no other traditional teams surviving or performing.
The Blue Diamonds began in 1926 when Fred Forster taught rapper to a set of High Spen village boys, many of them related to each other. His son Freddie, became the youngest dancer. The Blue Diamonds were a logical development from the thriving High Spen Tradition as the boys were steeped in the dance and mostly related to the adult dancers in the Vernon Troupe and the later Amber Stars.
The Forster family connection, Fred to Freddie and on to his sons, Ricky, Joe, Edward, Colin and then later on to grandsons Gary, Gordon and Lee, has sustained the Blue Diamonds dance over the decades providing the Forsters a channel for constant creativity and pride. Although not operational for all of the 80 years, the Blue Diamonds have consistently performed one of the most complicated rapper dances in a style unmatched by any of the other traditional teams. The family has practiced and performed many times together, and over the years has involved dancers from Spen village and from members of other rapper teams in the wider area who were looking to take on a more challenging role.
Every dancer who has risen to Ricky's exacting standards in the last twenty years has also had to acquire two major trappings of the High Spen tradition. Firstly they have to join Barley Mow Workingmen's Club as a matter of course, where Freddie was Chairman for many years and now Colin is a committee member. Most importantly, they have to become honorary members of the Forster ‘family.’
Traditional precedent is often quoted when new figures or dance ideas are suggested and reference is often made to how ideas were developed or abandoned by Freddie or Fred in the past. Matters of costume and kit are treated with same deference. Ricky and the family have a confidence in their interpretation of any problems that arise. There is always a correct answer because, “That's the Tradition, and that's just the way of it.”
The Event began with a mingling of dancers and family surrounded by an exhibition of Blue Diamond memorabilia collected over the years. Family from the Birtley area and High Spen were united with dancers from different eras. Representing the local dance Traditions, were Monkseaton, Newcastle Cloggies, Addison Rapper, Hexham Morris and current DERT winners, Sallyport Sword Dancers, en masse and midway through a dancing AGM. The Kingsmen, fresh from a local pub tour provided a link to the days when Fred Forster taught the Kings College team under Professor Fisher Cassie. The notation and publication of the High Spen dance was completed by Cassie in 1956 after a revival of the Blue Diamonds when Fred, Freddie and Ricky all danced out at Wallington Hall in 1955.
During the meal, toasts were drunk to absent friends. Especially poignant were the memories of Joe Forster who died in September 2006.
Music for dancing was provided by the Durham Rangers with Rapper performances given by Sallyport, dancing Newbiggin and the Kingsmen with their own tradition based on a wide collection of figures accrued over 50 years.
The highlight of the evening was a pacey and flawless display from the current Blue Diamonds showing the strength and precision of their own dance as it should be performed.
In honour of the occasion Ricky Forster was presented with a hand made reminder of the occasion by Aubrey O'Brien, Chairman of the Sword Dance Union.
Family presentations from the Forsters marked a fitting finale to a great evening.
The ghosts of Spen dancers looking on would have approved of the proceedings.
High Spen are indeed, “Fit to jump ower the Moon.”