Murton – revisited

To follow up Whip the Cat's research into the Murton dance (issue 15, see that article), we reproduce here an edited but fuller account of the original visit to Murton by EFDS collectors.

I had been told that a team of junior traditional sword dancers from Murton had appeared at the J.O.C. Competition at Sunderland, and that the man who trained them said there was also a senior team at Murton. So, having communicated with the man, Mr. Lowerson, and being told that we could see the junior team and he would try to get the men together, Miss Derry, Mr. and Mrs. Schofield and I set off for Murton on November 19th, 1927.

We had expected to find that the dance had originated with a dancer from one of the known teams, Winlaton or Walbottle, having settled in Murton and got up a team to whom he had taught the dance. But we found it was a genuine Murton tradition and they did not know how far back it went. The present men's team has been dancing since 1919 and their No.1 used to dance in the old team with his father.

We were introduced to the manager, Mr. Chapman, who told us that he was now the Betty, and to old Mr. Lowerson, the father of the leader of the present team, who had been a sword dancer himslef, and has three grandchildren dancing in the junior team. We saw the children dance first. It was a mixed team, three girls and two boys, but their clothes, a kind of baggy dark overalls with yellow frills at neck, wrists and knees, made them all look alike. I was interested to see that each had two bells at the knees, and on enquiring about them I found out that the senior team also wore two bells at each knee when they were dancing in costume. I think this is the only case I know of in which bells are worn by sword dancers. We were told that “they ring with the music”

After the children had performed, and we had discussed one or two of the figures with Mr. Lowerson, the men stood up and danced... before they came, they had not done it for two years (One man said three years). One would not have known from the actual dance that the men were so much out of practice, but the stepping or jigging was very poor, probably as a result. In fact, old Mr. Lowerson was very contemptuous of it and said that in his days they used to step differently, and showed us the double shuffle with so much agility, in spite of his 62 years...

The dance is a rapper dance, the swords (made by the local blacksmith out of old saw blades) being rather longer than some of the rapper swords. The figures were naturally very like the ones in the other rapper dances, with different names, some of which are rather delightful. There were several Scringes: a Single Scringe, like the needle in Winlaton, with two little circles going around, a Double Scringe and a Treble Scringe, when two dancers change from one circle to the other. Front Girdle is a variant of Single Guard, and there is also a Back Girdle, the dancers standing with their backs to the middle. Jumping Knot is rather like No.1 ring in the Newbiggin dance. Sometimes they jump singly in this figure, and sometimes they jump two at once, and on enquiry No.1 said “it all depends. If we are pressed for time and want to finish the dance we'll all jump together.”

Then there is a figure called Horses, with 1 and 5 in front, 2 and 4 behind them, and 3 ‘driving them’ from the back. The straight line when the knot is displayed is called the Chairman's Knot. The order of the figures is not prescribed, but we were told, “You generally put a Scringe between everything, but no two Scringes together.”

The Star, as they called it, is made at the end of each figure, but is not displayed till the end. The figures follow straight on, one after another, and they never have the ring [spin? Ed. — Yes. Webmaster] which is another feature of the Winlaton dance. In the stepping they use the heel as well as the ball of the foot, and we were told that during the Scringes you do a sand-dance step, scraping the foot forward on the beat. The tune is any 6/8 jig tune.

V. I. Orde, EFDS News No. 17, April 1928